Toolboxes as learning aids for dealing with complex problems

By Stefan Hilser

Stefan Hilser (biography)

How can toolboxes more effectively support those learning to deal with complex societal and environmental problems, especially novices such as PhD students and early career researchers?

In this blog post, I briefly describe four toolboxes and assess them for their potential to assist learning processes. My main aim is to open a discussion about the value of the four toolboxes and how they could better help novices.

Before describing the toolboxes, I outline the learning processes I have in mind, especially the perspective of legitimate peripheral participation.

Learning is not just the internalization of facts or mere acquisition of skills through ‘learning by doing’. It is a process, which is constituted in a mutually reinforcing way by the whole person, their activities and the world in which these are situated.

For novices in the academic world, it is about becoming a member of a community of practice through a process that Lave and Wenger (1991) call legitimate peripheral participation. This involves starting with partial involvement in a community of practice, which enables novices to gain familiarity and at the same time move towards fuller forms of participation. Peripheral forms of participation are “a way of gaining access to sources for understanding through growing involvement” (Lave and Wenger 1991: 37).

This learning process is shaped by how the community of practice structures its resources and how access to them and visibility are mediated through artefacts and the language used to describe practice (which is also a practice in itself). One type of artefact that shapes legitimate peripheral participation is toolboxes, four of which I present in this blog post.

The four toolboxes

The toolboxes come from different communities of practice, have different foci, types and number of resources, and their own particular strengths that provide value for their users. The table below gives a short overview of these four elements for each of the toolboxes.

Overview of four toolboxes (compiled by Stefan Hilser)

How do the toolboxes support learning?

As part of my PhD I am reviewing these four toolboxes and analysing how their structure supports learning through legitimate peripheral participation. I do so from a learner’s perspective and based on my experience with other platforms and tools that are built around the ideas of collaboration and knowledge co-creation (ie., Stack Overflow, GitHub and Wikipedia).

Strengths of the toolboxes: Something that is often missing in journal articles, are “insights into … practice” in a way that is “showing, not just telling” (Friedman, Gray and Ortiz Aragón 2018: 3). In contrast, the toolboxes give access to a rich body of knowledge about methods, experience reports, approaches, tools and more. Each toolbox facilitates the navigation of that knowledge through categories, filters and search functions. This helps novices to limit the visibility of resources, reducing – to a certain extent – the risk of being overwhelmed by too much information.

Further, the development of tools can serve as a connecting point between theory and methods on one hand and practical know-how on the other hand. This explicit focus on research practice can also help cross language barriers among different communities of practice. For the toolboxes described here, methods and cases describing the underlying practice, for example, can help cross the transdisciplinary, team science and integration and implementation sciences communities of practice.

Room for learning: Despite existing connection points (eg., similar methods) among the toolboxes and a rich body of knowledge about theory and practice, the current infrastructure of the four toolboxes does not actually connect them. Moreover, the toolboxes do not offer many possibilities for novices to learn through legitimate peripheral participation. While they allow users to navigate the existing content, they do not provide structures that support learners (especially novices) in participating in the toolboxes and in learning about the research approaches and communities of practice they represent. The main hurdles are:

  • Lack of dedicated spaces for questions and discussions that are relevant to the learner; and,
  • Lack of structures that support co-creation and synthesis that would assist the learner.

With regard to dedicated spaces for questions and discussions: The td-net toolbox does not provide scope for discussion. The SciTS toolkit offers a space for comments under each of their resources. The i2S repository does not allow commenting, but the i2Insights blog is a space where users can comment on the different blog entries on tools (methods, concepts and theories), institutionalization, education, or case studies. The td Academy allows for comments under each of the themes, subthemes and methods.

In the three toolboxes where there is space for discussion, they are all tied to a specific resource (eg., a concept, method, or blog entry). This restricts the possibilities of novices starting their own topics for discussion, or asking questions, because most discussions are defined by the experts providing the content. Such discussions can be intimidating for a novice, rather than encouraging them to participate.

In terms of co-creation and synthesis: The td Academy provides a synthesis of key topics (so far only in German), developed as a result of a series of dialogues, but it does not provide structures that support learners in participating in that synthesis. Conversely, the SciTS toolkit offers the possibility of editing existing content, which can be seen as a form of co-creation, but no synthesis of key topics. I consider this form of participation as more suitable for experts, as it requires a certain knowledge of the concepts and methods.

What has your experience been?

What are your thoughts on:

  • Using or contributing to these toolboxes?
  • What do you like about the toolboxes?
  • What is missing from the toolboxes?
  • Do you have experience with other toolboxes or platforms that you think these toolboxes could learn from?
  • Would you be interested in a platform that connected these four toolboxes? Would you be interested if such a platform enabled more participation, collaboration and knowledge co-creation? What ideas do you have for making such a platform work?

To find out more about the four toolboxes:

Friedman, V. J., Gray, P. and Ortiz Aragón, A. (2018). From doing to writing action research: A plea to ARJ authors. Action Research, 16, 1: 3-6. (Online) (DOI):

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Biography: Stefan Hilser is a PhD student in the research group “Processes of Sustainability Transformation” at Leuphana University, Lueneburg, Germany. He is researching the collaboration processes of the team of which he is also a member and aiming to implement an intervention that supports their learning. This fits with his broader interests in how to best support learning in inter- and trans- disciplinary research.

This blog post aims to capture discussion from attendees at Stefan Hilser’s presentation at the “Leverage Points conference” at Leuphana University in Lueneburg, Germany, February 6-8, 2019. Comments from those unable to attend the conference are, of course, also very welcome.

2 thoughts on “Toolboxes as learning aids for dealing with complex problems”

  1. I appreciate the reflection on the objectives of td-toolboxes, the addressed target groups and involvement of the users. As one of the initiators of td-academy, I want to point out that involving different target groups – people who already have experiences with td-research as well as young scientist who are still getting acquainted with this research type – is an ambitious endeavor. While the former are interested in reflection of the challenges they are confronting and conceptual debates, the latter might rather be looking for hands-on information on methodological questions. We had several debates of how to motivate also engagement of young researchers in this field but up to now, we didn’t come up with a convincing solution. So far, we have the feeling that a toolbox platform has to take a clear decision regarding its main target group and to adapt the language used and the type of questions posed instead of trying to address everybody.

    Involvement of ‘old hands’ goes along with the special challenge of competing for the scarce time resources of those experts and how to acknowledge the contributions made in an adequate way. How do we deal with knowledge that is shared on platforms of this type and do we find appropriate ways of citing valuable information gained from platforms, which might then be used for project designs, proposals or publications?

    I think that a debate about these points within the td-community might be valuable.

    During the last weeks, we had a fruitful debate on transferability of results at the platform td-academy (unfortunately only in German). We learnt that by introducing interesting questions/hypotheses and moderating the discussion, it is possible to motivate a lively exchange.

    • Dear Martina,
      Thanks a lot for your insights into the challenges of running such a platform. I agree that it’s probably hard to create a platform that meets everybody’s needs. I think we need to pick people up where they are in their learning journey to meet their specific needs.

      I talked to a colleague at my university who thinks that the toolboxes are a great resource and she’s using them for teaching as well. However, she told me that her students didn’t seem to pick them up as she imagined them to do.

      That’s where I think a platform that meets the particular needs of early career researchers and students would be of great use. Such a platform could also be an entry point into the different research communities, approaches and platforms. I think there is a great potential for such a platform to complement the existing toolboxes and help them grow their community as well.

      I plan to build such a platform throughout the coming months and would be happy to find other early career researchers that are interested to contribute to this, as well as experts that would support this.

      What I’d like to know from the experts in the community:
      – What would it take for you to contribute to such an endeavour?
      – How can we address the challenge of proper acknowledgement of contributions?

      What I’d like to know from the early career researchers in the community:
      – What challenges did you experience in using the toolboxes?
      – What are the things that you would find useful, but that don’t yet exist in any of the toolboxes?


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: