September 7, 2020

Exploring COVID-19 using an Interdisciplinary lens

Dr. Ash Brockwell
There exists a mental health crisis across Higher Education

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Through June and July this year, we ran our first online course, ‘Explore ID: COVID-19, Complex Problems, and Interdisciplinarity’. 53 people joined us from all over the world, including Colombia, Sweden, South Korea, the United States, France, Germany, Mexico, India, and, of course, the UK.

We were keen to respond to some of the changes being thrust upon the world due to the current pandemic, to show how interdisciplinary approaches can help deepen our understanding of the issues. We also wanted to test how our own systems and ways of teaching might adapt in a new era of education, in which more remote learning, online collaboration etc. are becoming the new norm.

The five-week course was split into two parts: A two-week introduction to complex problems (which everyone took), and three-weeks of electives – participants were free to choose from four electives in art, data science, philosophy, and health, life and social sciences. We delivered the course through our new learning engagement platform, which encourages more discussion and interaction than some traditional VLEs.

We began with an introduction to ‘wicked’ problems, and how these are related to ‘complex problems’ more generally. Students were encouraged to share their experiences of the pandemic, fears and more positive thoughts for the future. We were delighted with the engagement of the participants on these issues. We learnt that although there may be cultural differences, concerns over the future of young people and misinformation from the government or from social media, appreciation of the complexity of understanding contagion, and several other points, were shared by many participants. Through this, we also learnt the power of connecting interdisciplinary learning with the lived experience of students. In this age of information overwhelm, and the difficulties of ascertaining the truthfulness of what we see, read or hear, it can be most powerful to start from our own experiences, before working towards more objective knowledge and then feeding this back to develop and critique our subjective worlds. This is an approach we aim to develop in our undergraduate curriculum in 2021, particularly in the Methods modules.

In the introductory weeks, we also discussed some reasons, such as the Expert Problem and the Einstellung Effect – usually associated with more traditional ‘disciplinary’ approaches – that can lead to poor interventions, and we considered how an interdisciplinary approach to tackling problems can lead to more creative solutions. As one participant, Isabella, said, ‘ I can see things from a different perspective [now] and understand them better. Another participant, Gabriela, commented that ‘the course helped me to see this crisis from another perspective and how to think in an interdisciplinary way’. ‘Perspective-taking’ is closely associated with interdisciplinary learning and of much value in many contemporary work settings. We were delighted that participants felt they had grown in this way. As examples of some other themes, we introduced the notion of ‘superconcepts’ – powerful ideas that can cut across many problem areas and disciplines – and the idea of structuring a curriculum around Problems and Methods.

Students wrote blogs in groups to reflect these two weeks of learning, some of which can be read here:

WISP: An interdisciplinary panel tackling violence against women
The Future of The Hospitality Industry: An Interdisciplinary Approach
The Complex Problem of Education in a Post-COVID World

We had encouraged students to think of this online experience as a genuine exploration, and not to downplay that fact that through exploring and a playful attitude one can often arrive at deeper insights than through a more rigid approach. This became particularly apparent in the electives where students created digital masks to explore the aesthetics and politics of face-coverings, built increasingly complex mathematical models of contagion using Excel and ideas from cellular automata (and came to appreciate how challenging it can be to draw conclusions from quantitative data!), discussed three different ethical approaches to dealing with the virus and its affects, and explored ‘multiple levels of reality’ from protein-folding and the composition of viruses, up to the politics and policies of prevention. One of our participants, Tatty, said that ‘it was a totally new way of thinking for me and even properly re-engaged my brain from a learning perspective. I gave up Art at A-Level and I never thought about it again but doing this allowed me to bring out things that were at the back of my mind.’

Image credit: Maria Isabel Arango,
‘Art, media and experience’ elective participant

At our final round-up on a Friday evening, students from all over the world shared (virtual) drinks and learnings from the course. This venture was a wonderful experience for us at LIS and we will take many learnings from it. Perhaps the strongest from an educator’s view is that interdisciplinary learning provides both convergent learning in the form of tools and a shared vocabulary with which to tackle complex problems (and this is something we will be refining in our curriculum) and divergent learning in the form of individuals growing in their own mindsets and attitudes towards the complexity of the world.

We’d like to leave the last word to some more of our participants. Daniela: ‘One of my biggest takeaways is the importance of interdisciplinarity. I started mixing things that I learnt in the different electives as I started to see how they connected. I started to see that things could connect really smoothly and the importance of looking through multiple lenses when assessing a problem’, and Richard: it ‘shows the importance of approaching problems through interdisciplinarity, I hope it expands to other educational missions and institutions.’

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