Interdisciplinary Courseware to the Rescue?

In the midst of all the bling of media-rich, adaptive, personalized, [insert-buzzword-here] digital products, there is a lurking underlying problem:

The general education curriculum in higher education has barely changed. Today’s world is cross-disciplinary, culturally diverse, and team-oriented. There is almost no problem that can be solved in a silo content area with a team of one.

Map showing the interconnected nodes between a variety of subject areas in research.

Interdisciplinary Thinking, from New Scientist’s article “Open your Mind to Interdisciplinary Research”

We need new cross-disciplinary curriculum. We need courses that are more engaging and reflective of today’s real issues. We need courses like these (referenced from my 2009 post on Hacking Higher Education):

  • Trend Analysis (Math + History)
  • Biology and Human Enhancement (Biology + Philosophy)
  • Science of Exercise (Science + Health & PE)
  • Exploring Water Issues (Science + Politics)
  • Design and Digital Presentations (Graphic Design + Communication)
  • Data Analysis and Information Presentation (Statistics, Graphic Design, and Communication)
  • Exploring Recycling and Refuse (Science, Government, and Humanities)
  • Chemistry of Nutrition (Chemistry + Health & PE)
  • Poverty and World Culture (Humanities, Government, and Sociology)
  • Sociology and Psychology of the Web (Sociology + Psychology)
  • How Computers Think (CIS + Philosophy)
  • Art, Media, and Copyright (Fine Arts + Law)
  • Writing for the Digital Age (CIS + Communication + English)
  • Energy (Physics, Chemistry, and Government)
  • Information, Query, and Synthesis (Literacy, Logic, English)

The problem is that very few faculty can teach courses like this without extensive learning or teamwork, and very few authors that could write such a curriculum from scratch.

This is exactly the moment when “digital courseware” should rise to the occasion. Digital courseware could be built to support these kinds of inter-disciplinary courses with a well-designed learning experience (not just text, but formative assessment and designed interactions with students and faculty). It could be multimedia rich, adaptive, personalized, and all that good buzzword stuff.

With a solid digital courseware backbone to support the learning, faculty could be tapped from different disciplines to evaluate work, answer questions, and coach students in their learning. No one faculty member would have to learn all the nuances of the course immediately.

So why aren’t we getting that? Why are we just getting more Algebra, English Comp, and Freshman Biology courses? Because that’s what we keep asking for. We keep saying, “give us better pass rates for these courses we currently teach.” We keep funding the rebuild (and rebuild) of those courses that create retention and graduation pressure in higher education. What if the problem is not the delivery of the course, but in the course itself? What if students are never going to do better in these courses because deep at the heart of the issue, the student knows the course isn’t applicable to the world they live in?

The Big History course (funded by Bill Gates) is an admirable step towards creating a more modern and more interdisciplinary curriculum. MOOCs do not have to pay attention to credit counts, what “department” the course lives in, or how it will or will not count as an elective towards multiple degrees. Consequently, MOOC providers have the freedom to build interesting, modern, and cross-disciplinary courses like The Science of Everyday Thinking (from EdX) or Politics and Economics of International Energy (from Coursera).

But why is it outsiders to education that have to lead these efforts? Educators should begin asking for the “right” curriculum from courseware providers (looking at traditional publishers, digital platforms, and MOOCs). We need to ask for the curriculum we want to teach instead of that which we have always taught.

Of course, courseware providers aren’t going to build something they don’t think has a market yet – and so we have a classic “chicken and egg” problem. This seems like exactly the kind of problem that needs a funding push. If a beautiful digital course on “How Computers Think” or “Poverty and World Culture” became available nationally at a low cost, I’d like to think that institutions and faculty would be able to step up to the challenge of figuring out the rest of the logistics to offer these courses.

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Adding Future Proof Skills to Course Syllabii

There are many college-level courses that are required but not beloved by students. Math requirements, in particular, are particularly disliked by most students. I believe that we teach mathematics to help students develop logical thinking, attention to detail, and a method for attacking problems of all types. The subject of mathematics provides a common language and structure to allow the development of these skills. Unfortunately, in our zeal to explain “when we are going to use this” we wander into the dark land of contrived application problems and ridiculous problem constraints. But what if there were another way to frame the value of the skills developed in learning mathematics?

During my last year of teaching, I began to reframe the syllabus in a way that focused on the general skills that would serve students well in the future, rather than the standard answers to “when am I going to use the specific learning objectives of this course?” The six skill categories are: Focus, Explain, Flex, Interact, Analyze, and Learn. They are explained in more detail in the original post: What skills should we be teaching to future-proof an education?

Beginning with an empty template with the skills and more detailed descriptions, I walked through all the activities in each course I taught, and outlined how the course would help my students develop the skills they need to be prepared for future jobs.

You can find the empty template as a Word Doc here: Future-Proof Template for Course Syllabus. It looks something like this for each skill:


Some skills were not covered in the course. If that was the case, I just removed that line of the table.  However, a surprising number of the subskills were covered in every course I did this exercise with.

The syllabus section about the “future-proof” skills begins with a general description of what the students are about to see:

This is a list of the skills we believe will make you a valuable worker even as careers and technology shifts. These skills are not particular to any discipline – they are skills that overlay the content that you learn. To prepare for an uncertain economy, you should strive to practice and improve on the skills listed below. In this class, you will practice and improve on many of these valuable skills. These are outlined below.

Here is an example of the future proof skills applied to a Calculus II course:

Note: You can see the entire Calc II Future Proof Skill list here.

When framing topics like Techniques of Integration as a skill like “learning to change your bearings” it is much easier to justify the learning objective to Pharmacy students (let’s face it, they won’t ever use a technique of integration on the job, but most do have to take Calc II).  Pharmacy students will have to be able to determine when a chosen treatment plan is failing, and adjust course to suggest an alternative approach.

So now a little thought experiment. Let’s pretend we reframed the college experience as a way to gain and improve on these types of skills while also gaining subject-matter expertise. Suppose freshmen came into the system with a way to measure their current skill levels in these areas. Students could make goals to improve on specific areas in specific courses (I asked my students to commit to specific improvement goals in each course).  At the end of the semester, students could write a self-evaluation for areas they think they have improved on and ask instructors to “endorse” (or disagree) with the written evaluations. During their college experience, these students could graduate their real, measured, and endorsed abilities into a system like LinkedIn or Degreed.

It’s important for students to gain subject matter expertise in college, but equally important to gain skills that will make them valuable employees and colleagues, and surface those skills to potential employers.  As a fresh graduate entering the workforce, it would be incredibly valuable to be able to provide proof that you can “write so others understand” or examples that show you can “adapt to new situations”  even when they made you uncomfortable. It is my belief that these are the skills that are not being measured and surfaced in higher education.

There are rare examples of schools that provide this type of unique focus at the core of their educational structure (e.g. Alverno College), but a college doesn’t have to be restructured in order to provide this focus. The educational technologies we have today could be adopted to track a students’ successes and failures at improvement on the future proof skills. Each instructor could evaluate their own unique approach to courses to assess which skills might be focused on as the subject-matter is delivered.

An initiative like this would have to be championed at the leadership level by a President, a board, or a Dean of Academics and jointly supported by the faculty. But can you imagine? An entire institution devoted to helping students not only become subject-matter experts, but also to prepare for the employment world of the future? Well, I can dream. It is, after all, a thought experiment.

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What skills should we be teaching to future-proof an education?

Some time last year I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on what skills we could be focusing on in higher education to “future-proof” a degree.  What skills will stay relevant no matter what future careers look like?  There are two frameworks used and endorsed in K-12 education: Partnership for 21st Century Skills and Equipped for the Future.

I felt that the lists not quite right for adults that are returning or seeking an education.  Here is the list that I developed, and a link to the Prezi that includes many video resources that correspond with the skills.


  • Manage your information stream
  • Pay attention to details
  • Remember (when you need to)
  • Observe critically
  • Read with understanding
  • Set and meet goals


  • Media literacy (determine and create the right media for the job)
  • Present ideas digitally
  • Design for the audience
  • Depict data visually
  • Convey ideas in text
  • Speak so that others understand


  • Advocate and influence
  • Resolve conflict and negotiate
  • Collaborate (F2F or virtually)
  • Guide others
  • Lead


  • Interpret data
  • Make decisions
  • Think critically
  • Solve problems
  • Forecast
  • Filter information


  • Think across disciplines
  • Think across cultures
  • Innovate
  • Adapt to new situations
  • See others’ perspectives
  • Be creative


  • Formulate a learning plan
  • Synthesize the Details
  • Information Literacy
  • Formulate good questions
  • Reflect and evaluate
  • Know what you know


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Future of Education Interview in Unlimited Magazine

About a month ago I had an interview with Lewis Kelley at Unlimited Magazine.  A portion of the interview, called The Future of Education, was published yesterday, along with interviews with two other “leading education thinkers.”

Here’s a short excerpt from the interview …

“I’m not optimistic that real change is going to happen from within education. I think education is kind of a behemoth. It’s an interconnected system, and any kind of interconnected system is really hard to shift. You can push on parts of the system, but they still have to align with the rest of the system. You can’t push too far.

We can’t radically change our curriculum because that would affect the students coming in and the students going out. K-12 can’t radically change their curriculum without affecting their students’ ability to do well in college, and college can’t radically change its curriculum because students would be coming in out of K-12 and not prepared.

We can’t move unless everybody moves together, and that’s the thing that I think is particularly rough. But …”


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Ignite on the Learn This Button

After this presentation, my husband told me it was the best one he has ever seen me do.  The Ignite format is 5 minutes, 20 slides, 15 seconds each.  Please watch, and if you want to see Socrait get built, please forward it to everyone you know, post it on Facebook, share it on Twitter and GooglePlus.  Thanks :)

Ignite Great Lakes: Where’s the Learn This Button?

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