Fostering interdisciplinarity




I am part of the Personal Inquiry project, which is one of eight projects funded under the ESRC/EPSRC Technology-enhanced learning programme. This is an ambitious (ca. $22 M over five years), funded by the EPSRC/ESRC, which at its core is about tackling these challenges of educational significance from an interdisciplinary perspective: 

Technology enhanced learning (TEL) requires interdisciplinary collaboration across the disciplines of learning, cognition, information and communication technologies (ICT) and education, and broader social sciences… To achieve the highest ambitions for education and lifelong learning we need to exploit fully what new technology offers – for personalising learning and improving outcomes… for creating more flexible learning opportunities and for improving the productivity of learning and knowledge building processes. But to do this, we need a more explicit understanding of the nature of learning itself, both formal and informal, and the way it is responding to changes in society and the opportunities created by new technologies… This… will support innovation from both research areas, each challenging the other, to rethink ways of making learning more effective and to develop the new technology solutions to make that possible. Such interdisciplinary research is intended to help build new understandings of how technology can enhance learning.

Three of the projects have been going now for just over a year, including ours. Five new projects have just started. Eileen Scanlon and I presented at the first in what is planned to be a series of workshops associated with the programme. The theme was ‘The challenges of interdisciplinary research’. The tagclowd of my notes was courtesy of Shaaron Ainsworth who was also at the event – here’s a slightly more readable version.

Alan Blackwell  of Cambridge University kicked off the day with a really interesting talk on tacking interdisciplinarity and some of the approaches he has adopted and the projects he has been involved with.  He is co-director of Crucible – a centre for research in interdisciplinary research. Here’s a summary of some of the points of advice he made on ingredients for successfully fostering interdisciplinarity:

  • Leaders and founders of interdisciplines should resist convention and maintain vision, while being mentors and coaches
  • Freedom requires resource
  • Collaborations grow in years not months
  • Goals must offer serendipity not constraint
  • Maintain and reward curiosity
  • Understand work with and subvert structures – organisational, disciple, career

And here are his suggestions for making it happen:

  • Start small and move fast
  • Bring creative and design practices to technology
  • Facilitate encounters between communities
  • Cheerfully transgress academic borders
  • Engage with reflective social science
  • Directly address public policy

I really liked his approach and style – working across boundaries, questioning the established and being a bit of a maverick basically! It’s just what’s needed. He also gave a plug for HCI2009 conference  1-5th Sept, not a conference I have been to be before but it looks interesting.

Eileen and I kicked off a debate session. Eileen gave an overview of some work in the literature on interdisciplinarity and then we gave a case study of how we have approached it in the PI project and what has worked and what hasn’t. The slides are available on slideshare.  In particular we talked about how we used various ‘mediating artefacts’ in the project as trigger points to discus ideas around and also our variant of adopting a participatory design approach and involving different stakeholders in the design process. Interestingly design was a key concept that was also central to Alan’s approach and was returned to again and again during the day’s discussion. We also drew on Roy Pea’s diagram about the co-evolving relationship between technologies and practice and discussed how this might impact on fostering interdisciplinary dialogue. We then got delegates to add to flip charts around the following five themes:

  1. What were their ‘birth’ disciplines?
  2. How methodologies do they use?
  3. What theoretical frameworks did they use?
  4. What research questions are they interested?
  5. What approaches did they suggest to foster interdisciplinarity?

Of course it’s not a large sample and people were doing this around lunch when their mind was more on food than intellectual debate, but nonetheless the results are interesting. The National Central for Research Methods did a much more extensive study when it was established. One of the outputs was a Typology of Research Methods.  The report is well worth a read.  Below are some of the notes from our exercise:

Birth disciplines: Computer science, Plant science, Botany, Veterinary science, Ethnology cultural studies, Psychology, HCI, Philosophy, Fine art, Moral philosophy, Electronic engineering, Chemistry, History of art, AI, Geology, HPS, International development education, Linguistics and AI, Philosophy, Sociology, Maths and Physics. Is it my imagination or are there a lot of people from a predominantly Scientific background. One person wrote why worry about disciplines - aren’t many of these just fields?

There wasn’t much written on methodologies – just a few notes. One person argued for the need to have robust methods and suggested looking for evidence from methodologies which work for other disciplines. Persistent collaboration methodology and normal scientific method were also mentioned. 

Theoretical perspectives: Social constructivism, Actor Network Theory, Constructivism, Critical theory, Action research, Communities of practice – researchers and practitioners, STS, Scientific enquiry, Conversational framework, Philosophy of technology, Anthropological views on tools artefacts and technology, Activity theory.

One person also suggested that we need to both build on relevant theories in education science, but also consider that new interdisciplinary theories might emerge from TEL work.

Research focus/interest: Cognitive education, Creating research communities, Epistemology, Case-based learning, Human computer interaction, Fieldwork across disciplines, Artificial intelligence, People/communities, Educational research, Fluid learning objects, Personal development, Fostering self-sustaining communities, Human learning and judgment, Creative development, Field work across disciplines, Making a sustainable permanent difference change. 

Approaches to fostering interdisciplinarity. Some questioned whether most Interdisciplinary teams were really multi-disciplinary. Another person suggested it was important to break down the space barrier – to create time and space for sharing and imaging. Another argued for the need to create theoretical space. Other quotes: Grounding relationships and developing shared language, Triangle of elation – frustration and desperation, inter-actional vs. contributory expertise, ensure good publications within disciplines only, worry less – explore what ID does rather than worry about meaning – bring back Derrida!, Project members going together to the pub or cultural equivalents, exposure to, appreciation of and respect for the paradigms methods of others disciplines having them influence ones own practice, Rich intermediating representations eg design patterns, A team member who bridges the disciplines and makes the connections that hold people together, Be concrete work on specific examples – I get lost in the general interdisciplinary which disciplines etc? Its good to talk…, Shared tasks. So in essence time and space to foster debate and develop ideas seems to be the overarching message from this list.

In the afternoon we split into groups and asked them to foster around three key themes that we had posed as part of a seminar we will be presenting at AERA 2009. The symposium is structured around five of the projects in the TEL programme and will consist of thematically linked presentations. It will explore how the projects are tackling the challenges set by the programme and more generally on how to instantiate the rhetoric of radical transformation of educational practice through the use of technologies. In particular the objectives of the session will be to consider the following questions:

·      Issues of design: How can we design for innovation and adopt a more participatory, inclusive approach to design? What is the relationship between design and instantiation of practice?

·      Transformation of practice: How might innovative technologies lead to real transformation of practice? What are the barriers and enablers? What new forms of pedagogy are possible?

·      Methodological development and interdisciplinary inquiry: What are the methodological challenges and what are methodological innovations? What are the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinary research? 

Here’s a summary of the feedback from the groups.

Group 1

  • Communication Use of a Virtual Research Environment (VRE). VRE’s can be really useful for Geographical distributed projects but also bring out a lot of the interdisciplinary issues - the way in which you use wikis, email lists, announcement tools is something else you still need to get shared consensus with. The extent to which the debate around ID is very productive, are we actually as bounded as we think we are, can we reframe the debates about how knowledge generation takes place?
  • Engagement The fact that there are different levels of engagement of those involved in the project and different technological expertise.
  • Methods To what extent do the methods reflect the learning impact that technologies might bring?? How do things change when you move from a paper measure to one that’s based on the screen?

Group 2

  • Design – What is the nature of participatory design.  How do you begin, how do you take account of user views? The tension between this and the need for a starting point around theoretical perspectives and goals. Also when do you know when to end/stop? Design is always a compromise – we should all make our design decisions more explicit and write these up in our design history. Shells for design and creativity. ‘User’ design – who is the user? Do you use them same ones over the life span or do they become experts in the system, introduce new novices? Tangible and attractive, simple about reaching out to a set of complex designs that might represent behind the metaphor – mobile phone as a metaphor has a lot of hidden meaning.
  • Research vs. development Tension between research and development – research aims, but also a design element but that is not what we are funded to do, but these are intimately linked. Are there important lessons for the funders here? Process and product – a research process we reflect on but also a product. Tension between creativity vs. productivity - how much can/do you deviate from the original project aims?
  • Transformation of practice – what and whose??  Researchers, users, changing design as practice – new metaphors and new ideas. New forms of pedagogy. Establishment and sustainability of learning communities – mobile and at a distance

Group 3

  • Methodological challenges and working together.  Building on known success stories, which have involved a large interdisciplinary team and also learn from those that didn’t work. 
  • Issue of project management – these projects involve large and disparate groups, do we new approaches needed to managing such projects? How much arising from ID as opposed to the size of the project team? The impact of the birth discipline of the Principal Invest Igor on managing the project.  The need to manage different expectations – understanding from each other’s disciplines what might be achievable. Danger of splitting off into parallel tracks of research with some cross talking but no real coming together. To overcome challenges need to allocate enough time for the team as a whole to come together to develop a commonality of purpose.
  • What is emerging – transformation of knowledge as well as transformation of practice. The presence of technologies may be changing the nature of what we are tackling

Group 4

  • Users Working with users and PD and what it means. Working with users who are experts but they might not be the best people to work with if you want to design for novices.
  • Communication. Importance of communication – getting the terminology right as soon as you can. 
  • Nature of innovation – technology, practice, activities,
  • Success criteria and evaluation How much should we be driven by the original proposal?
  • Shared understanding – what do we understand by a shared understanding?

On reflection it was a really interesting day. It was great to meet up with the other projects. I look forward to future events in this series.

3 Responses to “Fostering interdisciplinarity”

  1. » Blog Archive » So who are we?? Says:

    […] and I ran a similar kind of event at the OU to the TEL interdisciplinary research workshop I blogged about earlier, but this time the focus was more on what was the nature of our field and which […]

  2. sydoney Says:

    Hi I please can I have permission to use research design poster above for my research paper? thanks

  3. Gráinne Says:

    Yes of course - feel free to use !

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