Designing hybrid learning configurations at the interface between school and workplace

P.H.M. Cremers

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


In today’s knowledge society there is a demand for professionals who are able to create knowledge across boundaries of disciplines, professions and perspectives. Increasingly, challenges have to be addressed by experts from different fields who collaborate across different contexts. In addition, given the fast pace with which society changes, experts must continually construct and reconstruct their expertise in a process of lifelong learning. Institutions for higher and vocational education are challenged to educate these ‘knowledge workers’. They are responding, among others, by developing novel hybrid practices at the interface between school and workplace, the so-called hybrid learning configurations. By connecting education, research and professional practice they aim to address complex problems in society by fostering interprofessional collaboration and learning. We define a hybrid learning configuration (HLC) as ‘a social practice around illdefined, authentic tasks or issues whose resolution requires transboundary learning by transcending disciplines, traditional structures and sectors, and forms of learning’.

While many educational institutions and other organizations are co-developing and experimenting with HLCs, the process followed is often one of trial and error. Practical expertise is becoming available but only in an ad hoc and fragmented way. Although research on situated and social learning offers relevant theories and concepts that are useful when designing an HLC, not much research has addressed the design of HLCs in a comprehensive way. This PhD research aims to address this lacuna. We investigate HLCs from an educational design research (EDR) perspective, which involves framing the HLC as a complex intervention. We are interested not only in the features or designed elements of such interventions, but also in the underlying principles or conjectures that are embodied in those features. In addition, we intend to provide support for interprofessional HLC design teams, which consist of, for instance, educational consultants, researchers, lecturers and other practitioners. In order to address these aims we studied six HLCs in the context of Dutch higher vocational education. One of the cases is a joint project of two Dutch institutions for senior secondary vocational educational (which are called ‘MBO’ in Dutch) and two universities of applied sciences (‘HBO’ in Dutch) in collaboration with two companies. The other cases are HLCs in different settings within the context of a university of applied sciences in the Netherlands.

The aims mentioned above led to the following general research questions: 1. Which heuristics can underpin the design of a hybrid learning configuration? 2. In which ways can interprofessional teams be supported when designing hybrid learning configurations? Chapters 2 and 3 address the first research question and chapters 4 and 5 address the second question.

Design principles for HLCs

Chapter 2 focuses on the HLC as a whole. The central research question is: “Which set of principles can underpin the design of a hybrid learning configuration for educating the knowledge worker?” Based on a literature search and designers’ craft knowledge, a set of initial design principles was developed for an HLC at the interface between school and workplace. The intention was that four learning processes would be enabled by the HLC: self-directed learning, authentic learning, the development of a professional identity and collaborative creation of knowledge across the boundaries of disciplines, professions and perspectives.

These initial design principles were evaluated from the perspective of the participants by analysing interview data from students, lecturers, educational consultants and business representatives. This resulted in the following set of seven refined principles that underpin the design of an HLC: fostering authenticity; creating a learning community; utilizing diversity; inter-linking of working and learning; facilitating reflexivity; enabling organization; enabling ecology. These principles can be used as heuristics for guiding the design and development of hybrid learning configurations in contexts that have similar goals and aligned tenets.

Fostering self-directed lifelong learning in HLCs

Chapter 3 elaborates further on the design principle ‘facilitating reflexivity’. Since knowledge workers have to redefine and reconstruct their own expertise in an on-going fashion, they should be able to reflect on and pro-actively develop their professional competence. This capacity for self-directed lifelong learning is an essential asset for them and should therefore be developed or enhanced in an HLC. The main research question in this chapter is: “Which design guidelines underpin an intervention that would foster students’ capacity for self-directed lifelong learning while working on ill-structured, authentic professional tasks?”

An intervention was designed, implemented and evaluated during two iterations of a hybrid learning configuration, which was embedded in a one-semester elective course at a university of applied sciences in the Netherlands. Evaluation methods included interviews with students and the course facilitator, questionnaires, and students’ logs and reports. This resulted in the following five intervention design guidelines: provide opportunities to engage in two or more cycles of self-directed learning; provide educational support; pay attention to emotional and motivational aspects; treat self-directed lifelong learning as a social learning process; position self-directed lifelong learning as a self-evident and integrated part of the course.

The intervention appeared to be usable and effective. At a basic level, the students developed their capacity for self-directed lifelong learning. We concluded that further research is needed to investigate conditions for realizing higher levels of proficiency in self-directed lifelong learning throughout the curriculum and beyond.

Utilization of design principles for HLCs

The focus of chapter 4 is the utilization of the set of design principles that was generated in chapter 2. Research has shown that while knowledge of design heuristics can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of design work, design teams often have difficulty articulating the rationale for their design. In addition, it is important to facilitate ideation and nourish creative spirit while utilizing the design heuristics to create a novel learning environment. In this study we explored an intervention for supporting the creative utilization of the set of design principles for HLC. The intervention was based on boundary-crossing theory and design thinking methods, with a particular focus on prototyping. It consisted of a ‘guidebook’ in which the design principles were explained, and a workshop. The corresponding research question was: “What is the perceived effectiveness of a boundarycrossing intervention (based on a set of research-based design principles) for (re)designing hybrid learning configurations?”

Four design teams of different HLCs in the context of a university of applied sciences used the guidebook and attended the workshop while (re)designing their HLC. The intervention was evaluated by way of questionnaires that were filled out by members of the design teams. The results show that the design teams perceived this intervention as being relevant, consistent, practical and effective. The intervention appeared to provide a conceptual framework for understanding and designing features of a hybrid learning configuration and a vocabulary to communicate design ideas. It, thereby, supported the creative utilization of the design principles. Further research could explore other, complementary ways of facilitating the design of hybrid learning configurations.

Cross-boundary learning during the design and implementation of an HLC

Chapter 5 concerns cross-boundary collaboration and learning processes within an interprofessional design team of an HLC. These teams often consist of actors from different educational institutions and other organizations, such as companies or (non) governmental institutions. When team members bring their different perspectives into the collaboration, they are likely to experience boundaries. Boundaries can be defined as ‘discontinuities in action or interaction’. They can hinder cooperation, but they can also provide opportunities for learning. This led to the following research question: “In which ways could a better understanding of boundaries enhance learning?”

In this study, transcripts of interviews with members of an HLC-design team were analysed using concepts of boundary crossing theory. This theoretical framework provided a lens through which different ways of boundary crossing, learning mechanisms and processes became visible. We established that boundaries are highly personal and subjective constructs. We found that if boundaries are detected and if the related practices are made explicit, this allows for further analysis of these boundaries. Our analysis yielded a number of possible ways to enhance trans-boundary learning in HLC design teams. We also concluded that boundary objects and brokers can play an important role in transboundary learning processes.

Conclusions in a broader perspective

In chapter 6 we frame our conclusions from the four studies in a broader perspective. The first aim of our research was the development of heuristics for the design of HLCs. Given this aim, we developed a set of design principles for an HLC and guidelines for an intervention that fosters the capacity for self-directed lifelong learning. We positioned these principles and guidelines in a ‘conjecture map’ (Sandoval 2014), which shows the relationships between design heuristics, their embodiment in features of an intervention, the intended mediating processes, and the desired outcomes. Our overall conclusion is that framing the set of design principles or guidelines in multiple conjecture maps, rather than representing them as causal chains of design propositions, can provide guidance and support for designing and researching complex educational interventions such as HLCs.

Our second aim was to provide support or ‘design knowledge’ for interprofessional HLC design teams. We addressed that aim by developing and testing an intervention that supported the creative utilization of a set of design principles for HLC. In addition, we provided guidance for enhancing learning across boundaries that could be experienced in an interprofessional design team. We positioned this design knowledge in a broader framework, the ‘ecological framework for conceptualizing teacher knowledge for technology-enhanced learning design’. This framework seems to be useful in contexts beyond technology-enhanced learning, and, so, we consider it relevant to the design of HLCs. We conclude that design teams of HLCs can be supported by using an appropriate framework for design knowledge and by adjusting or expanding this framework for the design of complex interventions by interprofessional design teams.

Further research and practical implications

Our studies led us to the following recommendations. While we focused mainly on learning processes that should occur within HLCs, further research could be directed towards the students’ learning outcomes. Moreover, our findings suggest that selfdirected lifelong learning should be developed and practiced throughout an education programme. To achieve this, curricula in higher education should offer opportunities for students to experiment and follow their own path, alongside prescribed activities with fixed learning outcomes. In the six HLCs that we studied, student learning was foregrounded. However, an HLC also involves other stakeholder types, such as lecturers, researchers, citizens, and entrepreneurs. Therefore, further research could shed light on supporting and evaluating multi-stakeholder learning processes and learning outcomes of all types of stakeholders. Our research on supporting interprofessional design teams focused on the utilization of design knowledge in early stages of (re)design of an HLC. Further research and development could yield ways of support in further stages of the design. In light of this we recommend crossing the boundaries of areas of design science outside the educational context. This will allow us to learn from each other and capitalize on what is already known.

In our study, design principles for HLC were ‘reified’ and disseminated by way of a guidebook. Further investigations could reveal other ways of documenting and communicating design knowledge, for instance via the construction of a database containing principles or guidelines and their associated features in different contexts. Boundary crossing theory appeared to provide a lens through which boundaries and related learning processes became visible. The elements of boundary crossing theory can be translated into guidelines or tools for enhancing cross-boundary learning in interprofessional HLC design teams and, perhaps, for other types of ‘hybrid teams’ as well.

This thesis intends to contribute to the knowledge base for designing hybrid learning configurations. This is done with the intention that this contribution will be utilized and developed further by researchers and practitioners who are committed to educating future professionals in an ever-changing world.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mulder, Martin, Promotor
  • Wals, Arjen, Promotor
  • Wesselink, Renate, Co-promotor
Award date10 Feb 2016
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789462576322
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • intermediate vocational training
  • education
  • education programmes
  • higher education
  • organization of education
  • practical education
  • postsecondary education
  • vocational training
  • firms
  • companies
  • knowledge transfer
  • knowledge
  • netherlands

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