Universities often get criticized for being slow to adapt to societal changes. Indeed, while academia teems with progressive people, the long process of any institutional change can give many organized religions a run for their money.. No wonder companies often complain about academia’s detachment from the world of work, with graduates needing more critical skills to succeed at an entry-level job.
Employers complain, for example, that many postsecondary graduates lack the necessary soft skills to be effective in the workplace, such as leadership, collaboration, active listening, and communication skills. They also point out that students specialize via a chosen major with little exposure to working with people from various disciplines and backgrounds.
What does an educational leader do to achieve alignment between what higher education produces and what the job market wants? The answer lies in creating an educational environment that is a microcosm of the real world. New programs must be interdisciplinary and respond to social challenges and opportunities, fostering innovative thinking and creative problem-solving.
Studies have shown that collaborative interdisciplinary education produces the kind of graduates employers want, because they tend to have strong communication, collaboration, and leadership skills.
There are examples of universities pursuing the interdisciplinary pathway instead of traditional majors. For example, Arizona State University has implemented new interdisciplinary degrees or “pathways of learning” in addition to traditional majors. Some of the pathways include the science of healthcare delivery, innovation in society, and sustainable and environmental studies, to name a few.
Meanwhile, there is an education startup in Africa that’s generating buzz and support from venture capitalists. The African Leadership University (ALU), with campuses in Rwanda and Mauritius, offers residential on-campus education to the continent’s best and brightest. Aside from embracing blended and peer-to-peer learning, ALU has moved away from the idea of majors. Instead, incoming students pick a program of study based on a list of challenges and opportunities in their home country. Students collaborate and work with teams to understand the specific societal challenge and explore potential solution(s).
Many undergraduate programs already have some form of interdisciplinary initiatives, whether as a capstone or independent study, work-integrated learning, partnership with industry, and other similar programs. The way to elevate them to the next level is by implementing a formal interdisciplinary curricular structure, funding, and support. Higher ed institutions could make the last two years or the last year of college a purely interdisciplinary experience.
The one potential criticism of this new model revolves around depth vs. breadth. Students need some depth of study to master a specific area of knowledge. It is akin to a T-shape model of a curricular structure. The interdisciplinary part represents breadth, and the discipline specialty or “major” represents depth. Students may need to master content related to a field of study (e.g., business or education) before exploring and engaging in other areas.
Perhaps a way to address the criticism related to depth is to admit students into a disciplinary “home” when they enter the university. Their home base can be an existing department. They can use the time spent there to master content specific to the discipline before they head into an interdisciplinary experience. The home base approach also allows the student to have initial guidance from expert faculty who can help them navigate the complexities of the postsecondary experience. The initial “home” experience could further spur the discovery of interests and passions.
Undergraduate programs must keep up with the job market’s demands for their graduates to be competitive. Introducing structured interdisciplinary programs or experiences during the third and fourth years could be the answer. These experiences, whether organized by themes, challenges, or opportunities, should prepare students to succeed in the workplace. The move towards interdisciplinary programming could also boost the recruitment of students in the arts and humanities, where enrollment has declined for the past few decades.
Rey Rosales is chair of the communications department at MacEwan University. He is currently completing his master’s in education leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
I could not agree more with the thrust of this article. I used very similar arguments to try to introduce a “Communication in Science” course in my university 25 years ago. This was a cross-disciplinary course which emphasized the need to work in a broader context and so it taught skills like writing and speaking. We emphasized the societal implications of science and the dubious history of some ideas to develop critical thinking skills. Unlike the suggestions of the author, it was a first year course.
It was met with bitter opposition by established faculty who feared that it would cut into the well-established pattern of core courses. Universities do an outstanding job of teaching facts and specialized techniques, whatever the discipline, but we are so convinced by our success that we think it makes our personal body of knowledge uniquely important. It is not, and in fact it is relatively easy for a competent student to acquire any specialized knowledge.
The course was finally approved and still runs. A sure sign that it is a success is that it gets very high student evaluations.