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  Investigating educational issues across Europe (ACROSS Base)
Introduction
Sources quoted below can be looked up in the index of further references
 
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Issue
European projects in various programmes (Fifth Framework Programme, LEONARDO, TSER etc) are faced with a common methodological problem: how to analyse issues across countries, cultures, organisations, regions or systems. Several approaches have been adopted, including experimental and innovative ones. This resource base is intended to collect evidence from newly completed projects, presenting the various methods that have emerged out of partnership work.

Debate
Thoughts on methodological issues in transnational research have been scattered. A discussion on comparative methodology related to VET research took place at a conference in 1998 convened by CEDEFOP and DIPF (report by Lauterbach et al. 2001). A debate on methodological aspects of collaborative research developed, in the late '90s, within a group of LEONARDO research projects (see Kämäräinen 1998; Kuhn 1998; Nyhan 1998). At the same time, partnerships in TSER and COST projects generated their own methodological approaches (see Nijhof 1999; Raffe 2001). Furthermore, large-scale projects carried out by international organisations such as the IEA (see Postlethwaite 1995) and the OECD (see Durand-Drouhin 1999) promoted new working concepts. Alongside the innovative thinking in project related (or policy and practice oriented) investigations, the more academic field of comparative and international education is also undergoing reconceptualisation, with a focus on learning and its relation to culture (see Broadfoot 2000; Crossley 2000). 

Objective
The challenging question is how to capture the diversity of cross-national research in European projects. While some of these appear to follow a comparative approach, others centre more on a subject-related methodology. Again, in terms of cooperation, several projects apply a centralised pattern, involving partners as contributors, while others develop a collaborative style of research which may even extend to target groups of investigation. Within these contexts various methods are applied, ranging from traditional means of investigation (like case studies) to innovative concepts (like 'cornerstones' and 'boundary crossing'). In the ACROSS Base, two major modes of access are applied: access by approach and access by method.

<Access by approach>
In searching for the dimensions of these approaches, reviewing comparative methodology in educational research provided an initial orientation. According to this, there are two investigation strategies: the 'holistic' or 'systemic' approach and the 'comparative' or 'contrastive' approach. Comparative studies may be undertaken using either a 'scientific' approach, involving measurement and statistics, or a 'humanistic' approach, which tends to be ethnographic and largely descriptive (see Keeves et al. 1994). 

Based on these considerations, a semantic map with two axes has been constructed (see access by approach). The horizontal axis refers to the 'holistic - comparative' continuum. These two investigation strategies may also be described in terms of 'integrative thematic' (e.g. focusing on the development of joint frameworks and models) versus 'comparative thematic' (e.g. concerned with identifying 'commonalities' and differences). Essentially, these are complementary orientations rather than opposite poles. The vertical axis presents the two research approaches which have been identified as 'scientific' versus 'humanistic'. According to more common research debate these two approaches may be called 'quantitative' versus 'qualitative', again understood as complementary rather than opposing orientations. In the semantic map, the positioning of projects indicates the emphasis of a given orientation (NOT its exclusiveness) in the methodology applied.

In the context of transnational projects, the 'qualitative' approach has been extended to include the collaborative style of research. It should be noted that 'collaborative' in this case is related to a specific methodology (e.g. 'collaborative writing process') and NOT applied in the general sense of cooperation between partners (which all projects have in common). 

The semantic map on approaches not only helps to locate individual projects; it also serves as a point of reference for debate. In particular, the argument about 'collaboration' versus 'comparison', which has been prominent in discussion among VET researchers, can be seen in a new context. Furthermore, the debate about possible trends within research strategies (e.g. from comparative towards integrative) may be promoted by evaluating the resources in this base.

[Back to map: access by approach]
<Access by method>
Within the framework of major approaches, individual methods have been identified (see access by method: index).  These are understood, in a broad sense, as specific ways of proceeding in research, including various techniques of research work. The procedure used for compiling methods has been entirely inductive. The projects have been analysed with regard to the methodological means they have applied. Only those methods which are being described or discussed in at least one project have been taken up in the resource base. 

For initial mapping, these methods form groups related to their function in the research process (see access by method: map). The grouping applied here should be regarded as tentative and open for debate. The initial aim is to include as many methods (in the widest sense) as possible, based on evidence in the European projects. In a further step, a more systematic approach of describing these methods and/or of identifying open standards may be adopted. 

[Back to map: access by method]
Contents
The aim of the ACROSS Base is to compile evidence of approaches and methods from a broad range of projects and studies. To start with, the final reports of about 30 projects have been evaluated. Contributions to the resource base are taken from these sources in the form of edited extracts or summaries. These entries include both reviews and comments for discussion. The point of view presented this way fully corresponds to the source quoted in the text concerned. 

The methodological approaches applied in the projects are presented from two angles: each project is briefly described in terms of its approaches, the evidence of selected methods found in individual projects being presented separately. Compiling this information from project reports is in itself revealing: while traditional approaches, in particular the 'scientific' ones, tend to be described in full detail (often with a reference to the original source), the more experimental ones, in particular the 'collaborative' and 'holistic' type, appear to be implicit or argumentative rather than precise in their methodology.

Structure
The design of the ACROSS Base starts out from semantic maps which form the basis for three access points:

  • access by theme, related to thematic fields and to types of research;
  • access by approach, starting out from basic dimensions of educational research and including further approaches found in current research;
  • access by method, being understood as a broad category including approaches and any other means of facilitating cross-national research.
A suitable format for providing the resources is to use a modular structure. The base consists of text units which follow a common pattern, including a heading, the description of the project or approach, a review or comment if available, and the references. The text units are supported by a bibliographical base which provides links to on-line sources where possible. An index of experts, projects and sources completes the resource base.

Target
The ACROSS Base is intended as a contribution to disseminating experience among the research community and to stimulating discussion about the value of the different approaches. The coordinators of European projects represent a particular target group to benefit from this shared learning.

Environment
The ACROSS Base links up with other resource bases focusing on selected themes of project research (see overview). These form part of a web-based environment for European research in VET and HRD which has been promoted by CEDEFOP in collaboration with the Research Forum WIFO, theKnowNet and other partners. These initiatives are presented in the CEDEFOP Research Arena (CEDRA) and its European Research Overview (ERO Gateway).

Outlook
Following an initial stage which presents the outcome of EU projects in education research, an extended version of the ACROSS Base may include further studies in the field of VET and HRD. In addition, evidence from European conferences and workshops and further contributions from experts may be compiled to expand and enrich the resource base.

Acknowledgement
An initial draft of the resource base (Word document) was sent to all experts concerned and to further interested colleagues. Comments received by Manfred Tessaring, CEDEFOP, on the concept and methodology are gratefully acknowledged.

Sabine Manning
Research Forum WIFO Berlin

First outline August 2001
Revised after Roundtable discussion at ECER in Lille September 2001 

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