Supporting academics’ learning to design, teach and research transdisciplinary programs in higher education: What’s the state of play?

By Tanja Golja and Dena Fam

Tanja Golja’s biography
Dena Fam (biography)

In their 2013 report on the significance of transdisciplinary approaches to advance scientific discovery and address formidable societal challenges (PDF 700KB), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) put out a call to “expand education paradigms to model transdisciplinary approaches” (p. xiii). Ought we be considering whether transdisciplinary approaches might reconfigure education paradigms, and if so, why?

As a case in point, most Australian universities offer professional learning opportunities for academics involved in coursework teaching and research supervision (e.g. a Graduate Certificate in higher education learning and teaching). Typically, such formal scholarly programs introduce teaching academics to current educational principles, practices and research in higher education.

However, these and similar academic programs have been slow to respond to the increasing interest in transdisciplinary education and research. For example, there are few institutions internationally, (and nowhere nationally) that provide formal award courses for academics seeking to learn how to teach, design and research transdisciplinary programs at the undergraduate, postgraduate or PhD level.

Where transdisciplinary forums are available to academics, they seem to be limited to short ‘train the trainer’ workshops on particular aspects of transdisciplinary team science rather than professional learning initiatives that take a scholarly approach to developing transdisciplinary practices in education and/or research. The AAAS challenges us to consider whether we need to rethink such professional learning programs in light of transdisciplinary practices, research and initiatives in operation.

At our institution (University of Technology Sydney), we are tackling that challenge squarely as we implement our Innovation and Creative Intelligence (ICI) strategy (PDF 4MB) to transform our approach to teaching and learning, research and industry engagement. Whilst designing new degree courses and subjects that take a transdisciplinary approach (e.g. Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation, Master of Data Science and Innovation, open electives, a new suite of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees being offered in 2017), we recognise the need to build and grow teaching capacity and capability in this field, and prepare our faculty members with the relevant knowledge, skills, connections and resources (p. 4).

Here, strategic goals and key activities are tuned to considering how academics learn transdisciplinary practices – ways of thinking, acting and being in the world – to support their students’ learning. Furthermore, to that purpose we are developing a Graduate Certificate in Transdisciplinary Learning in Higher Education that explores the education paradigm needed and how we design a developmental program which models transdisciplinary approaches.

We are particularly interested in starting a global conversation and identifying opportunities for potential collaboration. What education programs, pedagogical techniques and methods already exist for transdisciplinary academics? Can we learn from high profile research institutes such as TD-net (Switzerland), Leuphana University (Germany) and Arizona State University (US), and are there transdisciplinary practices we could adapt to support education initiatives?

Biography: Tanja Golja, PhD., is a researcher in design education and educational design at the University of Technology Sydney. She has a special interest in understanding the design of theoretically sound transdisciplinary environments in a range of contexts. She is currently leading and developing the transdisciplinary educational design of a suite of cutting-edge programs (including the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation, and the Master of Data Science and Innovation), in collaboration with industry and multi-disciplinary academic teams.

Biography: Dena Fam, PhD., is a Research Principal and Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. Her consulting and research experience has spanned socio-cultural (learning for sustainability), institutional (policy analysis) and technological aspects of water and sewage management with a particular interest in the process of fostering sustainable futures through cross disciplinary and cross sectoral collaboration and inquiry.

4 thoughts on “Supporting academics’ learning to design, teach and research transdisciplinary programs in higher education: What’s the state of play?”

  1. Hi Tanja and Dena,
    We are developing a number of initiatives at the University of Edinburgh around trans-disciplinary learning, and doing some of this scanning of existing experiences. We are developing trans-disciplinary courses based on the Learning by developing approach coming from Laurea in Finland [Moderator note, in October 2021, the following link was found to be unresponsive and was deleted: (www[dot]futurelearningfinland[dot]fi… what-is-future-learning-finland… all-members… solution… laurea)], focusing on bring together students from different disciplinary background to work using data and design techniques to address external challenges – not to create ‘solutions’ but to learn how to engage with real world problems in groups with people with different specialisms – i.e. like the real world.
    I would be very keen to hear from you about other experiences, and will read your reports with interest,

    James Stewart
    University of Edinburgh

  2. Many thanks Tanja and Dena for your encouraging post with timely links to useful documents as we are rethinking the next stage of developement of interdisciplinary engagement between our master programs at Kyamk in Finland. It would be nice to hear how students have received your new transdisciplinary programs, and how you think they stand out in the disciplinary crowd. Regarding new forms of faculty development for Transdisciplinary thinking and action, I think, wide international partnerships as this site demonstrates will indeed be the way forward.

    • Hi Ari, thanks for you post, …Tanja will be better placed to comment on the new and upcoming TD programs at our university and student responses to those… The Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF), I’m from has run a transdisciplinary PhD/Masters program for about 15 years. From my perspective there is an increasing appetite by students for the opportunity to contribute positively to the world around them and increasing recognition (and expectation) that the most impact will not necessarily be gained from a purely disciplinary approach. With the goal of contributing to sustainable futures, ISF has been particularly popular with both local and international students, the perceived value being research students have the chance to work side-by-side with leading sustainability thinkers, engaging with industry partners, and in the process tangibly contribute to improving an identified problem situation through collaboratively facilitating and developing a response to these problems. The are challenges to working in this way, particularly managing the breadth of disciplinary perspectives/engagement with the depth of research perceived to be necessary for a ‘successful’ thesis contributing new knowledge. From your experience how is this negotiated in your Interdisciplinary Masters program in Finland or are you proposing a Master by course work? Yes sharing experiences of developing such programs is very valuable!

      • Thank you Dena for your response. It is promising to hear your students find engagement with real world problems paying off. One of our challenges is that our disciplines and departments and programs are professionally motivated and thus tend to be even more guarded institutionally. There is a fairly weak tradition of looking at real world problems holistically. Another challenge is that the vision for transdisciplinary education and research and development is still embryonic and is affected by continuous structural changes in the organisation. So, your running of transdisciplinary programs for 15 years gives a different perspective.

        We are starting to investigate the perceptions of our students and staff on their needs and expectations regarding transdisciplinary knowhow. As our students are part-time it will be interesting to see if the need is indeed identified by these professionals, and also what is the readiness of the faculty.

        Another thing is that we would also need to strenghen the vision by experimenting with a new type of transdisciplinary-based master program conducted as a research and development process, perhaps sustainable wellbeing which is our new research and development focus area, that would attract, let’s say, 5-10% of our 300 or so new master students annually. The challenge will be to prepare enough faculty for this initiative with enough transdisciplinary understanding.

        I may be wrong but I have thought this kind of initiative needs faculty with understanding of transdisciplinarity in all participating disciplines or departments. That is, I doubt if this could succeed with just one or two transdisciplinary or integration and implementation sciences (i2s) experts. I have experience of a similar challenge with entrepreneurship education, and noticed that without entrepreneurship enthusiasts inside each department the entrepreneurial movement is quite superficial. International cooperation will in part help us reach multiple disciplines in a way that speaks to them from the inside, as it were.


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