One of the wonderful things about being an undergraduate in the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences (COGS) at the University of Sussex was the interdisciplinary experience that was embedded within our studies. When I studied Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence I did so within a community of philosophers, psychologists, linguists and computer scientists and it was great. This has given me a particular perspective on all the work I have subsequently been involved with – all of which has sat on the ‘fault lines’ between disciplines. As I am currently pondering how best we might improve the way that we academics communicate what is valuable about the research that we have and are doing about technologies for learning I realise that the communication problem is more deeply rooted than the ‘external’ communication challenges of making our research relevant and impactful, we often don’t communicate effectively within academia across disciplines. So, if we can do better at engaging with each other outside of our disciplinary comfort zones, then maybe we can also set our minds to finding a way to help those outside academia understand the complex landscape of researchers whose work might really help to enable a step change in the quality of the technology and its use for learning.
If we take a quick look at the sorts of research that might be relevant to people working in industry to develop technologies to support learning, from smart phone apps to learning platforms and interactive whiteboards, and to practitioners and learners both within and without educational institutions, there are many different research communities who might feel they have something interesting to offer. For example, there are computer scientists who develop the algorithms that drive the software that makes a technology capable of particular behaviours and the engineers who build the hardware that enables features like touch sensitive interfaces, drag and drop icons and multimedia output. There are the interdisciplinary researchers in Human Computer interaction who understand how to design interfaces to support the optimal types of interaction whether on an interactive table top, a virtual reality or an ipad. There are research communities that use artificial intelligence methods and techniques to design computer models that can enable software to adapt to the particular learner or learners who are using it so that a game or a simulation can interact in a manner that is tailored to its users needs, whether teachers or learners. Then there are the psychologists who understand how people learn and the sociologists who understand about communities and social interactions, and the social scientists who understand about educational systems and human relationships. Here I am only scratching the surface and there will be as many research communities and disciplines I have omitted as those that I have named. These communities largely publish their work in separate journals and at separate conferences. There are attempts to develop interdisciplinary communities in order to try to encourage cross fertilisation of ideas and appreciation of the contribution that different expertise can make to shared problems, although the well documented demise of COGS illustrates the power of the bureaucratic penchant for administrative neatness. These interdisciplinary communities are not the norm and at times of austerity there is a tendency for funders to concentrate on their core disciplines, which has a knock on effect upon the extent to which researchers are able to work across the disciplinary boundaries.