Training Leaders for the 21st Century Through an Immersive Graduate Interdisciplinary Curriculum

Concurrent Session 2 & 3 (combined)
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Presenters will share an innovative process developed by an online nonprofit college to create an interdisciplinary suite of courses to be taken by all incoming graduate students across seven academic degree programs.  Attendees will have an opportunity to apply the process to create a vision and framework for an interdisciplinary course. 



Anna Zendell is Senior Faculty Program Director for the Masters in Health Sciences and Masters in Health Care Administration at Excelsior College. She earned her Ph.D. and MSW in Social Welfare at the University at Albany. In addition to a social work career with people with lifelong disabilities and their caregivers, she has developed and taught online and face-to-face courses at Excelsior College and the University at Albany for over fifteen years.
Faculty Program Director of Master of Science in Criminal Justice. Over 20 years experience in academia. Joined Excelsior College in 2013. Earned Juris Doctorate from the University of Toledo College of Law in 1998. After several years in the legal field, she determined that she could give back and make more of an impact on people’s lives through teaching. She went back to school and earned an MSCJ with a forensic psychology concentration and an MBA. As a lifelong learner herself, she truly believes in Excelsior's mission.

Extended Abstract

This presentation will walk attendees through an innovative process developed by a fully online nonprofit college graduate school to create an interdisciplinary suite of required courses that all incoming graduate students take and will provide an opportunity for attendees to practice this process. 

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. The current societal challenges—environmental, economic, and social—are multifaceted and interrelated, and their solutions require coordination across sectors—government, business, and nonprofits.  Many of these problems simply cannot be solved without open, agile coordination across disciplines. Holley (2017) states the risks in not exposing students to interdisciplinary learning as such, “When knowledge is kept strictly defined in disciplinary compartments, making potentially rich connections between various epistemological ideas that cross these various areas is difficult. So too is the ability to solve complex problems that require more than one area of expertise, such as climate change or poverty (Holley, 2017, p.2).” 

As President Susanne T. Ortega notes, “The questions that will advance human knowledge often live at the boundaries of current disciplines, so interdisciplinary knowledge and ways of thinking are central to today’s master’s and doctoral education.  It is essential that graduate students learn to communicate across disciplines in the full variety of contexts they will encounter throughout their careers” (201). Indeed, there is a growing understanding that students who are challenged with varied disciplinary perspectives can become more self-aware, better critical thinkers, and develop a more nuanced understanding of their own fields (Gruenwald, 2014).  Students graduate into work arenas with increasing interdependencies with other disciplines and industry sectors.  Graduate students typically assume leadership roles in their professions and are therefore in unique positions to impact these societal challenges.

The process started with an annual strategic planning retreat. A key outcome of this retreat was to develop and actualize a vision for a transformative learning experience for masters’ level students. There are five overarching disciplines with seven academic degree programs represented in the school: Business, Criminal Justice, Cybersecurity, Health Sciences, and Public Administration.  Together the graduate school leadership and the faculty program directors of these seven master’s degree programs carefully reviewed the curricula and the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), finding common themes among courses and program outcomes.  From there, the team devised a three-pronged approach: an interdisciplinary data-driven decision-making course, a graduate leadership core consisting of Ethical Leadership and Leadership and Talent Management, and co-curricular activities that brought students together with common interests. These courses perform three functions: immersion in the student’s disciplinary norms, exposure to other disciplinary norms, and an acculturation to graduate learning.

First, two faculty program directors collaborated to convert the graduate statistics courses from three disciplines, Business, Public Administration, and Criminal Justice, into one robust data-driven decision-making course, which allowed students to use a single source of open data to develop hypotheses, test them out, interpret the findings, and talk with one another about how to address issues collaboratively.

Concurrent to this, the school began to create the interdisciplinary leadership core. To develop these two courses, the faculty program directors recruited five subject matter experts (SME’s) to work as a close-knit team to develop the content of the courses. The five SME’s were each expert from one of the five disciplines represented in the school. One faculty program director was charged with managing the entire project. Two faculty program directors were each assigned to the two courses to oversee development. A highly creative learning experience designer joined the team to help bring the vision for each course to life. The dean obtained resources to support a robust and innovative course development.

In this presentation, we will share the unique approaches we used in having our eleven-person development team successfully collaborate to develop discipline-specific immersive learning content and to create interdisciplinary content and learning opportunities. The team used a novel approach of converting the classroom look and feel into a conference theme, in which students were exposed to recorded interviews with experts in all disciplines, both individually and in pairs, and then engaged in online roundtable discussions.  Learning activities were project based and entailed creating professional portfolio-worthy deliverables, such as an ethically derived emergency management plan for a community plan and solution finding branching scenarios based on situations commonly experienced in talent management.  Across the interdisciplinary core, students also were provided opportunities to learn and practice 21st century professional communication skills, such as podcasting, videos, tweeting, and writing content for a student interdisciplinary magazine in each course. 

Next, we will share our work in locating and creating interdisciplinary cocurricular activities for our students to engage in, ranging from participation in national case study competitions to developing our own graduate online research symposium for graduate students to showcase their best work. Data will be shared on these initiatives from faculty and student perspectives, including qualitative feedback from students and faculty in the pilot.

Holley, K.  (2017, April 26). Interdisciplinary Curriculum and Learning in Higher Education. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education.   


Level of Participation:

This will be an interactive workshop. We will start with a poll to learn where attendees’ interdisciplinary interests lie. As we walk through the process used to develop this program, we will foster an open dialogue for attendees to share experiences and ask questions. At various stages of the workshop, we will engage the audience in a paired brainstorming exercise to develop a vision for an interdisciplinary challenge of interest to them.  There will be opportunities for attendees to share their ideas with the whole group.  Attendees will leave this workshop with this process, as well as a vision and a plan for developing a new interdisciplinary course or converting an existing course to interdisciplinary.


Session Goals:

Attendees will be able to discuss the interdisciplinary nature of challenges faced by 21st Century leaders, assess needs of existing curriculum to meet these leadership challenges, and to construct strategies for the incorporation of interdisciplinary learning experiences for their students.