Friday, 9 November 2012

Research Universities and Online Learning: Role of Transdisciplinary Education

The last three postings on the Research University have been somewhat kidnapped by the MOOC thing. I was brought back to purpose though after reading an article titled Citizen Science U. by Michael Crow in the October 2012 Scientific American. Unfortunately the article is not publicly available, so I have provided a bullet point abstract below. If anybody has an electronic subscription to Scientific American, the retitled article can be found at A.S.U. President: To Encourage Science Literacy, Fix the Universities [Preview]. Once again, it unfortunately is under lock and key, so you are left with my abstract, which obviously leaves out some of the colour and may even include some of my own biases.

Overview: Crow, M. (2012). Citizen science U. Scientific American, 307(4), 48-49.

  • It is universities that are responsible for having not produced graduates that support US science and technology leadership, and for not having prepared teachers who inspire enthusiasm among potential science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students in high school.
  • The approaches currently used to teach STEM only serve the most gifted students who are already predisposed to success in these topics leaving the rest out in the cold.  Our failure also deprives liberal arts students from the joys of science and math, and reduces the nation’s economic competitiveness.
  • Few university students opt into STEM courses unless they are required, which ultimately reduces the capacity for our graduates, and later our professionals, to think critically.
  • Young people entering universities during the past decade have grown-up with technologies that have provided ubiquitous access to information, while participating in and creating an information culture. It is the same technology that has rendered traditional educational approaches inadequate that can help create new approaches that will allow students to re-engage in STEM studies, feeding their more integrated perspectives on the scientific disciplines.
  • Although decreases numbers of students studying STEM fields is tied to macroeconomic shifts in our economy, the more enduring problem is that most university professors have not acknowledged the difference in students of this decade from those in previous decades, while continuing to structure knowledge in rigid disciplines that has failed to inspire more than 2 decades of students.
  • The New American Research University (Arizona State University) has re-conceptualized the entire research university to better meet the needs of our evolving society. A major part of the ASU effort is to adopt transdisciplinary approaches to teaching and discovery.
  • ASU started by setting the goal of doubling STEM majors and providing an intellectual greenfield for their faculty to experiment with philosophical and pedagogical boundaries. Liberating faculty was complemented by liberating the University of insular departments by eliminating a number of departments and establishing relevant multi-disciplinary schools of study.
  • The transdisciplinary units are designed to complement ASU large-scale research initiatives (centers and institutes) that roll-up into schools that in turn create transdisciplinary connections across schools tying together practical and theoretical study. The schools, whose names alone inspire some curiosity, include:
    • The School of Earth and Space Exploration
    • The School of Human Evolution and Social Change
  • The schools are thought of as “differentiated learning platforms” for engaged discovery and learning that inspires enthusiasm from broad populations of potential STEM students. The results have been impressive and should serve as a reminder to the academic community that transdisciplinary teaching connects the University to the challenges we experience outside of the University.

Now given the title of the article, I was hoping to read something about Citizen Science - at first I was a bit disappointed. Although the topic did not even appear in the article, I found the subject fascinating in any event as it struck at the fundamental nature of the research university and what they can uniquely bring to learners, while also poking at the potential of what value online learning could bring to the research university. Together this brings me back to the question posed in the posting titled Research Universities and Online Learning - Is the MOOC the best we can do?

"Just what is it that a research extensive university brings to online learning that is unique, valuable to students, and that other types of institutions are not well equipped to provide?"

So I am starting to refine a response. The research university brings the frequently unrealized promise of truly transdisciplinary educational experiences. This extends beyond disciplinary, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary study to a unique place that requires “universal” education. The Research University, as a place meant to reach toward and welcome the development of universal knowledge, is also uniquely enabled by the connections among the discovery (research), service (practice), and preparation (teaching) missions at research universities as applied across the constellation of disciplines that represent the broad taxonomy of formally defined human knowledge. Note the universality principle, which extends beyond selecting only the disciplines that will provide enough financial margin in their offering to be supported by a market rationale. Ok, that was a little snarky, but I think a fair poke at the career colleges posing as universities. There are many institutions that are excellent at meeting their own missions, which may be different than those of universities.

The other part of the equation is what online learning provides of special value to the Research University. In response, online learning provides the opportunity for research universities to leverage technologies that support the rethinking of pedagogy necessary to engage learners. This provides a neat little set of connections, each of which requires some discussion. I need to end this post as it is getting too long, but first I want to point out that the principle of “universality” taken as a core defining feature of universities, perhaps a first principle of the university, will eliminate consideration of many institutions that call themselves universities. In effect, this distinction recognizes the futility in comparing Universities with institutions that simply include “university” in their name. More importantly, the distinction points to the futility in creating the same expectations, setting the same standards, and overlaying the same financial models on universities and other types of educational organizations. It is just plain counter productive, and perhaps it would make sense to demand more “truth in labeling.”

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