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6 Attributes of an Academic Discipline

Does the intersection of learning innovation and higher ed change qualify?

May 6, 2018
 
 

We have been having a good discussion about academic disciplines.

Does the intersection of learning innovation and postsecondary change qualify as an emergent academic discipline?

Does our desire to build an intellectual and physical home dedicated the scholarship and teaching around the work that we have been doing, and the questions that we have been asking, require the creation of something new?

To ground this discussion, I have been doing research about what exactly an academic discipline is.  An excellent source that I found is Krishnan (2009), “What are Academic Disciplines? Some observations on the Disciplinarity vs Interdisciplinarity Debate.” 

Krishnan identifies 6 characteristics of an academic discipline.  Below I enumerate each attribute, and then explore the fit of our contemplated discipline.

1 - "Disciplines have a particular object of research (e.g. law, society, politics), though the object of research maybe shared with another discipline."

Analysis:  This “object of research” is at the place learning change and organizational change intersect.  The founding hypothesis is that there is something unique in this intersection, a reality that can’t be understood by coming at the question from either existing scholarship (theories, methods, findings) on learning or on postsecondary organizational change.  The mandate is to study these two forces in relationship to one another.

2 - “Disciplines have a body of accumulated specialist knowledge referring to their object of research, which is specific to them and not generally shared with another discipline.”

Analysis:  This contemplated discipline requires a deep understanding of postsecondary learning and postsecondary organizational change.  Curiosity and knowledge about either is inadequate, as the action is in the place that they intersect.

The work that people do in this field, what we both study and what we practice, includes leading institutional efforts to shift from traditional teaching methods to those that are more closely aligned with the research on learning.  These efforts that are usually (if not always) mediated by shifts to blended, low-residency, online, and open education.

This new education shifts the dominant postsecondary model of teaching from a solo craft, where instructors are alone in the design and delivery and evaluation of teaching, to one where professors collaborate with non-faculty educators (instructional designer, media educators, assessment experts etc.) in the design and delivery of the courses, programs, and degrees.

3 - “Disciplines have theories and concepts that can organize the accumulated specialist knowledge effectively.”

Analysis:  It seems that the theoretical frameworks for this proposed academic discipline remain undeveloped.  Existing theories of how institutions change, such as disruptive innovation theory, seem inadequate to explaining why higher education is changing as it is - and where it might go in the future.

This is particularly true for making sense of why postsecondary learning seems to be changing so rapidly, and what these changes may mean for understanding (and predicting) the future of higher ed.

4 - "Disciplines use specific terminologies or a specific technical language adjusted to their research object."

Analysis:  The language of this proposed discipline is taken from both sides of the conversations about learning change and postsecondary organizational change.  Concepts such as the move towards student-centered and active learning are integrated into discussions of institutional resiliency and competitive differentiation.  Practitioners of this discipline must be fluent in both languages.

5 - “Disciplines have developed specific research methods according to their specific research requirements.”

Analysis:  Research questions for this contemplated discipline cluster around questions of learning change. 

How is learning changing within individual institutions and across the sector?  Why are these changes occurring?  What will be the impact of these changes on the organization and culture of institutions where these changes are occurring?  Why are some schools changing (innovating?) quickly, and others not at all?  What changes should colleges and universities be making to both advance learning and grow institutional resilience?

The methods developed in this discipline will be created (or adapted) to answer these sorts of questions.

6 - “Disciplines must have some institutional manifestation in the form of subjects taught at universities or colleges, respective academic departments and professional associations connected to it."

Analysis:  It is in this 6th requirement that we identify the biggest gap.

Our contention is the work of 1 through 5 is already occurring.  It is occurring at centers for teaching and learning, in schools of education, and in departments of instructional design.  It is happening amongst the academics engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), in programs around postsecondary leadership, and amongst scholars of higher education studies and organizational change.  What is missing is that consistent “institutional manifestation”.

It is everywhere, and therefore nowhere.  Where does one go to take classes in this subject?  What is the place that a scholar interested in finding a critical mass of fellow researchers would gravitate?  What is the path that an academic would take if she wanted to spend the majority of her energies and time doing scholarship and teaching at the intersection of learning change and higher education change?

We can’t be interdisciplinary until we are first disciplinary.  Without a home for this work - point 6 - we are left with what we have now.  We need a home.

How would you analyze the fit along each dimension of the characteristics of an established academic discipline to our contemplated academic discipline?

Would you argue that the disciplinary structure to do this scholarship already exists?

What would it mean for some critical mass of those of us enmeshed in the paired work of learning and organizational change to come together around something brand new?

Would you want to join this academic department if it were to be created?

Could you imagine a PhD program in this discipline?

What would convince a university to create this department?

Is a better answer perhaps to evolve our existing units and departments, such as our CTLs, into homes for scholarship and teaching in this area?

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