Pedagogies that travel and those that don’t: Sustainability in open courses and learning design

Last week I presented a paper titled ‘Some Issues Affecting the Sustainability of Open Learning Courses’ written by James Aczel, myself and four other colleagues (2011) working on the EU funded openED project at the EDEN conference in Dublin. The aim of the project is to explore participatory learning in open educational environments by producing and delivering an online open/’free’ course is business management. In so doing, the objective is to not only to produce an OER, but to use open technology, open Web 2.0 methods of communication, open opportunity to facilitate, open peer assessment, and open opportunity to build a resource for reuse. So a key question for the project is to study the effect and issues around ‘opening’ up many aspects of a course together. And one of my roles in the project is to develop and deploy a complex of evaluation methodologies before, during and after each of our three rounds.

The theme of the conference was learning and sustainability and it was interesting to see the present state of thinking around how e-learning was seeking to frame and understand what ‘sustainable learning’ means. The two uses of the concept most prevalent were: 1. The planning to sustain project accomplishments or innovation, and 2. The teaching of themes associated with sustainability within a course. The first is clearly important to the longevity of a project but I find this a rather limited and lacking use of the term; it priorities the project interests instead of asking how, or even if, the project can truly contribute to a broader socially, culturally, environmentally and economically sustainable learning. So wouldn’t it be great if in the sustainability section of project reports, authors were asked to review the projects social, environmental and economic impact too? The second use – teaching ‘about’ sustainability – was also evidence at Eden and this figures education as a having a role in setting foundations to more sustainable development. Of course, it is important to build an understanding of what works in doing this, and, although the examples of this teaching most often come from courses about sustainable development or related disciplines, there seem to be many excellent examples and pockets of innovation across all disciplines.

Yet there are also at least a third and fourth way to approach the concept of sustainability. The third is that of an organisations role in achieving sustainable development – a practice of sustainability review becoming common for all businesses yet, perhaps surprisingly, universities seem to lag behind other sectors. In a quick review of recent papers in the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, I found reference to several frameworks of indicators for institutional assessment with GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) guidelines mentioned quite often. However, use of these appears fragmented with Fonseca (2011) found just 30% of Canadian universities had done this, whilst Lozano (2011) seems to have been able to identify just 12 which used GRI. Furthermore, both these authors found institutional reporting focused on eco-performance and economic indicators with proportionally (or actually) far less consideration of sustainability indicators relating to curricula, teaching and research and society (and it would also seem that even these indicators are limited in what they cover). I think this should be a concern yet perhaps this is partly a symptom of the level of reporting being too broad and abstract. There can be great variation in teaching and learning within a university so why not localise the issue of sustainability and build it in to the course and curriculum design process. It seems a missed opportunity that we don’t do Course Sustainability Reviews which asks course authors should think about how their course contributes to sustainability (in addition to issues around sustaining the course as a viable business service or teaching sustainability issues within it). As a starting point for such CSRs one may find useful indicators in the frameworks for institutional sustainability auditing and in the essential characteristics of education for sustainable development as defined by UNESCO in 2005 (limitations etc of these aside):

UNESCO stated that education for sustainable development:
• is based on the principles and values that underlie SD;
• deals with the well being of all three realms of sustainability – environment, society and economy;
• promotes life-long learning;
• is locally relevant and culturally appropriate;
• is based on local needs, perceptions and conditions, but acknowledges that fulfilling local needs often has international effects and consequences;
• engages formal, non-formal and informal education;
• accommodates the evolving nature of the concept of sustainability;
• addresses content, taking into account context, global issues and local priorities;
• builds civil capacity for community-based decision-making, social tolerance, environmental stewardship, adaptable workforce and quality of life;
• is interdisciplinary. No one discipline can claim ESD for its own, but all disciplines can contribute to ESD; and
• uses a variety of pedagogical techniques that promote participatory learning and higher-order thinking skills.

Lists such as this, offer some ideas on how open and ‘free’ courses, such as the openEd course mentioned earlier, could be evaluated against sustainable development. On the one hand there are clear benefits such as promoting life-long learning, engaging in (and indeed combining in the same place) formal, non-formal and informal education, promoting participatory learning and building capacity for social tolerance. For example, the sharing of business management experience was the most frequently mentioned benefits to group working described by those participants who responded to our Learner Reflection Forms. For example one participant commented ‘[I like] work[ing] in groups because it’s a great way to share and improve ideas, and we still have time to share some cultural differences’. Yet on the other hand other stipulations may present a greater to challenge to open learning. For example, that: courses account for context and local priorities; that they are locally relevant and culturally appropriate; and based on local needs may present challenges for open learning instruction and courses. The provision of local services, as encouraged on the openED website, may help here.

And, finally, I find a fourth angle from which to approach the concept of sustainability? Let us forget for a moment about education’s role in facilitating the accomplishment of sustainable development by more informed individuals (i.e. by promoting better understanding and skills around it) and instead constitute education as a resource of knowledge, practice and artefacts in its own right. Now, not only is it a means to an end, but is itself an object of potential alteration, change or damage. This would include the social sustainability of education professions such as academics, teaching and learning staff etc. – and a good example of this is the interesting paper by Hammond & Churchman (2008) which, using Barron and Gauntlett’s five principles of social sustainability, identifies worrying counter-sustainable trends in Australian academia and highlights a real danger of ‘the extinction of the academic personality’ and its subsequent ability to itself affect through education a transformation towards sustainable development.

In the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 definition of sustainable development – that it is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs‘ – we can also see an essential balance between the optimism for making positive change and the caution of being mindful of the impacts this change may have. Educationalists seem to tend to focus on the former and perhaps there needs to be greater sensitive and reverence to this undercurrent of caution also – of being aware of our potential to damage or alter something valuable in the act of creating something new.

Turning back to the theme of open or free courses, it is clear these do to represent a change in educational structures and have, potentially, an impact on their sustainability. For example, there may be changes to the control structures used in the traditional course and the pedagogies that authors will find most effective. Participants may, at least on some level, now: not pay or make some other financial exchange for the course; may be asked to have a very different relationship from the text (and facilitation) than that of the traditional teacher-student; may not be driven by the demands of formal assessment; may approach learning with more informal notions of the social structures of reciprocity and community they anticipate.

For example, it is widely acknowledged that around 10% at most contribute in sustained fashions to forums or similar social media yet forums are increasingly used as an essential activity in learning teaching designs (with the problem of low engagement solved by using assessment to compel student to participate). In an open learning situation such control structures may exert less, or no, influence and so the pedagogies which accompany such structures may be less effective. Indeed, we see this in the participation rates for the early openEd modules: preliminary participant survey results indicate that less than half who ‘studied’ a module posted on the forum; that only half who were active on the forum and subscribed to a study group completed the group activities; and that almost no one made the final step of undertaking peer assessment for another participant. So, whilst in a formal course each of these activities could be enforced, in the open and free openEd course each activity was voluntary with no formal structure to compel participation (although obviously social or cultural factors may have applied etc).

So in conclusion, does this mean that in transferring from a controlled formal context to an open context the very pedagogies themselves (those used to derive activities and influence construction of learning resources) may no longer be appropriate or effective? Just as we ask which pedagogies travel well from face-to-face to online learning, how should we also ask which travel well from online formal learning to online open learning? How can courses better understand their responsibility to sustainability by considering both positive and potentially negative impacts both in, of and through themselves?

Aczel, J., Cross, S.,  Meiszner, A., Hardy, P., McAndrew, P. & Clow, D. (2011) Some Issues Affecting the Sustainability of Open Learning Courses, EDEN conference, Dublin, June 2011.

Fonseca, A., Macdonald, A., Dandy, E., & Valentri, P. (2011) The state of sustainability reporting at Canadian universities. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12, 1, pp22-40

Hammond, C. And Chruchman, D. (2008) Sustaining academic life: a case for applying principles of social sustainability to the academic profession, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9, 3, pp235-245

Lozano, R., (2011) The state of sustinablity reporting in universities, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12, 1, pp67-78

UNESCO (2005) United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014): International Implementation Scheme

Please do remember to reference online articles and blog posts if using within your own work


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