Future University: Communities and Cross-Disiplinary Learning

Thinking about where universities are heading in relation to the reading ‘Online learning communities: Common ground and critical differences in designing technical environments.’ by Riel and Polin (2004), it seems that there may be a need to support wider communities than just the internal ones of staff and students. The focus on graduate attributes, student outcomes, and lifelong learning fits a need to involve the wider community in the learning. Indeed, the recent move in at my workplace to support cross-disciplinary task-based communities is evidence of that. Through internal and external mentoring, students are being supported in developing solutions to issues or problems to which they have some passion. The learning communities form in a number of ways through this program:

  1. A set task – one or more students (or an external body) have an idea to solve an issue. Other students will join to add their expertise towards that common goal
  2. A passion – students come together first to advance their understanding of a particular issue or passion.
  3. An enthusiasm – students may have no particular goal or passion in mind but are enthusiastic about being involved in a collaborative effort. Often they will join one of the above communities OR will seek out an issue that other enthusiastic students have an interest in.

While the majority of these communities do end up being task-based and resulting in a tangible outcome, some may remain knowledge communities only, with the purpose of furthering the knowledge about an issue. With the involvement of external professionals and industry, the students are also able to connect with existing communities of practice. As Riel and Polin mention, it’s not easy to form these within an educational institution because it is temporary and has few experts available.  However, by providing an avenue to external communities of practice, an institution can support the students in becoming involved as apprentices in those communities.

I think cross-disciplinary collaboration is still relatively unsupported in universities but is direly needed to achieve an authentic learning experience. In my studies of multimedia and computer games, it was difficult to find that authenticity. One of the final subjects I completed, required a prototype of a game to be created. One of the difficulties lays in the amount of information we had to learn outside our discipline in order to complete the task. And having completed it, there were parts that could not be true to what the output would be in a real situation (such as the marketing plan, the advertising, the legal issues, business case, distribution plan, etc). This could have involved students from marketing, law, accounting, business, and more. Involving these students in the development of such a product would have provided a much more ‘real-life’ experience. Not only this, but it could have provided the opportunity for students just starting out in their first year of the discipline to get involved in smaller aspects of the project as well.

Of course, in order to support this kind of learning, there needs to be a redesign of the infrastructure within the university AND the culture. Many institutions live in silos of faculties and departments, rarely working together. While that is changing, there is still a long way to go. In designing a project that spans across subjects, for instance, staff from two or more different faculties would need to work together to form or alter the curriculum and assessment of their subjects. Existing processes, policies and technologies may be a significant barrier to this exercise. However, I think in the long run it would be worthwhile to do some further investigation into this area. In fact… add it to my list! 🙂

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