Barriers and challenges to effective transdisciplinary education

Students co-create solutions with farmers as part of Consultancy Project course from the Bachelor Global Sustainability Science. Photo: Vincent de Leijster

Two principles are fundamental to ensuring the effectiveness of transdisciplinary education initiatives. Equivalence ensures that the project is a true partnership, based on cooperation rather than pure consultation. Reciprocity means that both the project partners and students benefit from the project.

A failure to observe these principles can contribute to barriers and challenges including:

  • Selecting appropriate non-academic stakeholders: it may be difficult to select appropriate non-academic stakeholders with whom to form partnerships in consultancy or problem-solving projects. Key criteria in doing so could be an assessment of the contribution of the projects undertaken to sustainability. A commitment to engage underrepresented stakeholders could be achieved through a demonstration of the value that transdisciplinary education programmes can bring, as well as through efforts to build trust with such groups. To some extent, stakeholders may be unwilling to engage because of exploitation problems and problems of compensation (below).
  • Managing expectations: for non-academic stakeholders it may be difficult to manage expectations of the project whilst simultaneously meeting the learning goals of students and ensuring effective and open communication between the two groups. This will help to ensure equivalence in the relationship and give the opportunity to make clear the reciprocal nature of the relationship.
  • Exploitation problems and problems of compensation: stakeholders may question the value that transdisciplinary education programmes have for them, and/or be dissatisfied with the compensation offered. It is key to ensure that stakeholders receive benefits too, in accordance with the principle of reciprocity. However, it is important to note that pecuniary compensation will not be appropriate in every case, and different stakeholders may be attracted more by non-pecuniary benefits that are on offer- for example, in consultancy projects, stakeholders will have an opportunity to advertise themselves to students and draw from this talent pool. However, the benefits to stakeholders will not always be clear. Failing to make clear the benefits of a programme to stakeholders can result in a lack of engagement with future programmes.
  • Unfamiliarity: students may struggle with being thrust into a potentially unfamiliar area, far removed from the academic context they are used to. Coupled with potentially open-ended tasks, students may benefit from clear guidance from instructors (coordinators) and the non-academic stakeholders that they are working with.
  • Lack of information on relationships: for instructors and coordinators of a transdisciplinary education programme, a key challenge may be the lack of information they possess on the interactions between students and non-academic stakeholders. There may be an overreliance on student perspectives in this regard, as this will often be the stakeholder with whom the instructor or coordinator has the most interaction.
  • Assessment of students: similarly, assessment of the students may be challenging in a transdisciplinary education programme. Assessment of the product of the project will generally be easier than an assessment of the process that has been undertaken. Whilst assessment may be devised based on the proposal submitted and the impact of the product, problems may be encountered in determining the weight to be afforded to the satisfaction of the non-academic stakeholder with the programme. This is an important consideration, especially in practical terms, but is subjective and depends highly on context, and will not always be the best indicator of “success”. It will also depend heavily on the expectations that the non-academic stakeholder had of the programme- a challenge mentioned above.