Summary of initial project research

I have actually been thinking about this final project for quite a long time now. There have been a couple of different project ideas and potential directions that I’ve mulled over during the past six months or so but I’m pretty happy with the direction that I’ve decided to head in which is to focus again on promoting interdisciplinary learning within Higher Education.

Priority #1 for me during this decision process has been finding something that might have a life after the course is through. I really want to use this opportunity to the fullest and as a kind of springboard to try and push forward into something exciting. I’m all too aware of how quick and easy it is to fall out of an academic mindset after a course of study is finished – practically every entry level dead-end job that I’ve had over the past 5-10 years has been full of people like me; once bright and engaged but now simply overqualified and miserable. I don’t want to fall back into that rut when these 24 weeks are done and so I’m using this time to prepare myself as best I can to take a leap into entrepreneurship and to start my own small business.

Over the winter break I began an initial dive into research for the project. I started with a number of different papers and books that each deal with different aspects of interdisciplinarity as it relates to Higher education study.

I first became interested in this topic in GDE730; the ability to work seamlessly with others from different academic backgrounds is such an important factor in most areas of cutting edge innovation and yet there is a complete lack of interdisciplinary focus in the majority of Higher Education institutions. I wanted to find out why that was and to explore whether there might be an opportunity to develop a learning resource for switched on students that wanted to work on developing these skills.

Through my reading I’ve discovered that a large part of why interdisciplinary teaching has struggled to take hold in these environments simply boils down to pushback from senior academics that fear change & are happy with the status quo. Another key component seems to be that it is particularly difficult to teach, especially to undergraduates who may not yet have a fully formed disciplinary identity to work with.

From one of the texts that I read over the Christmas break – Interdisciplinary Conversations: Challenging Habits of Thought, Myra Strober, 2010

I believe that there is a gap in the market here, an opportunity to create a full range of learning materials for everyone from undergraduate level through to PHD and beyond. Whilst undergrads might not yet be developed enough to work as disciplinary ambassadors, there are still many aspects to ‘interdisciplinary competence’ (IC) that can be taught and developed early to make things easier for them later on.

In the project that I worked on in GDE730 I focused on finding ways to support interdisciplinarity in students through a proposed series of workshops and events; I envision that this project will likely become it’s spiritual successor.

Mindhive was a well received idea when I first thought it up, however it seems less and less likely that the face-to-face learning events that formed the core of that idea are going to be possible to run any time soon. Thankfully online alternatives have become quite commonplace though and running workshops in a digital space removes a lot of the location-based limitations, opening this idea up to a much wider potential market. The short course that I recently participated in at the RSA for example was done entirely through zoom and it ran really smoothly. Had that event cost money I still would have been happy with what I got in return.

A lot of my initial research looked specifically at how Interdisciplinary problem-based learning (IPBL) & Interdisciplinary project-based learning (IPjBL) are key to developing IC. I read a paper in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning titled ‘How to Enhance Interdisciplinary Competence – Interdisciplinary Problem-Based learning versus interdisciplinary Project-Based Learning’ which has taught me a lot about how these two teaching frameworks differ and the benefits of each. Considering when it is appropriate to use each of them is going to be really important as I move forward and potentially develop my own teaching materials for online courses.

Another book that I read over the break – Psychology for the ClassroomConstructivism and Social Learning was a real revelation and introduced me to a bunch of new concepts that seem key to supporting interdisciplinary learning. The book had a deeply pedagogical focus which has been really interesting to engage with. It introduced me to concepts such as ‘scaffolding’ and the work of Lev Vygotsky including his theory of the ‘Zone of proximal development’ which ties back to what I was saying before about the need for a stratified range of learning materials for individuals at different levels of academic development. The authors of the book are lecturers in Southampton too which is a good link for me, I’m hopeful that my own connections with that institution might make getting in touch with one of them a bit easier.

I’ve essentially learned a lot about what makes for a successful interdisciplinary team, the teaching methods best employed to develop IC and how to utilise them. Social constructivism has become a key focus and I believe that it can be used as a pedagogical base from which I can develop a learning environment that uses social learning to embed IC. I was fortuitous to read a number of really great papers and books over the christmas period which have expanded my knowledge base in this field greatly and which have provided a really strong theoretical starting point for this project.

Another thing that I did over the break was to speak at length with my good friend Meg Watters. Meg has only recently become a qualified teacher and now tutors privately. She helped me to better understand the need for structured lesson plans including things like learning objectives. I hope to talk to her again soon and perhaps record a podcast with her in order to mine as much useful info out of her as I can!

When we both lived in Liverpool Meg used to also host an informal lecture series in her living room which in a way is also part of what has inspired me to take this direction with my final project. She would invite graduate friends to come and deliver informal lectures on ‘something that they really loved’ and were passionate about. They were a great outlet for recent graduates who knew so much and were passionate about their subjects but didn’t have any opportunity to move forward in their subject areas. Thinking about those events and the joy they sparked has inspired me to want to help those same kinds of switched on, engaged young people.

I think that ultimately what I want to create is an online space that is entirely dedicated to inter/trans/multidisciplinarity with paid online courses that can be sold to make some money. I want to create a space where switched on students and graduates can get in contact with each other to work on group projects or to seek others to tackle bigger briefs such as competitions or engage in research.

Ultimately the spirit of what Meg’s lectures and what Mindhive were trying to achieve is a space for academic and creative collaboration. I think that this idea could have legs to become something great and to grow into a much bigger business down the line with face to face events and competitions of our own. We have such a surplus of overqualified, highly educated people that don’t have much of an opportunity to get engaged and keep their brains active after university and I want to cater to them with this project.

An introspective note:

Another thing that I’ve started to realise is that in a lot of the projects I’ve constructed throughout the course thus far I’ve tended to position myself as a facilitator of innovation rather than as a direct innovator. It’s a trend that I’ve noticed in my work and I think that rather than trying to fight against it I should perhaps try and lean into this niche area of design practice.

Dismantling barriers and creating new pathways for others to succeed is what I’m passionate about and what I want to continue to focus on moving forward.

Research bibliography:

Pritchard, A, & Woollard, J 2010, Psychology for the Classroom: Constructivism and Social Learning, Taylor & Francis Group, Florence. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [23 December 2020].

Brassler, M. , & Dettmers, J. (2017). How to Enhance Interdisciplinary Competence—Interdisciplinary Problem-Based Learning versus Interdisciplinary Project-Based Learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 11(2).

van Rijnsoever, F. and Hessels, L., 2011. Factors associated with disciplinary and interdisciplinary research collaboration. Research Policy, 40(3), pp.463-472.

Mcnair, L., Newswander, C., Boden, D. and Borrego, M., 2011. Student and Faculty Interdisciplinary Identities in Self-Managed Teams. Journal of Engineering Education, 100(2), pp.374-396.

Strober, M., n.d. Interdisciplinary Conversations.

2005. Facilitating interdisciplinary research. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

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