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Boundary Objects: A Field Guide

Sveta Stoytcheva, Author

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Boundary Objects that Learn?

In Sorting Things Out, Bowker and Star consider whether it is possible to engineer boundary objects. Most boundary objects, they argue, come into being organically as a solution to problems that arise when members of disparate communities of practice must interact with one another. However, it is theoretically possible to design artifacts with the explicit intention that they serve as boundary objects to bridge the gaps between social groups. In fact, as Bowker and Star point out, progressive and multicultural educational models, as well as attempts to design broadly accessible information systems, can be understood as attempts to engineer boundary objects for the greater good (Bowker and Star, 1999, p. 305-306). Unfortunately, these attempts often fail because engineered boundary objects lack the ambiguity of boundary objects that come into being more organically (ibid). This ambiguity is necessary for boundary objects to maintain the delicate balance between being simultaneously concrete enough and abstract enough to be useful to members of multiple communities of practice. Additionally, Bowker and Star warn that engineered boundary objects can fall into the trap of essentialism by “imposing or ignoring membership categories” on individuals (ibid, p. 305). Still, the project of designing artifacts that can facilitate intergroup interactions in a positive way remains attractive.

In describing the project of FemTechNet and DOCC 2013: Dialogues in Feminism and Technology, Anne Balsamo and Alexandra Juhasz elaborate on the concept of boundary objects by introducing the idea of “boundary objects that learn,” or BOTLs (Balsamo and Juhasz, 2012). BOTLs are a cross between boundary objects as defined by Star and learning objects, a concept drawn from educational theory. They can be understood as a kind of engineered boundary object that is intended to embody the feminist pedagogical ideals behind the DOCC. DOCC stands for “distributed online collaborative course” and can be seen as a feminist response to the “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) that are so prevalent in contemporary discussions about higher education. This course on the relationship between feminism and technology is being taught simultaneously at about a dozen institutions. However, beyond a collection of video dialogues on the main themes of the course, there is not a set syllabus. Instead, the course materials at each institution are tailored to the specific context of the institution and the students enrolled. Additionally, the videos and other supplementary materials are made freely available through the FemTechNet website to “self-directed” students not affiliated with any of the participating institutions.

Each group of students and instructors participating in the DOCC experiment can be understood as a distinct community of practice. BOTLs are artifacts and educational materials intended to connect these communities, assuring that the course is collaborative in addition to being distributed and open. Although concept of BOTLs remains to be fully theorized, the idea behind them is that BOTLs will not only be used by multiple communities of practice, but they will also be open to evaluation, assessment, and redesign by members of those communities (Balsamo and Juhasz, 2012). At least theoretically, the ability for participants to update BOTLs to meet their needs would allow the artifacts to retain the plasticity and ambiguity of boundary objects that come into being more organically. Hopefully, that would help them to avoid the pitfalls of engineered boundary objects described by Bowker and Star.
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