Interdisciplinary Higher Education: Perspectives and Practicalities: Volume 5

Cover of Interdisciplinary Higher Education: Perspectives and Practicalities

Table of contents

(25 chapters)

In higher education, interdisciplinarity involves the design of subjects that offer the opportunity to experience ‘different ways of knowing’ from students’ core or preferred disciplines. Such an education is increasingly important in a global knowledge economy. Many universities have begun to introduce interdisciplinary studies or subjects to meet this perceived need. This chapter explores some of the issues inherent in moves towards interdisciplinary higher education. Definitional issues associated with the term ‘academic discipline’, as well as other terms, including ‘multidisciplinary’, ‘cross-disciplinary’, ‘pluridisciplinarity’, ‘transdisciplinarity’ and ‘interdisciplinary’ are examined. A new nomenclature is introduced to assist in clarifying the subtle distinctions between the various positions. The chapter also outlines some of the pedagogical and epistemological considerations which are involved in any move from a conventional form of educational delivery to an interdisciplinary higher education, and recommends caution in any implementation of an interdisciplinary curriculum.

Success in research – or ‘mastery’ as we call it – can lead to interdisciplinarity arising among the increasingly fragmented disciplines of science: researchers in molecular biology can be assisted by advances in the physics of atomic imaging, when they become aware of a development's potential and feel motivated to take advantage of it. The unpredictability of advances in scientific research makes the location and nature of interdisciplinarity largely unpredictable. This unpredictability means that organisational structures in which scientific research takes place – and in which our students are trained – are likely to lag behind interdisciplinary synergies developing in the laboratory. The lag time suggested by our model explains the challenges faced by leaders of interdisciplinary programmes in higher education. One can conclude that opportunities for interdisciplinarity in science are held back by discipline-bound institutions.

An investigation into the leadership behaviours of academic staff undertaking interdisciplinary research and teaching drew on interviews with 10 senior members of staff at two research institutions, in the United Kingdom and Australia, in order to illuminate the nature of interdisciplinary leadership. Key terms are defined: disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, identity, leadership and learning. A model is developed, based on an analysis of the interview data, drawing on Adair's three-part model of leadership, modified for the context. It is proposed that interdisciplinary leadership can be understood as being at the intersection of identity, discipline and learning, and requiring an understanding of all three for effective practice. The model also includes areas of activity: need and opportunity, co-ordination and direction, communication and motivation. The implications for the support of academic staff in such roles are considered. It is suggested that there is value in conceptualising interdisciplinary leadership as the leading of learning.

Working in interdisciplinary teams is recognised as fundamental to contemporary workplaces in the knowledge economy. Current research across the disciplines clearly shows that working successfully in interdisciplinary teams is associated with increased productivity, improved outcomes, higher levels of creativity and enhanced personal fulfilment. But why is there a perception that it is hard to work in such teams in higher education contexts, and what does it take to work successfully in an interdisciplinary team? In this chapter we use embedded intergroup relations theory as a way of conceptualising the tensions and complexities that exist within interdisciplinary teams in universities. We draw on the constructs of group membership, parallel processes, group boundaries, power differences, affective patterns, cognitive formations and leadership behaviours to deconstruct why working in interdisciplinary teams often challenges academic identities, cultures and contexts. We then consider the core factors that underpin successful interdisciplinary teams, based on a synthesis of the work in the fields of social sciences, organisational behaviour, education, health and psychology. Understanding the complexities of working in interdisciplinary teams within universities provides insights into how to facilitate positive outcomes for all involved in interdisciplinary teamwork.

Formal programmes designed to develop university teaching and learning are often assumed to be spaces for interdisciplinary learning and exchange. Because such programmes bring together academics from a range of different disciplines to learn about university teaching and learning as an academic development activity, it would seem feasible to argue that these spaces for learning, and the learning which results from them, can be characterised as ‘interdisciplinary’. Academic development itself is often thought to be a project that fosters an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. This chapter offers a narrative of the way academic development programmes support academics to adopt an interdisciplinary approach to their learning about university teaching and learning. We take graduate certificate programmes in university teaching and learning as the vehicle for our analysis. In doing so, the chapter makes three points. First, that academic development has the potential to be a ‘critical interdisciplinary space’. Second, that it is important for academics to see and experience the Graduate Certificate as an opportunity to develop interdisciplinary learning outcomes. The evidence at present reveals that interdisciplinary learning outcomes for academics feature more as an absent-presence rather than as a conscious decision about curriculum design. Third, the curriculum of graduate certificate programmes needs to have a coherent and theorised account of interdisciplinary teaching and learning embedded in the philosophy and approach of the course.

The framework of the Bologna Process, the bachelor's–master's degree structure, was introduced into the Netherlands in 2002. At the moment many other countries in Europe have adopted this structure, or are in the process of restructuring their higher education system in that direction. The so-called Dublin descriptors have been developed to provide a general statement of qualifications that students should have acquired at the end of each cycle. These descriptors can be seen as criteria in terms of competence levels regarding the following aspects: acquiring knowledge and understanding, applying knowledge and understanding, making informed judgements and choices, communicating knowledge and understanding, and capacities to continue learning. It can be argued that these competences are interdisciplinary in nature. For instance, a university graduate has to be able to collaborate and communicate in multi- or interdisciplinary teams. However, many of these competences will be acquired in disciplinary settings, and faculty will not easily recognise the general terms in which the descriptors are formulated. This raises questions about the interchangeability of the competences between disciplines. In this chapter we will argue that some of the Dublin descriptors can be seen as an attempt to make it clear that there is a common interdisciplinary language in certain fields of attributes, whereas there will be a strong component of disciplinarity in the programmes. An example in the field of research and enquiry competences will be elaborated for two distinctive programmes: in natural sciences and in social sciences.

Interdisciplinary higher education is becoming more important in learning across subject boundaries. This is occurring in global, national and institutional contexts. In Malaysia, interdisciplinarity is clear in the country's National Higher Education Strategic Plan (2007). While varying interpretations of interdisciplinary learning and teaching exist, there are also commonalities. These common elements address complex problems and focus questions by drawing on the disciplines. They also integrate insights and produce new understandings of complex problems. In this chapter, 21 senior administrators (deans, deputy deans and program chairs) from three public universities in Malaysia were surveyed, and 10 respondents were interviewed to determine their views on their use of the interdisciplinary approach: that is, their level of awareness, their perceptions of interdisciplinarity, and their self-reported level of knowledge of what interdisciplinarity means. The findings showed that 76% of the respondents were aware of interdisciplinarity, and that most respondents had a ‘moderately sufficient’ level of self-reported knowledge about the application of interdisciplinarity in current courses. The interview sessions also revealed that respondents interpreted the interdisciplinary approach in different ways. The implications of the results from this exploratory study suggest that public universities in Malaysia have various obstacles to deal with before effective interdisciplinary learning and teaching can be implemented.

Since its inception in 1975, Murdoch University in Western Australia has been unusual in the Australian context with its focus on interdisciplinarity in undergraduate education. Murdoch University has long claimed interdisciplinarity to be one of its distinguishing features. It has a university-wide policy on interdisciplinarity, and specifies ‘interdisciplinarity’ as one of the attributes students are expected to have when they graduate, that is: ‘A capacity to acquire knowledge and understanding of fields of study beyond a single discipline’. All Murdoch University students are introduced to interdisciplinary study in compulsory first-year foundation units that are the cornerstone of a Part 1 programme of studies. Foundation units aim to introduce students to university study, provide a broad perspective and expose students to a range of disciplines and teaching styles. Encouraging the exploration of a range of options before students proceed to their chosen field of study is dependent on a tradition of flexibility that enables students to move easily between and across disciplines. Over the years, the Part 1 programme at Murdoch University has been eroded by disciplinary demands on students, but the basic principles continue to be reaffirmed by external reviews and from within the university. Recently, the value of general undergraduate education has been further reinstated as other Australian universities have begun to investigate and instigate interdisciplinary programmes of study. The trend towards breadth in undergraduate education in Australia provides cause for reflection on interdisciplinarity at Murdoch University. This chapter describes the Murdoch University experience using the author's intimate knowledge of the University and draws on literature on interdisciplinarity to frame the lessons that have been learned over the past 30 years.

The contemporary practice of cultural materials conservation is very much an interdisciplinary field. Preparing students to enter this profession requires a curriculum that combines humanistic and scientific understandings and methodologies. Findings from a review of a new coursework masters programme in Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne are used to argue for greater alignment between graduate attribute statements, learning outcomes, assessment tasks and grading criteria. In particular, it is suggested that assessment tasks and grading criteria need to explicitly articulate the central features of interdisciplinary approaches.

The environment poses many ‘wicked problems’ that cannot be addressed from a single disciplinary perspective. In a research-oriented university, it is a challenge to overcome discipline boundaries to create different pathways for thinking and teaching about the environment. This vignette reflects on two strands, performance and academic culture, in what is necessarily a complex system involving the development and implementation of a new interdisciplinary subject. While we imagined what the learning process was for the students, what evolved was a mutual process of rethinking expectations about how to collaboratively learn as an academic team. This chapter examines three learning tasks prescribed for students as examples of how we came to understand the difficult nature of our engagement, and to reflect on what happened in the initial semester of the subject. Emergent from our reflections is the need for a culture of interdisciplinarity, and suggestions for how to more effectively support the kind of learning practices that will inform our understanding of complex systems as citizens and scholars.

While designing group assessment for student learning outcomes is always difficult, the task is made more challenging in an interdisciplinary context. How much focus should be placed on assessment of discipline-specific knowledge, how much on the interdisciplinary knowledge that emerges as students work together in a non-linear, co-rational design and how much on the group dynamic (generic capabilities) being developed? While additional learning outcomes can be expected from the activities in which students engage in an interdisciplinary context, there is also an expectation, particularly for disciplines such as accounting, engineering and architecture where courses are professionally accredited, that discipline-specific learning outcomes are not compromised. This vignette presents some of the complexities that surfaced during the implementation of a pilot course designed as an experiential real world of work challenge for student.

In 2004, the Faculty of Health Sciences at La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia, introduced a new, final-year subject ‘Interdisciplinary Professional Practice’. The subject is taught to all students enrolled in the 11 allied health and human service disciplines at La Trobe University across metropolitan and rural campuses. The delivery is online to overcome timetabling barriers and to provide time and geographic flexibility. The subject is presented using an enquiry-based learning model. Students are exposed to the concepts of interdisciplinary teamwork through shared learning across professional boundaries to enable a collaborative workforce. An outline of the background development and design of this subject, and its implementation and content areas is presented. A discussion of relevant literature and an analysis of the subject evaluations and focus groups that have guided subject development to enhance student learning over eight cohorts is included.

Sustainability education has at its heart an ethic of interdisciplinary research and teaching practice. This is because sustainability problems require integrated solutions, multiple perspectives, bodies of knowledge and skill sets. Given the imperative to address looming environmental challenges and the need for every graduate to be equipped to do so, how do we enable and support interdisciplinary approaches to sustainability education within our disciplines and professional programmes? It is increasingly apparent that organisational learning for change must be taken forward in the context of local disciplinary meanings and priorities; this is how academics know themselves and identify and value their research – and teaching – priorities. However, at the same time this may create tensions when disciplinary boundaries need to be crossed and disciplinary identities are challenged. This chapter will consider (inter)disciplinarity in engagements with organisational learning and change, and suggest a way forward in order to create ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ transformation in education for sustainability.

Some scholars believe that students should achieve discipline-specific competence before attempting an interdisciplinary synthesis of knowledge. Furthermore, one of the often-cited downsides of interdisciplinary scholarship is its lack of identity with, and consequently its failure to benefit from, membership of a discipline. Monash and Flinders universities have challenged that perspective by introducing interdisciplinary programmes to novice biotechnology undergraduates in their first semester of tertiary study. The lack of knowledge in the various disciplines presents significant pedagogical challenges. However, the programmes have the benefit of developing the professional identity of the students as biotechnologists and, additionally, through exploration of contexts, can help students understand why they study some disciplines: chemistry being one example. Both programmes use the interdisciplinarity of authentic cases to provide a framework for students to explore particular discipline issues and their interrelationships. The success of these programmes in creating identity reflects their focus beyond the internal and external boundaries of the university.

Extensive studies from the fields of mentoring, coaching and associated collegial relationships attest to the efficacy of professional partnerships in building capability and enhancing the practice and professional expertise of the participants. In particular, partnerships between staff across faculty, as well as across administrative and academic roles, can lead to shifts in student achievement, advanced practice in teaching and learning, and strategic alliances both within and external to the institution. In the current climate of challenge and uncertainty for tertiary institutions, it is crucial that the investment in students, campuses and a raft of delivery options is accompanied by a deliberate creation of opportunities for an institution's most significant resource – and expense – its people. This chapter includes vignettes of three deliberately constructed, interdisciplinary workplace relationships which comprised part of the authors’ research in 2007. Each relationship sought to combine complementary expertise, although the discourse and focus of engagement differed considerably. The three selected relationships evidenced successful primary outcomes in different areas: student success and retention; an enriched curriculum and pedagogy; and institutional gain. They also illustrate the distinctive nature of New Zealand's bicultural heritage operating in an educational setting. Through telling these stories, it is hoped that emerging threads and themes can contribute to a shared understanding of the multifarious benefits of interdisciplinary practice in higher education.

‘Good writing’ is often thought to be generic and somehow non-disciplinary, but it is more accurately conceived as interdisciplinary. The purpose of knowledge-making in each discipline generates characteristic questions, text structures, kinds of evidence and language choices, but insofar as the project of knowledge-making is similar across a range of disciplines, this purpose is reflected in common features of writing. Rather than separate students' learning about academic discourse from their discipline studies, we have developed an approach of integrating a focus on academic discourse into the regular teaching of first-year subjects. Students' learning can be discipline-specific at the same time as giving coherence to students' work in a range of subjects. This helps to develop students' awareness of a common culture of enquiry underlying writing for their subjects. Rather than seeing skills or ‘graduate attributes’ as non-disciplinary, this approach recognises that all work is done within communities that construct knowledge according to their purposes, and offers students some ‘meta-knowledge’ of this process. This vignette shows how the aim of raising students' awareness of a discourse community's role in shaping writing for their subjects breaks down into activities week by week, examining each subject's questions, use of primary and secondary evidence, structure of argument, practices of use and attribution of sources, and habits of critical reading. It describes the method of developing a kit for tutors in the disciplines to adapt to their own subjects across the faculty. Finally, it looks at how this project has raised tutors' awareness of the common patterns in their subject designs, a kind of incidental academic development that touches everyone who uses the kit in their teaching.

This vignette reports on a range of implementation models for an approach dubbed Collaborative Interdisciplinary Publication Skills Education (CIPSE). CIPSE aims to develop the skills of early-career researchers, including higher degree by research students, to write about their research in ways that meet the expectations of external assessors – editors and referees of international journals. CIPSE involves expert researchers from a specific field, in this case scientists, and English language specialists with specific expertise in research communication working together on the planning, design and implementation stages of education programmes adapted to fit local contextual constraints. It combines the knowledges and skills of scientists/reviewers/editors, matched to the research discipline of students, and the skills of language educators experienced in genre analysis and language-based elements of English writing. The programme develops skills in three interwoven components: genre analysis, the deconstruction of the scientific journal article genre into functional steps and learning of skills required for each identified component of the genre; gatekeeper awareness, understanding and anticipating the role of reviewers, and developing strategies for presenting quality research and negotiating the acceptance phase of publishing; and story development, packaging and value-adding to data, analysis and information to present and discuss the most important and novel findings of research to the chosen audience. The vignette presents an analysis of CIPSE implementation in two types of higher education contexts, in order to draw out principles of general relevance to the sector: three science disciplines in a research-intensive Australian university and three sites beyond Australia where English is used as an additional language – one in Spain and two in China. Implications are presented for curriculum design and interdisciplinary practice.

This vignette reports on the preliminary findings of a survey about interdisciplinary practices in a Hong Kong university. ePortfolios were used as a tool to help university students develop interdisciplinary language skills. The survey aimed to find out students’ and teachers’ perceptions of such ePortfolios, and the possible effects of ePortfolio use on interdisciplinary and linguistic practices. Results indicate both similarities and differences in perception between the two groups of participants and raise two linked issues. The first points to the attitude of ‘drifters’ and ‘resisters’ and the second considers two dilemmas arising from interdisiciplinarity and language training.

Cover of Interdisciplinary Higher Education: Perspectives and Practicalities
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International Perspectives on Higher Education Research
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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