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Future of learning for Innovation: From disciplinary to challenge-driven and problem-based education

Kokshagina, Olga : RMIT University, Australia, Papageorgiou, Kyriaki : Esade, Spain


There is increasing pressure on higher education institutions (HEI) to better justify their societal role and funding support by demonstrably helping tackle shared or at least recognized challenges. The shared challenges of particular interest are global ‘grand challenges’, such as those outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Transforming society to address the SDGs requires transforming science and research itself more broadly (Kläy et al., 2015). It is clear that in a rapidly changing world the social, economic and environmental challenges that the SDGs represent urgently require effective action including new knowledge and ways of thinking. As such, SDGs pose a direct challenge to higher education institutions (HEI), calling them to better justify their societal role and funding support by demonstrably helping tackle shared or at least recognized challenges. Many argue that HEI can and should play an important role in shaping the future of society through sustainable development “by addressing sustainability through their major functions of education, research and outreach” (Fadeeva and Mochizuki, 2010, p.250). Understanding, tackling and responding SDGs requires unprecedented levels of collaboration, coordination and commitment across disciplines, sectors and scales.


Crossing various forms of knowledge from different disciplines is highly beneficial for problem solving, but it also presents challenges (Bayley and Phipps, 2019; Godemann, 2008). Social research is needed to better understand how to enable successful interdisciplinary approaches to sustainable development research in practice (Brown et al., 2019; Weißhuhn et al., 2018). What is clear is that effective boundary crossing innovation involves engaging with a diversity of other people and perspectives - not just other academics but non-academic stakeholders from private, public and civil sectors in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research processes (Blackmore and Kandiko, 2011; Bridle et al., 2013; Lyall and Meagher, 2012). Interdisciplinary challenge-based learning appears as a way to encourage students to work actively with peers, teachers and stakeholders in society to identify complex challenges, formulate relevant questions and take action for sustainable development (Radberg et al., 2020). Despite numerous calls to deal with SDGs, HE’s capacity in contributing to them remains unclear.


This research explores how different actors within the HEI develop their approaches to dealing with SDGs through creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship perspective (CIE).

In order to ground our understanding of how HEI tackles SDG we complemented our academic and grey literature review by conducting an exploratory study with 35 researchers, students, and university managers. This qualitative study and analysis allowed us to critically engage with how challenge-based education is understood and implemented by the HEI spaces and what kind of support is available for them. All the interviews were recorded and fully transcribed. Additionally, eight workshops were conducted with a larger audience including research managers, industry, and external stakeholders on the future of learning and impact of CIE, and we conducted a wide-ranging review of challenge-based education offerings from around the world, with a particular focus on those that moved past mechanics to ask some of the big questions.

Our findings indicate that HEIs mainly implemented SDGs through challenge-based learning programs, project-based education. Yet, the level of adoption and understanding varies significantly across institutions with 1) relatively low impact – course or department level impact i.e., assignments that focus on grand challenges are included within different courses; 2) medium impact – across-department and university level i.e., capstone projects, competitions are organised by universities to promote inter-disciplinary collaboration between students, faculty and external participants and 3) high impact – university-wide and ecosystem: disciplines are getting replaced by challenges where students learn by working on different projects (i.e. Minerva). These levels of adoption vary in their impact to the Learning and Teaching requiring HEIs globally “to think more holistically about the delivery of the value that it (university) provides over knowledge and the qualification (I1).”

There shifts from knowledge based education, discipline-based education to challenge-driven learning calls for interdisciplinary thinking. For instance, in case of the US-based school Minerva, the curriculum is focused on the big questions: “So instead of doing something like the French Revolution, you do something like, how do we solve climate change, and that becomes your context through which you learn things like data analysis and manipulation, looking at climate change over time throughout history to see the empirical evidence behind something as large as climate change…embedding those big questions into the curriculum.” Focusing on big questions often involves collaborating with external partners, bringing students to different geographical contexts following blended formats.


Our research discusses implications for different stakeholders when incorporating challenge- or problem-driven education: in particular, teachers; students and learning designers. For example; we see more and more that students are playing a more active role in the education: “what we've actually conditioned students as today's recipients our receivers of information rather than contributors to information ans so we're trying to kind of break away from that idea of didactic learning and thinking more about how we learn through experience and so (I24) ». With the highest level of adoption of challenge-driven education, we observe shifts in acknowledging that it is more important to give learners skills to educate themselves than to feed them with the information. Students themselves recognize these shifts and the importance to deal with the big questions.


In our study we reviewed the academic and grey literature on challenge-based learning modules and develop a model to guide HEI in incorporating challenge- and problem-based learning. Our analysis points to the importance of more active, co-creation practices that put students and the centre and focus on solving challenges. We provide recommendations on how challenge-based learning programs should be considered. This research makes a valuable contribution to building the agile and anticipatory HEIs to address 21st century grand challenges.



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