Books,  open degree

The range of the Open Degree

I finally got around to reading David Epstein’s Range last year. It’s one of those popular books that makes a very powerful case, although you suspect some reporting of the academic findings may be over-simplified or contrary evidence maybe overlooked. But even so, it is a valuable validation of the multidisciplinary approach to education.

As the Director of the Open Programme at the OU, which has a multidisciplinary open degree where students can combine over 250 modules into their own pathway, a combined stem degree focused on science pathways and a postgraduate Open Masters, this is of course, something that appeals to me. I’ve talked about interdisciplinarity in educational technology before, and also the benefits of having a flexible pathway, but there were a couple of other parts of the book that resonated also.

The first was the benefit of offering different forms of assessment in establishing longer term and deeper understanding. This interleaved practice offers better results in the long term it seems over similar types of batch assessment. Within any one degree or discipline it will usually be the case that students experience different forms of assessment, but some types will dominate. A more multidisciplinary curriculum will, almost necessarily, offer a range of assessment formats, problems and experiences. So without even trying really, a by-product of such an approach is an automatic interleaving of assessment.

The second was the justification of being a bit of a dabbler. Epstein recounts how people are often embarrassed about the circuitous routes they take to a profession, or feel that their mixture of experience is not representative or valid. He makes the case that this is both more normal than we appreciate and also often essential to a sector. As someone who likes to dip into lots of subjects, it felt good to have this approach validated – I’m not being a dilettante, I’m developing range doncha know? In general an appeal against the idea that super-specialisation is the only way to go (it is definitely required of course) in society is a message we should push more often.

Lastly, as a pusher of metaphors, the value of bringing in external perspectives to solve problems was emphasised. Epstein highlights how large corporations and governments have started opening up difficult problems to everyone to pitch ideas. Frequently these collective intelligence approaches are simply ways of gathering feedback, but they are also ways of effectively generating metaphors – people bring their experience from outside the domain, and that can sometimes provide a solution.

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