Transdisciplinary education; something higher ed can offer the millennial who already knows it all

By: Ani Okkasian and Jason Keller 

Ani Okkasian
Feb 17, 2014 · 5 min read

We’ve heard it all before; the US economy will never be as robust as the last generation’s, global competition has lead to the outsourcing of even our white collar jobs, the internet has eaten away at every major business model and the U.S is lagging in educational rankings but scores highest in student debt. Not to mention that we Millennials are rejecting the social conventions that built this country while on track to becoming the most educated generation in American history with the least amount of “opportunities.”

But, we’re a bit more optimistic than what these catastrophic cliches would have us believe. The Millennials have created a world where we can crowdfund ideas, crowdsource a task, create compelling content in a few strokes with virtually no funding and a wifi signal is all we need to connect and share our lives. We can start a business within days, raise awareness for a cause within hours and delve into the digital archives to learn about any topic at a moment’s notice.

As awkwardly positioned Millennial professors — too young for tenure and too old for Snapchat — we see higher education institutions often dismissing the ingenuity of their students and viewing the ones who pursue jobs that value their Klout score over their GPA as trival.

But these cultural scoffs are the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the new world Millennials face. Ideas are being generated that can’t be explained by the economic models of today or yesterday because the internet has created new forms of prescribe value. For the first time we have people creating things — ideas, visuals, content, platforms — without a clear revenue model. In fact, for some, revenue is not even as much of a motivator as social capital is i.e Reddit, Wikipedia, Imgur.

In years prior, money was a major prerequisite to most creation but the economies of scale that the internet has made possible leaves only restrictions of imagination. How do you teach someone to come up with the next socially disruptive technology? How do we prepare students for jobs that have not been created yet? How do you help someone spot an opportunity?

Post-industrial era, employers are not necessarily hiring someone to complete a quantifiable task but rather for their potential to generate an idea, have complex social relationships, craft narratives and handle the stress that comes with jobs that require ‘creativity’ on demand. Ultimately, this brings up different questions about how to measure productivity and ascribe value to an employee but in this innovation centric economy, one thing remains true, creativity is no longer a frill — it’s a prerequisite for employability.

As Millennial professors who are trying to make a living in the same innovation economy we are preparing our students for — with a respective three jobs each — we have a different take. The unique blend of economic uncertainty and schizophrenic productivity required of Millennials has made us feel morally obligated to help arm students with the techniques needed to prompt the incubation of ideas in a more conscious, systematic and deliberate way. As two professionals who are required to generate insights almost daily, we know this process is missing from the curriculum of most higher education institutions.

As a stopgap measure, we co-teach the Junior Fellows Program, a transdisciplinary research seminar that empowers students to craft new insights into social phenomenons, at Woodbury University. Students are selected after submitting a research proposal making an inquiry about a major societal problem such as food deserts in low income communities, the rise of autism or blatant election fraud in developing countries — social problems that can’t be understood from solely one disciplinary lens making a transdisciplinary approach necessary.

Given the complexities of the major problems facing our society having the ability to construct a transdisciplinary approach to finding solutions that utilize multiple perspectives, stakeholders and systems will, not only, make you indispensable to an organization or company in the midst of an innovation economy but it can expose you to a hot bed of entrepreneurial opportunities.

To generate these insights we guide the Junior Fellows through the five stages of design thinking — discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation and evolution — as they try to provide a new perspective or propose a solution for the social problem of their focus. With disparate topics but a shared process, we craft a “prosocial” environment for students that allows the peer engagement and group vulnerability needed to invite the instability of new thinking while making predictions about a shared future.

Our role is to personally get to know each student and help them identify their inherent strengths and intrinsic motivations. We provide access to the appropriate resources, prompt discussions, plan workshops, facilitate role playing and conduct creative exercises all to invoke self reflection and the forging of new connections.

After the student has taken inventory of their existing skills and knowledge sets, built creative confidence and gone through all the stages of design thinking to arrive at an insight they want to share we teach them about the importance of personal branding when the product is their own intellectual capital. We explain to our students how bringing their idea to ‘market’ is about communicating in a way that elicits an emotional response around their logical conviction.

Our students have gone on to take their research to inform a business plan, serve as the foundation for a non-profit or be the motivation for product design. Ultimately, we want to help them develop a strategic plan for their life’s work that will enable them to be the type of ‘career mash-up artist’ that will thrive in this contemporary environment.

Going on its 8th year, the Junior Fellows program, housed within the university’s College of Transdisciplinary Studies — one of six institutions of its kind nationwide- has given over a $100,000 worth of scholarships and laid the groundwork for a new type of education that co-creates knowledge with the student.

Providing an education for Millennials who came of age in tandem with the internet is no easy task for the professor, the institution or even, the student themselves given the dizzying pace of change. However, the apparent messiness that the digital revolution has brought about is no excuse to find comfort in old methods.

For higher education institutions to remain a viable economic option they have to help students be self-directed learners who use procedural knowledge, analytical abilities and strategy to synthesize prior experience to creatively generate original work that will result in the formation of new knowledge.

Robust marketing campaigns repackaging the traditional academic majors have primarily been the only response many higher education institutions have provided to the value of their degree being questioned. This misuse of energy points to an inherent insecurity of higher education — a lack of creative confidence during a time when the institution’s role is forced to be more than merely content delivery.

This is a time for experimentation. The Junior Fellows Program is our attempt at keeping higher education relevant for not only the Millennial student but the Millennial academic as well.

An Education

the age of learning online, bit by bit (pun intended)

    Ani Okkasian

    Written by

    An Education

    the age of learning online, bit by bit (pun intended)

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