Case Study of Good T&L Practices > List of Case Studies > The Common Core@HKU: Transdisciplinarity-in-Action team


Dr Xiao HU
Professor Gina MARCHETTI
Mr Matthew PRYOR
Dr Julian TANNER

Common Core Office
The University of Hong Kong

Awardee of 2019
(Category: Teams)

Common Core@HKU’s Transdisciplinarity-in-Action Team

Transdisciplinarity-in-Action builds unexpected connections as it creates new practices for teaching and learning that unleash the potential of high-impact academic inquiry on behalf of students, colleagues and partners.

Team Lead

Gray Kochhar-Lindgren, the Team Lead, serves as Professor and Director of the Common Core@HKU ( and has collaborated in the construction of new types of courses: GLADE (Global Liberal Arts Design Experiments), The Passion Project, Transdisciplinary Research Initiatives and the More-Than-Human City. He has taught CCGL9044 Mobile Identities: Person, Place, and Global Flows and is currently co-writing Wilding the University: Transdisciplinarity and Transformative Change.

Team Members

Xiao Hu, Associate Professor in Education, inspires students using digital technologies and is teaching CCCH9051 Digitizing Cultural Heritage in Greater China. She believes that ‘Teaching is about transcending boundaries, creating an ecology full of opportunities for stimulating and being stimulated through an integration of digital technologies and sociocultural investigation into creating authentic and meaningful digital representations of heritage’. Dr Hu also directs the interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts and Sciences programme in Social Data Science and leads the Cultural Computing and Multimodal Information Research Group.

Gina Marchetti, Professor of Film Studies and Comparative Literature, convenes the Global Issues area of inquiry and teaches CCGL9001 Hong Kong Cinema through a Global Lens (from which she has also developed a MOOC). ‘Transdisciplinarity’, she comments, ‘allows me to cross institutional barriers of faculties, departments, programmes, and even the physical classroom to better prepare our students for a world in which traditional disciplinary boundaries can no longer fully address the challenges of future knowledge creation’.

Mathew Pryor, Head of the Division of Landscape Architecture and Associate Professor (Teaching) in the Faculty of Architecture, convenes the Arts and Humanities area of inquiry and has used a flipped classroom approach to teach CCHU9001 Designs on the Future. The design of this course creates a continual interplay between thinking and doing and between moving and making, maximising students’ different disciplinary and dispositional perspectives as they collaborate on a series of creative and critical works. His teaching and research converge on street trees, environmental remediation, productive green roofs, public open space and walkability in the city.

Julian Tanner, Professor of Biomedical Sciences and Assistant Dean for the Biomedical Curriculum of HKU Med, convenes the Science, Technology and Big Data area of inquiry and has taught both CCST8001Transdisciplinary Team Project and CCST9001 Redesigning Life. Reflecting on this experience, he observes that ‘When a group of multidisciplinary students are brought together to solve problems and work on a common goal on an interdisciplinary biomedical research project based on real-world issues, there is such meaningful discussion, interchange of knowledge and great synergies’.

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Teaching Philosophy

Part I: Teaching Philosophy

With reference to the new 4-year undergraduate curriculum, The University of Hong Kong introduced the Common Core in 2012 with the objective of promoting the intellectual and social perspectives of students and nurturing their soft skills. One unique characteristic of the Common Core is its transdisciplinary nature, as it highlights the importance of initiatives involving a movement between, across and beyond disciplines and promotes students’ holistic appreciation of the complexity of the world.

To make the initiative a success, the Common Core team transcends dyadic relationships between disciplines and creates teaching and learning that combines different disciplines and learning styles, which eventually connects the students and the university to the larger world. To date, the Common Core@HKU has developed around 170 new interdisciplinary courses in four areas of inquiry: Science, Technology and Big Data, Arts and Humanities, Global Issues, and China. This initiative has received very positive feedback from different stakeholders in the higher education sector within and outside of Hong Kong. At the same time, the initiative is under constant refinement based on the positive feedback from students, Quality Assurance Council audits and external examiners.

Consistent with its underlying philosophy, the team is transdisciplinary in nature, with colleagues from the humanities (philosophy, literature, comparative literature and film studies), education (digital education and music), landscape architecture and design, and biochemistry and bioengineering. The transdisciplinary teaching team makes it possible to transform the teaching and learning ecology to increase the learning opportunities provided by the Common Core, such as through the use of different learning formats and ‘teaching experiments’.

Transformation of the Teaching Ecology

The vision of the team is to inspire students to create positive changes in the world by expanding their learning opportunities. To achieve this vision, the team devised the Transdisciplinarity-in-Action initiative to transform the teaching ecology for more student-centred teaching and learning. This includes encouraging students to take greater ownership and leadership of their own learning, particularly with reference to research, communication and collaboration skills, with the facilitation of experts. The team performs different roles, including those of facilitator, mentor, teacher and consultant in student learning, such as in student workshops and pop-up events at the Student Learning Festival.

To achieve this vision, the Transdisciplinarity-in-Action initiative has several design characteristics. First, it attempts to nurture undergraduates by broadening their perspectives through exposure to multiple disciplines and pedagogies. Second, it involves collaborative relationships between colleagues from 10 faculties. Third, it connects disciplines and sectors at different levels, from course construction to partnerships within and outside the university. Fourth, colleagues experiment with different teaching and learning methods to create transdisciplinary knowledge with the active involvement of students. Fifth, besides the core 5-person team, there are ‘team-of-teams’ networks that also contribute to student learning.

The culture built on this foundation leads to the development of many small transdisciplinary team projects, experiential learning courses, ‘regular’ courses and ‘mega’-courses. Furthermore, the Common Core Global Experiences (CCGEs) initiative allows students to earn Common Core credits in other parts of the world with appropriate facilitation and approved assessment tasks. In short, the team strives to provide many student-centred ‘experiments’ in teaching and learning. This is unique at HKU because it requires collaboration across all 10 faculties, connections across disciplines and sectors, cooperation at the levels of course construction and programme revision, and collaboration through local and global partnerships.

The emphasis on the ecosystem of learning and teaching is another signature feature of the initiative that highlights the fluid and changing nature of academic disciplines, the importance of working together as a transdisciplinary team (i.e. not simply as individual scholar-teachers or as part of intradisciplinary teams) and interactions between students pursuing different majors and from different faculties.

A Learner-centred Approach

The team consciously adopts a learner-centred approach to engage and inspire students. Some examples are as follows.

  • Mathew Pryor developed and ran a flipped class entitled Designs on the Future, with high levels of student engagement and satisfaction reflected by student feedback, course evaluation findings and teaching observations.
  • The team runs Common Core Research Seminars, giving small groups of students research-oriented experience. Julian Tanner taught a Transdisciplinary Team Project focusing on Hepatitis-C and Public Health Communications in 2018; Gray Kochhar-Lindgren created the Transdisciplinary Research Exchange with Utrecht University in 2016 and another initiative on Transdisciplinary Research Nomads.
  • Gina Marchetti created a MOOC on Hong Kong Cinema through a Global Lens, which exemplifies the ecosystem of teaching and learning.
  • Xiao Hu and her team created the Common Core Digital Archive on Digitizing Cultural Heritage in Greater China, using a student-led design-studio.

Innovation in the Transdisciplinary-in-Action Initiative

The team has consciously innovated in the curriculum and related programmes within and outside the classroom context. Besides developing and teaching Common Core courses in the four areas of inquiry, team members have undertaken a wide range of other initiatives, including the following examples.

  • Development of a MOOC entitled Hong Kong Cinema through a Global Lens with the participation of learners from 96 countries.
  • Development of the Designing the Future course with a flipped classroom design, which has promoted student learning and satisfaction. This model has stimulated other colleagues to design similar courses.
  • Development of student multimedia projects and construction of a digital archive entitled Digitizing Cultural Heritage for use in all Common Core courses.
  • Expansion of the inaugural Transdisciplinary Team Project, which was originally developed to design a simple diagnostic test for Hepatitis-C, to three additional small research-oriented courses in response to student interests.
  • Implementation of the More-Than-Human City as a Transdisciplinary Research Exchange initiative. Besides its expansion of the offerings at HKU, the initiative also benefits students in the Honours College at Utrecht University.
  • Development of the Transdisciplinary Nomads initiative, based on the above project, which provides support to students who are interested in postgraduate study, such as by encouraging them to participate in local conferences as observers.

The Common Core strives to nurture undergraduate students to be sensitive to issues of profound importance through the best possible learning opportunities and a transformation of undergraduate learning. Besides its provision of interdisciplinary snapshots, the team creates flexible learning experiences for students via multi-disciplinary formats, which enable students to better understand the world and its challenges, address global issues and develop a passion for lifelong learning. This is particularly challenging at HKU because of its research-intensive culture. Therefore, the team has consciously focused on classroom learning in enhancing the flexibility of learning in the university.

Transdisciplinary Leadership Within and Outside of Hong Kong

Although the members of the team have distinctive styles, they share the vision of commitment to teaching and learning and to scholarship on teaching and learning. They also share the strategy of ‘leading by doing’, through which more opportunities can be opened for teachers and students. Partnerships are another distinctive feature: there are strong partnerships between the teaching team and all 10 faculties at HKU, the Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL), Technology-Enhanced Learning Initiative (TELI), Centre for Applied English Studies (CAES), Digital Learning Lab (DLL) and Communication-intensive Courses (CiCs). Outside of HKU, the team has partnered with the cross-institutional General Education programme (in the Responsive4U initiative) and participated in several Teaching Development Grants (TDGs), on Internationalisation, Cross-Cultural Communication, Student Motivation, Nurturing the Question and Video Vox.

The team does not only play a leading role in teaching and learning at HKU; their leadership has also influenced the wider higher education sector within and outside of Hong Kong. Within Hong Kong, the team has developed learning partnerships with many student associations, including AIESEC (on international exchanges and internships), Connextiar (a service for minority groups) and the Monsoon Society (a service for South Asian students). The teaching team has also collaborated with local organisations, such as the Rinato Eco-Floral Shop (Sham Shui Po), AntzKnow (a start-up founded by an HKU graduate), the Inclusive Business Lab and the OWN Academy.

Consistent with Hong Kong’s status as a global hub, the team has established a partnership with the Wellcome Trust in London for the Contagious Cities Project (with the participation of arts/sciences partners in Hong Kong, Geneva and New York). In connection with this network, GLADE was formed with a network of 60 research-intensive universities in Asia, Europe, Australia, the UK and North America around general education programmes. HKU hosted its first GLADE Symposium with 15 of these partners in the summer of 2019. In collaboration with the C9 universities in mainland China, the team launched five Common Core courses in summer 2019 entitled CLASS (China Liberal Arts Summer Sessions).

To provide leadership in transdisciplinarity, team members have published research contributing to scholarship on teaching and learning. These efforts are important for building up the empirical and theoretical bases of the transdisciplinary approach to general education.

Factors Contributing to Success

Several factors contribute to the success of the Transdisciplinarity-in-Action initiative. First, the direct teaching activities and experiences help to shape, modify and refine the courses and related activities. Second, the formal leadership roles in teaching and learning of the team members (who include a Director and Deputy Director of the Curriculum Committee, AoI Convenors, Associate Deans of Teaching and Learning, Fellows of the HEA and Fulbright Scholars) help to synergise and connect different systems and people. Third, the teaching expertise of the team members, as reflected by the teaching awards they have received over the years, has shaped the development of the initiative. Fourth, the international partnerships in which team members participate broaden the scope of the initiative and increase the opportunities that it offers. Finally, the scholarship on teaching and learning produced by team members is instrumental to the design, implementation and evaluation of the initiative.

A video by the UGC showcasing the team’s teaching philosophy can be accessed here.

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Achievement/Good Practices

Part II: Achievements/Good Practices

Impact of Excellent Teaching

Based on the pedagogical, curricular and institutional flexibility of the Common Core, the Transdisciplinarity-in-Action initiative creates possibilities in relation to different outcomes: creating a greater capacity for students to ask questions, strengthening collaborations, developing effective responses to difficult issues, and generating a clear impact in student learning.

The expansion of the impact of the initiative is further evidence for its success.

  • Expansion of the Transdisciplinary Research Exchange (TRE) initiative in Hong Kong and Utrecht.
  • Consolidation of the Transdisciplinary Nomads initiative with the beginnings of a research programme.
  • Participation of students from 96 countries in the MOOC entitled Hong Kong Cinema through a Global Lens.
  • The flipped classroom approach adopted in the Designing the Future course has guided others to develop similar courses and substantially promoted student learning and satisfaction.
  • Within the institution, the Digitizing Cultural Heritage archive serves all Common Core courses and the Transdisciplinary Team Project has generated three additional courses in 2019/2020.

There is evidence that these projects and activities have promoted student engagement and reflection, been embraced by the institution and increased the number of projects initiated. It is clear from student feedback that students strongly support the various modes of cross-disciplinary and interactive learning and understand that student learning motivation is the foundation of project success. Evidence suggests that the initiative promotes student learning outcomes and that the experience gained can be generalised to other disciplines and expanded through the further proliferation of related programmes and courses.

The value and benefits of the initiative are also revealed in the voices of students.

This year, I am studying public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. During my time here, I cannot help but notice how helpful the Common Core courses have been in equipping me with the necessary skills and qualities for me to embark on my enrichment year. Aside from acquiring vast amounts of knowledge in a broad range of topics, the Common Core Curriculum really encourages one to adopt an open-minded attitude, which is essential for studying abroad (and for life, really)…This year is a great opportunity not only to acquire knowledge and skills in a particular area that I am interested in, but perhaps more importantly, to develop and mature as an individual. (Year 3 Medical Student)

‘I get a bit straighter about staying with the trouble of complex worlding – [Donna Haraway, “Playing String Figures with Companion Species”]’. If I had to use one sentence to conclude my experience over the past six months, this would be it. This particular project on the More-Than-Human City goes further than transdisciplinarity, it combines transdisciplinary, transnational and transcultural elements and provides the individual with a lot more…Moving forward, I would certainly try to use different methods to approach the questions I am faced with. More importantly, I would hope to continue to explore the unexplored and think about the phenomena we overlook in our day-to-day lives, continuing to get a bit straighter with the trouble of complex worlding. (Year 3 Law student in Undergraduate Transdisciplinary Research Exchange, Common Core@HKU-Utrecht University)

This course allows us to take a proactive role in our learning, from selecting the direction of our research to producing outputs that will hopefully make an impact in society. I also enjoy the flexible nature of the course, which not only allows me to participate even though I am overseas on exchange in Canada, but even takes advantage of that…

There are not many opportunities for undergraduates to get a taste of scientific research that they can initiate themselves. I hope to develop my interest in the research process. (Two Year 2 and Year 3 Medical students in the Transdisciplinary Team Project) To me, the idea of a transdisciplinary nomad was highly puzzling as we set course on this journey, but the puzzle still hasn’t been solved or I don’t think it’s meant to be….and that’s the beauty and fluid nature of the projects we have been involved with. Our most recent intersection with APRU’s Sustainable Cities conference held in Hong Kong really pushed us beyond (self-made) boundaries…The badge of ‘transdisciplinary’ can be daunting because we are limitless and see no boundaries, but it is also the kind of adrenaline that nomads need in life.” (Year 3 student in Geography and Philosophy participating in Transdisciplinary Nomads)

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