Often, at the higher education level, instruction is provided to classes that consist of diverse groups of students from various course cohorts or disciplines. This phenomenon is observed not only in academic degree programs where students from different programs choose shared elective courses, but is even more prevalent in vocational higher education where certain modules play a crucial role in preparing students for work or advancing their professional skills across multiple fields.
Examples could include:
- Social research methods being delivered to students in criminology, sociology, education studies, and business studies
- Project management to students in health, education, construction, and business management courses, including sector contextualized
- Sustainability and environmental studies being delivered on a postgraduate course to managers, leaders, and professionals from many different sectors – including public and private
- Equality legislation for students on a range of public and commercial industry-related programs
- Teacher training in post-compulsory education being delivered to in-service tutors from various subject areas and across numerous trades, e.g. English, numeracy, plumbing, carpentry
Although students from various courses or disciplines can be viewed through the lens of Etienne Wenger’s (1998) concept as separate communities of practice, each with its unique way of thinking, practicing, and socialization, the real-world professional environment frequently demands collaboration and interaction among individuals from diverse disciplines. In this context, these boundaries between communities of practice often need to be transcended or crossed, particularly as levels of responsibility rise. This is necessary to harness inputs and contributions from various stakeholders or agencies, all working towards shared objectives or, at the very least, addressing common challenges.
Boundary objects defined
In this regard, a useful educational concept, which predates the main communities of practice literature but is now contextualized within it, is that of boundary objects. The originators of the concept, Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer (1989), said the following:
Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use and become strongly structured in individual-site use. They may be abstract or concrete.
The extensive body of literature on boundary objects has noted they can take many forms, e.g. artifacts, processes, discourses, and repositories. We note that repositories, such as spaces where people can place and combine materials of interest to them, can take the form of shared documents, which many contributors can extend or modify.
Boundary objects: Practical deployment
The best and most useful way to show the value of boundary objects is by way of workable examples, as follows:
Micro-presentations and peer learning: This essentially involves individual students giving a talk related to the common module/course of their discipline or field. An ideal integrative component is having small group activities within these talks whereby class members from different disciplines work with each other on activities set by the presenter, i.e. by someone outside of their respective fields. As such, this process involves equal status reciprocal peer learning and essentially means learning about another context beyond their own, but in a shared way.
Integrative questionnaire design: In delivering a social research methods module, a shared questionnaire document could be an active boundary object. This may include designing a staff feedback survey questionnaire on training provided by commercial agencies to specific professionals, e.g. probation officers could derive module-relevant engagement and collaboration across business, sociology, criminology, and education course members.
Labelled maps or area layouts: This is very much in line with the original depiction by Star and Griesemer. On a sustainability module, a map detailing flora and fauna habitat, as well as relief and drainage, may be effective as a cross-discipline activity or assessment based on the development of a new nature reserve and visitor center. Students from civil engineering, architecture, zoology, tourism, and the visitor economy, as well as real estate and land economy, could assess these maps and modify them to best capture what each discipline can bring and what interests they can represent.
Case-based flowcharts and commensurate meetings: Hypothetical case studies depicting individuals facing crises and illustrating the involvement of diverse stakeholders and agencies in their support could serve as inclusive exercises, involving multiple professional communities. Within community care modules and courses, creating flow charts for scenarios that outline the timing, nature, and interplay of responsibilities across fields like law, social work, healthcare, education, finance, and public/social enterprise sector management, could function as boundary objects for professionals and students in these domains. A live or synchronous approach might involve a collaborative round table role-playing session with multiple participants addressing the same issue. This session could serve as a preliminary discussion before creating a flow chart, or it could come after the chart’s development as a practical application.
Checking for integration and collaborative learning
In terms of checking for integration, the Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) of Stephen Brookfield (1998) offers a valuable framework. The CIQ prompts students to reflect on their learning experiences, distinguishing between engaging and distancing experiences within a program. This research tool can be modified so the questions are about specific events or activities within a course or module, and the answers on these themes are scaled. For example:
During the recent experience with your module peers, how would you describe your feelings in regards to engagement or distanced?
- Strongly engaged
- Neither engaged nor distanced
- Variable between engaged and distanced
- Strongly distanced
In cases when the diverse cohort includes multiple individuals from each constituent field, a method to assess the extent of cross-discipline collaboration perceived by students throughout the module could involve the following scale questions:
On this module how effectively have you worked with students?
- From the other programs/disciplines: Not Particularly, Quite a Bit, A Great Deal
- From your own program/discipline: Not Particularly, Quite a Bit, A Great Deal
Here, comparability of answer profiles across the groups would indicate some effective integration.
Purposeful integration and collaborative working is important in many higher education programs, especially in ensuring that different disciplinaries can work together in relevant ways after graduation. We note that achieving such integration is not the same as aiming for complete unity of perspectives; the diversity of experiences is crucial in enabling graduates to effectively advocate for their own viewpoints in a respectful manner.
Russ Woodward has degrees in economics from the UK Universities of Cambridge and Exeter. Since 2002, he has taught on the business degrees at University Centre, Grimsby: The TEC Partnership, UK. He has written a number of papers on teaching business in higher education for the UK, USA, and Australian periodicals.
Mandy Boyd has a bachelor’s degree in business from Hull University, UK and an MBA from Anglia Ruskin University, UK. She teaches marketing and careers modules on the business management degrees at University Centre, Grimsby, The TEC Partnership, UK, at which she is also programme leader for the business with marketing degree strand.
Ian Rodwell has a bachelor’s degree in public sector management from Sheffield Hallam University, UK, and a masters in sociology and sports management from Leicester University, UK. He has taught across the business and tourism management degrees at University Centre Grimsby, The TEC Partnership, UK for over 20 years.
Brookfield, Stephen. Critically reflective practice. Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 18(4), 1998: 197-205.
Star, Susan Leigh and Griesemer, James. Institutional ecology, translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3) (1989): 387-420.
Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1998