Crossing Bridges to Real Learning

Using a cross-disciplinary learning approach to create highly skilled professionals.

Those with vision difficulties wear glasses or contact lenses. It can be quite unnerving to pick up someone else’s glasses by mistake and start looking at the world through them.

Cross-disciplinary learning is a lot like that experience of looking through another person’s pair of glasses. It is one academic field of study trying to look at another discipline’s worldview with a different frame of reference and trying to learn and experience life with that new viewpoint.

In 2012, Seneca College (, one of Canada’s leading post-secondary institutions with a comprehensive range of programs offered at campuses across the Greater Toronto Area, set a bold mission with its five-year Academic Plan.

One of Seneca’s goals within the Academic Plan ( inspiring-cross-disciplinary-networked-learning. html) was to develop a cross-disciplinary, networked approach to learning that emphasizes diverse learning experiences, both virtual and physical, through a rigorous, flexible, and relevant curriculum.

This mandate requires everyone to cross the traditional boundaries between academic disciplines. A cross-disciplinary and networked learning approach gives both faculty and student learners a chance to explore the links within, across, and outside of the regular curriculum. It is like putting on a new pair of glasses and viewing what typically has been taught and learned before, and examining learning in completely different and new ways.

When asked why this educational approach at Seneca and why now, President David Agnew responds, “You shake your head and wonder why we weren’t doing this sooner.” Agnew points to the demands of the employer community wanting better-trained new hires with topnotch skill sets and experience ready on day one.

Today’s workforce is changing rapidly, and graduating students need an educational edge for getting hired. Agnew feels a cross-disciplinary learning and networked education experience is now the table stake for Seneca’s students to obtain a career position in today’s challenging job market.

Even students know that being exposed to more “real-world” situations through learning pushes them out of their comfort zone and allows them to integrate, solve problems, and apply all they have learned versus just regurgitating facts on an examination at the end of a course.

Seneca has set two learning outcomes from this one Academic Plan goal:

  • Every student will have an experiential learning opportunity. 
  • Each graduate will have participated in a cross-learning experience.

The reality is that none of us works in isolation, and so education should not happen on an academic island either.

What does a cross-learning experience look like to Seneca students? Agnew excitedly shares memorable examples of the creativity involved in bringing students from different programs together, including:

A simulated car crash leaves two injured children at the scene. Enter Emergency Services Communications students receiving the tough 911 calls, Nursing and Practical Nursing students offering medical assistance, Child Development students helping the children, and the first-on-the-scene Police Foundations students.

Besides what students have been professionally taught about responding to an emergency from their isolated academic and practical training, how should they interact with the other professionals they will encounter at the accident? What do they need to consider from the perspective of their respective profession? What is the give and take of responsibilities, communication, and life-saving actions required? How will they really work together?

Another program asks students from Seneca’s Faculty of Communication, Art and Design programs to create a short and quick turnaround video for Doctors Without Borders. Composition, graphics, scripting, storyboarding, videography, and sound mixing take on new meaning beyond heavy textbooks and classroom lectures when you have to create an instructional training video for doctors on how to deal with situations they will face going into war or world conflict zones before they can touch a patient needing their medical attention.

Faculty also must learn new ways of doing things to make this learning experience a reality for their students. Making cross-disciplinary learning happen requires the right chemistry of people and professional stretching. Agnew shares that it is easier to achieve this on a smaller campus than on a larger one. And some programs are more natural fits than others.

Agnew also points to the powerful input Seneca gains from more than 100 program advisory committees. These committees are made up of representatives from various community employers and industry professionals who give valuable input to college faculty on essential workplace competencies and skills needed today and tomorrow.

Seneca has worked hard to get cross-disciplinary learning happening in all of its programs across all campuses. Each of its programs maps out learning goals and competencies against the learning outcomes of the Academic Plan. Agnew speaks highly of Seneca’s faculty, staff, community partners, and students who have “upped their game” to broaden applied learning and create a rich learning experience for everyone. He’s convinced that crossdisciplinary learning allows faculty and students to look at their expertise a little differently than they did before they began this new learning method.

Agnew’s enthusiasm for cross-disciplinary learning at Seneca is readily apparent. He firmly believes it is not a passing fad; it’s here to stay. And it is not because he is wearing a pair of rosecolored glasses. He knows that for students to have a successful career today, cross-disciplinary learning is the right way to make it happen

Roy Saunderson is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and Chief Learning Officer of Rideau’s Recognition Management Institute, a consulting and training firm specializing in helping companies “get recognition right.” Its focus is on showing leaders how to give real recognition to create positive relationships, better workplaces, and real results. For more information, contact or visit

Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP
Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP, is author of “Practicing Recognition” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: For more information, e-mail him at: or visit: