ICT, transfer, and boundary crossing in VET – part 3

For the time being, this will be the third and final post describing our research project. In the first post, I wrote about the background for initiating the project, and in the the second post I zoomed in on our research questions. In this post, I focus on the design of our study.

According to Mackenzie & Knipe (2006), in the social and applied science, the exact nature of how research is defined will depend on the researcher’s personal and professional beliefs. Therefore, it is important to discern such assumptions before embarking in any research endeavour, because:

All research is interpretive: it is guided by a set of beliefs and feelings about the world and how it should be understood and studied. Some beliefs may be taken for granted, invisible, or only assumed, whereas others are highly problematic and controversial. (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011, p. 13)

Mackenzie & Knipe (2006) suggest four sets of underlying assumptions or paradigms: 1) Positivist/postpositivist, 2) Interpretivist/constructivist, 3) Transformative, and 4) Pragmatic. It is the choice of paradigm that sets down the intent, motivation and expectation for the research,  and I would say that our project mainly is situated within an interpretivist line of thinking in which the intention of the research is to understand the world by trying to make sense of the experiences and attributed meanings others have about the world. Researchers focus on the processes of interaction among individuals and on the specific contexts in which individuals live and work. Further, proponents of this paradigm recognize that the researchers’ own background impact the research and their interpretation hereof. Initially we wanted to design our project as a transformative study building on a Design based Research approach, but our local research leader advised against this assuming the VET schools would be too busy to get involved in a significant manner.

Consequently, we ended up designing our project as a multiple case study (Yin, 2009) with interviews and observations as primary methods to generate and collect data in different phases of the project.

In the preliminary research phase of the project we conducted six ethnographic interviews with VET teachers, which we have written about in a short paper presented at the Designs for Learning 2016 conference (Riis et al, 2016). Building on Spradley’s (1979) ideas of descriptive questioning, and questions loosely structured around the elements in a third generation activity system, we interviewed six vocational teachers from the three dominant strands of the Danish VET system (technical, business and social- and health schools). As stated by Spradley (1979), descriptive questioning aims at uncovering the informant’s personal experience with the practice and phenomenon under study by way of having the informant elaborate through thick descriptions and examples, often times by repeating and rephrasing questions. The data generated in this initial phase was mainly targeted at answering our first sub-question regarding VET teachers’ understanding and practice concerning the concepts of boundary crossing and continuity. In brief, we found that the interviewed VET teachers predominantly think in terms of vertical learning processes and one-time and one-directional transfer, rather than horizontal processes, continuity, and boundary crossing.

In the second phase of the project (Spring 2016), we conducted classroom observations combined with further interviews (with VET students and trainers as well), and we are still in the process of analyzing the data.

Due to organizational changes in our department, which led to a reduction from five to three people in the research group (with one being a newcomer to the project), we decided not to interact directly with VET schools this fall. Instead we have focused on analyzing data and on field validating some of our pedagogic-didactic materials that we have developed, and this we have done in our teaching at the Diploma for VET teachers.

Based on our findings so far, it has become obvious that we need to focus on observing teachers and students acting with technology in the future in order to better understand the phenomenon of ICT-based artefacts and their role in boundary crossing. When looking at the different types of ICT that participants in our study actually use, it seems fruitful to focus on the use of video and learning management systems, and we are hoping to interact with VET schools in this regard beginning 2017.



Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (2011). The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research. SAGE

Mackenzie, N. & Knipe, S. (2006). Research dilemmas: Paradigms, methods and methodologyIssues In Educational Research, Vol 16, 2006.

Riis, M., Bergstedt, P., Jørgensen, C.B., Koch, H.H. & Rasmussen, C.L. (2016). Challenges in designing for horizontal learning – in the Danish VET system. Short paper accepted for Designs for Learning conference, May 18.-20., 2016 in Copenhagen, Denmark at Aalborg University, http://www.designsforlearning2016.aau.dk/

Spradley, J.P. (1979). The Ethnographic Interview. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Yin, R. K. (2009). Case Study Research. Design and methods. 4th edition. SAGE.

Interesting study on Boundary Objects and virtual collaboration

In our research project we are highly influenced by the Dutch researcher Sanne F. Akkerman and her colleagues and their research on boundary crossing and boundary objects in (vocational) education. Like many others in the field, we have benefited greatly from Akkerman & Bakker’s (2011) excellent review entitled Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects, and I’ll return to this in future posts.

marheineke2016Nonetheless, other researchers have been studying these concepts from other perspectives, and I recently came across what turns out to be a PhD study (Marheineke, 2016) on the use of boundary objects in virtual collaboration, which seems very promising in relation to our current focus on ICT-mediated boundary objects.

In this study, Marheineke provides an interesting literature review on the use of different types of virtual boundary objects. In his work, Marheineke is inspired by Carlile’s (2004, 2002) typology, which we have been studying as well. However, as Marheineke states “emerging interest in the phenomenon of boundary object(s) has led to many definitions in the literature” (p. 80).

I have yet to study Marheineke’s research in detail, but so far I’m delighted to find many interesting and relevant tables e.g.:


Part of table 3: Selected definitions on the term “boundary object”
(Marheineke, 2016, p. 80-81)


Part of table 7: Boundary objects structuring collaboration
(Marheineke, 2016, p. 95-96)



Carlile, P.R. (2004). Transferring, Translating, and Transforming: An Integrative Framework for Managing Knowledge Across Boundaries.

Carlile, P.R. (2002). A Pragmatic View of Knowledge and Boundaries: Boundary Objects in New Product Development.

ICT, transfer, and boundary crossing in VET – part 1

In May 2015, colleagues from the Metropolitan University College and I started a research project on ICT, transfer, and boundary crossing in the Danish VET system. In a short series of blog posts I will elaborate on different aspects of the research project to set the scene. The following text is slightly revised from a paper we wrote for the Designs for Learning conference in Copenhagen, 2016 (Riis et al., 2016).

In the Danish dual VET system, students oscillate between school and workplace periods throughout their education. Making sense and use of learning in and from different contexts and experiencing continuity between school and work has long been considered a major pedagogic-didactic challenge in Danish VET research resulting in a continuous focus on the transfer phenomenon (Aarkrog, 2010). Based on a pre-study of vocational teachers’ use of ICT conducted in 2014 (Riis, Bergstedt, Rasmussen, unpublished), we noticed how the teachers attributed a transfer (and sometimes boundary crossing) potential to the use of ICT in teaching and learning processes across different contexts, leading to our current research project. The main research question investigates why and how vocational teachers understand and design for boundary crossing through the use of ICT-based artefacts.

Transfer and boundary crossing
Both in research (Lobato, 2006; Engle, 2012) and among practitioners transfer is a contested concept. In on research project, we adopt Engeström and colleagues’ concepts of vertical and horizontal learning, polycontextuality, and boundary crossing (Engeström, Engeström & Kärkkäinen, 1995; Tuomi-Gröhn, Engeström & Young, 2003), as a way of challenging the traditional notion of transfer understood mainly as a one-time and one-directional transition between a context of acquisition and that of application. As stated by Engeström et al. (ibid.), learning can be conceptualized as both a vertical and a horizontal process. In the former, focus is on learning in a single social system (e.g. in a school) often times based on a narrow, hierarchical view of knowledge and expertise. Conversely, in the latter perspective, learning is based on a broader, multidimensional view of knowledge and expertise and focus is on transitions or crossings in and between multiple social systems (e.g. in and between school and workplace). A horizontal view on learning and transfer understood as boundary crossing, seeks to find productive ways of relating intersecting dissimilar practices (Akkerman & Bakker, 2012), potentially accommodating the inherent contradictions of a dual education system.

According to Akkerman & Bakker “(…) a boundary can be seen as a sociocultural difference leading to discontinuity in action or interaction.” (2011, p. 133), and boundary crossing generally refers to an individual’s transitions and interactions across different contexts. Although discontinuity may be perceived negatively at a glance, in the third generation of CHAT, boundaries understood as contradictions in and between elements and systems, are seen as carrying potential for learning, change, and development. In any activity system, activity is object-oriented, and artefacts (signs or tools) are attributed mediating properties. Whether a mediating artefact functions as a boundary object depends on the purpose and use. In order to function as a boundary object, the artefact needs to inhabit and bridge intersecting practices (Star, 2010), which is not necessarily the case for all mediating signs and tools.

The differences and similarities between the concepts of transfer and boundary crossing are constantly challenging us, so this is something I’ll return to on several occasions.



Akkerman, S.F. & Bakker, A. (2012). Crossing boundaries between school and work during apprenticeship. Vocations and Learning. 5:153-173

Akkerman, S.F. & Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research. June 2011, Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 132-169

Engle, R.A. (2012). The resurgence of research into transfer: an introduction to the final articles of the transfer stand. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21:3, 347-352.

Engeström, Y., Engeström, R. & Kärkkäinen, M. (1995). Polycontextuality and boundary crossing in expert cognition: Learning and problem solving in complex work activities. Learning and Instruction, Vol. 5. pp. 219-336.

Lobato, J. (2006). Alternative perspectives on the transfer of learning. History, issues, and challenges for future research. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(4), 431-449.

Riis, M., Bergstedt, P., Jørgensen, C.B., Koch, H.H. & Rasmussen, C.L. (2016). Challenges in designing for horizontal learning – in the Danish VET system. Short paper accepted for Designs for Learning conference, May 18.-20., 2016 in Copenhagen, Denmark at Aalborg University, http://www.designsforlearning2016.aau.dk/

Riis, M., Bergstedt, P. & Rasmussen, C.L. (unpublished). Undervisningsdifferentiering og it i de erhvervsrettede uddannelser – en eksploartiv forundersøgelse. Intern rapport udarbejdet 2014.

Star, S.L. (2010), This is not a boundary object; Reflections on the origin of the concept. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 25(5), 601-617.

Tuomi-Gröhn, T. Engeström, Y., & Young, M. (2003). From transfer to boundary crossing between school and work as a tool for developing vocational education: An introduction. In T. Tuomi-Gröhn & Y. Engeström (Eds.), Between school and work: New perspectives on transfer and boundary-crossing pp. 1–18. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Pergamon.

Aarkrog, V. (2010). Erhvervsuddannelsesforskningen i Danmark. In Størner, T. & Hansen, J.A. (red.) Erhvervspædagogik – mål, temaer og vilkår i eud’s verden. s. 73-82. Erhvervsskolernes Forlag.

A change in focus ⇒ Vocational Education and Training

changeAs mentioned in my last blog post – years ago – I’ve been working at the Metropolitan University College since the summer of 2013. Since then, I’ve blogged in Danish only, but I’ve missed this blog and so I have decided to make a change in focus. However, it doesn’t mean that I’ve lost interest in Second Life (SL) or virtual worlds in general – they are still my favourite virtual learning environments .. by far! :-) I will continue to blog about SL occasionally, but for the past three years, I’ve been working, researching, and teaching with other technologies and media, so it makes sense to broaden my focus here.

Also my research focus has changed, meaning that I’m currently leader of a research project (2015-2017) that studies in-service vocational teachers’ use of ICT as boundary objects as a means to facilitate better connection and continuity in and between school and apprenticeship periods in the Danish dual vocational system.

So in summing up, this is just a brief post to let my readers know that change is about to happen, and I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts, ideas, and research regarding vocational education and training (VET) combined with the use of different types of ICT in future posts.