At the Universities Australia conference earlier this year the learned audience paid rapt attention as former US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich painted a dystopian picture of new technologies and global trends driving “shock and uncertainty” in the wake of the unfolding digital revolution.

In the audience was Professor Shirley Alexander, DVC Education and Students at UTS, and afterwards she and others discussed Bleich’s scenario.

“A number of speakers were saying the future has to be transdisciplinary,” she tells me.

“And I couldn’t agree more. But at UTS we’re already working on that.”

UTS is making a significant investment in transdisciplinarity, and its recently-established Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation signals the way ahead.

“Whereas faculties have traditionally been silos or close to silos – although more recently with links to other areas such as science, engineering, law and so on – this is a new faculty that works at the intersection of all the disciplines,” she says.

Offered through the faculty is a world-first degree set up five years ago and which is proving remarkably popular.

The Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation, a combined degree that has to be completed alongside another undergraduate course, has become so in demand that this year, only one in every 18 students of the 3600 who applied were offered one its 200 places.

The degree integrates perspectives from across a range of disciplines with industry experiences, real-world tasks and student-initiated proposals helping to develop critical and creative thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Scanning the future

Similar to the BCII but operating as a stand-alone degree is the new Bachelor of Technology and Innovation, designed for students who haven’t yet found their passion but who know the future is digital and data. It will focus on coding, engineering, design and business with the opportunity for students to engage in real life work projects.

Part of Alexander’s brief is to “scan the future” as employers increasingly seek graduates with the capacity for innovation and creativity.

“The UTS Model of Learning acknowledges that we are producing graduates for the professions, for professional practice – that’s our stake in the ground, and that’s what we are doing,” she says.

“Many jobs, or at least part them, are being automated, so part of my role is to look at the kind of work human beings will be doing – what they will still be paid to do – to make sure we are equipping our students for that future.”

Alexander, who devotes one day a week to this “future scanning”, says much innovation and creativity occurs at the intersection of traditional disciplines, revealing the need to “overlay” those different disciplinary practices.

“We are putting a strong bet on that for the future,” she says.

As part of her research around the new degrees, she has consulted with executives of many major companies and enterprises.

“The issue they face is that the problems around technology are increasingly incredibly complex. Employers say there are not enough graduates equipped to unpack problems deeply enough,” she says.

Alexander describes the BCII students as “stunning – simply extraordinary, they are really future-focused”.

 Real-world problems

Part of their learning experience includes working with business and industry on real-world problems. One business enlisted a BCII group to analyse and report back on several issues it was facing.

Says Alexander: “This company told me they had just paid a consultancy a fortune to do the same thing – and what they got from our students was so much better.”

Student engagement with industry and other partners is critical to the learning experience, she says.

“With these transdisciplinary degrees you’re not learning what someone else has discovered – you are doing real live work on real live problems.

“Last year we had a waiting-list of industries that wanted our students to work on their problems and issues.”

 Campus Master Plan

Under the umbrella of its City Campus Master Plan, UTS is undergoing $1.3 billion redevelopment that tangibly reflects its collaborative and technology-based teaching model and its industry-focused research.

One significant change is that none of the new buildings contains a standard lecture theatre

“We’re taking a bet that the future of teaching and learning is not the old broadcast model of education where we drag students in to sit passively in lectures,” says Alexander.

“We think the future of education is where students only come onto campus for high-value learning opportunities that involve working with other people, so they build the soft skills that are in such great demand.

“And anything that can be replaced by a podcast or video should be.”

None of this is to say that the chosen path to the future has been obstacle free.

“I get emails from students saying ‘are you aware our lecturer is lazy. She doesn’t give us lectures, she expects us to do the work’ and I get academics who say they find my views on lectures offensive.”

Alexander understands where the anger is coming from.

“I too love giving lectures,” she says. “You’re there up front talking to hundreds of people, the centre of attention. I can show off what I know; you can’t really interrupt me.

“But we know[1] that students don’t learn enough from lectures to warrant that being the major learning strategy.

“What we are trying to do is to put students’ learning at the centre of consideration.”

 The future of learning

The university’s learning.futures strategy involves students interacting more with their peers, and where the “classroom dynamic” is centred on collaboration.

Teaching might involve giving an exposition on a particular subject, she says, “but it’s also how you design what students read, what they do, how they get feedback – it’s a much more complex business than giving a lecture”.

She says she is aware of the “monumental change” some academics face in moving away from the traditional lecture and understands their concerns.

“But we have to put the focus on the students, and put ourselves in their shoes. That is a much harder thing to do than writing lectures.

“It’s much more time-consuming and it’s a completely different way of looking at the relationship between academics and students.”

But it’s not all resistance and push-back.

She says she has never seen a more engaged group than that teaching in the BCII.

“A lot of it is team teaching. I think teaching has traditionally been the most private of public activities imaginable. So it is quite a significant shift, but there are many who are just so excited by it.

“I’ve heard academics say that having made that shift they could never go back to the old way.”




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