Transdisciplinarity: A New Learning Paradigm for the Digital Age?

I have been an educator, administrator, writer and creative artist for over fourty years. During that time, most of the disciplines with which I have been involved have changed. For better or for worse, the very nature of disciplines (of both an artistic and analytic nature), their function and their role within and outside of institutions has shifted. The context for this change is not just the individual nature or history of one or other disciplines or research practices. Rather, the social and cultural conditions for the creation and communication of ideas, artifacts, knowledge and information have been transformed. From my point of view, this transformation has been extremely positive. It has resulted in the formation of new disciplines and new approaches to comprehending the very complex nature of western societies. However, we are still a long way from developing a holistic understanding of the implications of these social and cultural shifts and this brief essay can only offer a hint as to why so many distinct changes have happened in such a short time. 

From a cultural point of view, the impact of this process of transformation first appeared in a symptomatic fashion in the early 20th century, when the cinema became a mass medium and accelerated with the advent of radio and then television (although there are many parallels with what happened to literature and photography in the 19th century). Networked technologies have added another layer to the changes and another level of complexity to the ways in which ideas are communicated and discussed, as well as learned (and in so doing further fudging the boundaries between disciplines). The conventions that have governed communications processes for over fifty years have been turned inside out by the Internet and this has led to some fundamental redefinitions of information, knowledge, space and time. 

Technology plays a role here, but it is not the only player in what has been a dramatic move from an industrial/agrarian society to a mixed environment that is as dependent on cultural activity, networks and information as it is on the state and conventional notions of political and economic activity. The disjunctures at work in our society and the upheavals caused by profound cultural and social change have begun to affect the orientation, direction and substance of many different academic and art-related disciplines. Although some of these disciplines have been around for a long time, part of my argument in this essay will be that most disciplines have been under stress for the better part of the 20th century. We are very likely in the early stages of a long-term shift in direction and it may take some time yet before that shift is fully understood. One important way of understanding these changes is through the an examination of what has happened to learning in the digital age and the role that technology has played in sustaining and sometimes inhibiting changes in the way learning takes place both inside and outside institutions.  

I will discuss post-secondary institutions because I know them best, but I believe that many of the following arguments apply to most forms of education. Modern universities now operate within a context that is both challenging and undergoing fundamental change. My effort in this essay is to try and understand why some of our disciplines may be in crisis and why transdisciplinarity may be one of the best solutions to that crisis. It is my feeling that a combination of phenomena and a particularly difficult context for education has begun to foreground a series of contradictions that require some elucidation. These include increasing questions about the relevance of university education for the future and questions about how universities manage themselves and what the balance should be among research, teaching, learning and administration. 

 At the same time, I am concerned with the evolving role of disciplines within post-secondary educational institutions and the challenges that a new context is introducing into the learning environment. What is that new context? Well, it is not one thing or one phenomenon; rather, I believe that we are in the midst of a ‘sea change’ in our understanding of the communications setting that is the underpinning for learning, pedagogy and education. This is a bold claim. For example, it is not possible, in my opinion to examine what we teach without linking that to the networked world. Information now flows from so many venues that what we mean by content needs to be examined from many different and sometimes-conflicting perspectives. Educational institutions are becoming one of many possible places that learners can seek information and knowledge, but they are no longer the only place. 

An interesting phenomenon which exemplifies this point and which is enhanced by using the Internet is auto-didacticism, people who teach themselves. A good example of this is in the computer sciences where students as hackers learn programming from each other as well as from sources that are sometimes legitimate and other times not. Another example is the many different ways in which young people alter the computer games that they play. There is a vast movement of gamers who have learned how to ‘patch’ games and introduce ‘mods’ which transform not only the aesthetic of the game, but often its intentions. The marvel of auto-didacticism is the extent to which at least in the digital era, learning turns into networked dialogue among anonymous individuals who dedicate themselves to projects that they are working on. The development of the LINUX operating system (which was the product of thousands of peoples contributions) is a further example of this growing and important shift in how ideas and information are exchanged. All of these examples point towards a complex landscape in which learning takes place within a variety of different settings and where notions of authority as well as authorship are under constant pressure.

The digital revolution has disrupted and will continue to disrupt what we mean by learning and how we organize our disciplines. Suffice to say, that to think about transdisciplinarity in a networked world is to think about disciplines in a different and evolving context of interconnection and complex forms of communications and interchange. The fluidity is sometimes startling, but a necessary if not creative condition which can transform the exchange of ideas. Or, put another way, the public sphere is no longer dependent upon the particular forms of dialogue to which we have grown accustomed and new forms will have to be developed. This doesn’t make universities redundant as much as it shifts the ground for the conversations that we can have and has significant implications for the processes of communications that we engage in on a daily basis.

The discipline of Communications (which matured over the last thirty years) perhaps more than others represents the shift from a mono-disciplinary approach to a multi-disciplinary strategy. This may well be its undoing, but at a minimum I believe that communications has helped us to conceptualize as well as explain some of the changes that we are experiencing. The status of disciplines like communications does of course largely depend on the definitions that we apply to the activities of research and practice within both education and society. For example, the fact that there is now a discipline in the universities with the name of media studies is largely the result of the increasing importance of media in society and a growing recognition that critical as well as theoretical research is needed if we are to understand how the media work and what their influence is on our daily lives. The disciplines that we are a part of at universities have grown out of shared social, political, cultural and economic concerns. Disciplines are based on a systematic history, one that includes not only particular methodologies, but also specific concerns that are sustained in a cohesive way over time. 

In Western cultures disciplines developed because of a felt need for sites of rational discourse, reason and a sense that without boundaries knowledge cannot be rigorously pursued or deepened. Yet, those boundaries are neither as natural nor as fixed as the history of disciplines would suggest. Nor should they be. Rather, as with knowledge and learning, the question is how to create sites of engagement, which will support some degree of stability while recognizing the need for continual change and responsiveness to the social, cultural and economic pressures that surround the learning experience.  

Disciplines are examples of the synergistic relationship between the perceived needs of social formations and the common assumption that economic and political progress comes from an educated populace. The assumption that education and progress are linked is of course an eighteenth as well as nineteenth century concept, which developed in part because literacy was assumed to be central to bourgeois society. It was and still would be a heresy to suggest that literacy may not only be found through the comprehension of texts and that there may be many other venues that encourage personal and social growth. I am of course not arguing against the value of literacy, just against the received opinion that to understand means to read, to learn means to write and that reading and writing are the foundation upon which all else is built, especially in the educational system and particularly in the digital age. 

The discipline that I received my doctorate in is Communications. Historically the development of the discipline of communications was the product of a convergence among a nascent media studies, cultural studies, film studies, literary studies, cultural anthropology, semiotics, feminist studies and art history. It is clear that a broader mapping was needed to sustain the multi-disciplinary interests of different scholars. This was also, clearly, a response to changes in our societies. Other areas like linguistics, sociology and political science watched in amazement as communications researchers borrowed and begged from everywhere in order to engage with some of the central cultural and social phenomena of the 20th century. It is fascinating how quickly communications with its sub-disciplines like film studies, media studies and cultural studies spread and how many departments were created or recreated to accommodate faculty and student interest. So, we have an interesting paradox. Aren’t these developments evidence of the ability of disciplines to evolve and change? Doesn’t this suggest that universities are supple and responsive places? This profusion of disciplines also suggests that the antennae of researchers were carefully tuned to the changes going on in society at large. As media became more ubiquitous, as more and more devices of communications appeared, as our entire society geared itself towards a technological shift, many departments and disciplines, many teachers and administrators responded in a positive and constructive manner. 

The paradox is that this is both true and false. It is false because the newer disciplines simply transported earlier intellectual paradigms onto the media for example without due concern for specificity or context. Modernist notions of canon creation allowed and encouraged a few paradigmatic ideas to become central and foundational far too quickly. The relationships among the various disciplines became obscured. Hovering in the background were concerns that interdisciplinarity was simply too general and not specific enough to encourage rigorous scholarship. And then there was the teaching. Because these areas were and are of interest to students who bath in the phantasmagoria of media and culture on an everyday basis, these courses attracted large numbers of students at all levels. People had to be hired to service demand. Doctoral programs grew. More and more conferences were organized by faculty anxious to understand each other’s work. At the same time, expectations about rigour and connections to more traditional disciplines — to the broader constellation of concerns within universities seemed to be of marginal concern. Ironically, this new area, so unaware of how disciplines can quickly lose their edge, so disconnected from similar research going on in other areas, growing so rapidly found itself to be mainstream in society and under attack in the university. 

Somehow, the broad vision of Communications was being transformed into what looked increasingly like literary studies of the 1950’s. The fragmentation was enormous and continues to this day. This would not necessarily be a negative were it not for the fact that the eclecticism (which I believe can and should be supported in certain circumstances) became self-referential. That is, research in the area referred increasingly to literature that most researchers outside of the field would not or could not read. And in universities the reaction to that lack of interaction is that silos go up, walls are built to keep ideas and people out of each other’s purview. There are many disciplines other than Communications that have followed a similar trajectory. 

I am not suggesting that the inherent transdisciplinary character of communications led to these problems. I am suggesting that the way in which that transdisciplinarity is practiced needs to be examined with close attention paid to the tensions between applied forms of research in communications (international policy, for example) and research that is oriented towards criticism, theory and history. It is an irony that just as Communications became increasingly accepted as a discipline, it fractured from within and lost sight of its goals. The most telling example of this is that early research into the Internet came from interdisciplinary scholars in the science and engineering and not from scholars in communications. 

Now, as the technologies of entertainment and communication have become not only ubiquitous but also foundational to everyday life, there is an increasing convergence among the various strands that broadly speaking make up the study of communications. The digital era is very much about the fudging of boundaries and this has increasingly meant that the study of communications cannot and should not be pursued in isolation of the computer sciences or psychology or the neurosciences. These disciplines are also increasingly attracted to more rigourous forms of research in anthropology and communications.   

How does what I have said impact the development, maintenance and continuation of the disciplines I have been talking about? Well, at the same time that we are researching, inventing and reinventing our areas of interest, we need to stay connected to the many ways in which all disciplines are engaged in a similar struggle. That struggle tries to bring purpose to ideas, tries to create a context for a transformed and transformative humanism and tries to connect the value and depth of research to the process of communication among all members of the community (inside and outside of the university) and most importantly, students.

As I have said, with respect to the discipline of Communications, the arrival of a plethora of new instruments of communications, new technologies and new media has created a wonderful opportunity to bring the sciences, engineering, computer sciences, social sciences and humanities together. I am involved in numerous projects with researchers and practitioners with whom I would never normally have had contact. We are transgressing all of the boundaries and mapping a new territory that hopefully will re-energize our teaching and redefine our disciplines. I say this with some pride but also with trepidation. I recognize how fragile this process can be and have been made wary of the potential for politics and competitiveness to interfere with good intentions and well laid plans. Yet, I am hopeful that our students will resist the seemingly natural tendency of our institutions and disciplines to narrow their concerns, and will keep the pot boiling as to the relevance of the courses that they are taking and the information that they are processing and learning.    

Often, the assumption that is made is that technology has been the main cause of the shift that we are presently experiencing. But, I believe that this change has been in the works since the advent of distribution and communications systems for mass culture and the linking of culture to education and learning. In addition, the motor for many of the changes has been scientific research in a variety of fields, but most especially in physics and biology. The integration of science and technology and the strengthening of the social sciences have combined to transform what we mean by subjectivity and human identity. This is in turn has led to a redefinition of our sense of time and of space. In particular, "time" in the early 21st century has less to do with measurement than with flow, which may well be an excellent metaphor for the direction in which our disciplines need to head. So, by way of summary, let me suggest the following:

1. Technology is one of the drivers of change in the shift to transdisciplinary models, but not the only one.

2. The integration of research in the sciences with research that has led to technological innovation and social analysis has been supported by a massive change in communications and distribution systems. This is turn has changed the ways in which we translate innovation into practice. It has also transformed how we locate and sustain change at the economic, social and cultural level. All of these elements have an impact on what we mean by learning and transdisciplinarity.

3. Networks of communication have altered what we mean by information and also how our culture views knowledge and this has had a profound impact on the arts and on the social sciences.

4. These changes have redefined our notions of time and space and our ability to map and develop explanatory models for what is happening around us with the result that different disciplines have had to alter their direction (good examples are geography and architecture).

5. More importantly the metaphors that we normally use to explain change have been altered by the integration of media and images into every aspect of our daily lives. The digital revolution has merely extended the boundaries of these transformative phenomena. 

6. All of this has affected the definitions and explanations of disciplines and it may be the case that transdisciplinarity provides us with the strategies that we need to understand the radically different boundaries within which disciplines must now operate. 

7. There is a strong desire to recognize the importance of convergence between disciplines and research and scholarship. This desire for convergence must also recognize diversity and difference. It will only be possible to move from specialized and closed approaches within disciplines, if we also acknowledge that their relatedness allows us to select what needs to come together, while celebrating separateness, locality and community.

A significant example of these processes at work is that one of the most important of the physical sciences relating to the brain, the neurosciences, has become a combination of anatomy, physiology, chemistry, biology, pharmacology and genetics with a profound concern for culture, ethics and social context. Genetics itself makes use of many different disciplines to achieve its aims (including data visualization). To survive in the 21st century the neurosciences will have to link all of their parts even further and bring genetics, the environment, and the socio-cultural context together in order to develop more complex models of mind.

It may well be the case that no amount of research will produce a grand theory. But, as the great neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has suggested, the most puzzling aspect of our existence is that we can ask questions about the physical and psychological nature of the brain and the mind. And we do this as if we can somehow step outside of the parameters of our own physiology and see into consciousness. Whatever the merits of this type of research, it cannot avoid the necessity of integration and the inter-related nature of our disciplines. The need for a common ground has never been greater. The question is, will our institutions be up to the challenge?