Sustainability in education

It is getting to the height of the summer here in England: what we call the height of the summer anyway. We have had some really hot weather in July, but have now returned to the more familiar mixture of sunny periods interspersed with rain, some of it really heavy. The news tells me that elsewhere in various parts of the Mediterranean there are some very serious wildfires, which have taken the lives of fire-fighters. The climate seems to have become, as many have observed, very unstable, with ‘big’ weather events much more usual but at the same time unpredictable.

All of this accords with the theme of what I wanted to comment on in this contribution to the blog, namely the issue of our responsibilities in distance and e-learning towards sustainability.

I was very stimulated in this by a workshop we held at the Open University on sustainability and the curriculum. We had excellent contributions from Stephen Gough of the University of Bath, followed by our own Gordon Wilson, who is Director of the Environment, Development and International Studies Programme at the OU. The most familiar definition of sustainability is one that essentially derives from the Gro Harlem Brundtland Commission, and centres on the imperative not to compromise the needs of future generations for the present. While there are difficulties in this definition: for example, how do we know what the needs of future generations are, and over what period can we realistically plan, nonetheless the definition has a common sense practicality that in my view keeps it valuable.

We learned from our speakers that there are two strands to the consideration of sustainability in education: firstly there is the strand that is concerned with process, and with which we are more familiar. That is to say, the consumption of non-sustainable resources that we use to maintain our systems. For example, can we say that in distance and e-learning we use less non-sustainable resources because our students do not need a campus, do not have ‘two homes’ such as residential accommodation as well as a domestic home, do not travel to the campus etc. How would all this stack up against the use of computers on which we major in our field? And however it stacks up, how do we reduce the use of such resources in our field, and what targets should we set?

Over and above this, we need to consider the curriculum dimension. First of all, what elements of explicit curriculum can we create and maintain to ensure that graduates from universities and colleges in the field of sustainability will be able to help advise and manage for the future. More challengingly, what areas of curriculum outside the obvious ones such as environmental studies should reflect sustainability issues? The answers were much wider than many of us had considered. It must include all the applied sciences and technologies, management, many of the professions such as teaching, social work, and nursing. It is easier in fact to ask the question as to which areas of curriculum should not embrace issues of sustainability. And last of course how do we ensure that our students leave our institutions equipped to manage these issues in the range of places that they are going to live and work in.

So all in all a fascinating introduction to these issues for us, and which left many colleagues across the faculties who were not familiar with them with a lot to think about.

The campus at the OU is emptying now for the summer holidays, which means that the volume of email is declining. Very welcome! I have started to use Twitter, really to see what happens when you do. You can follow me, if you want, @AlanTait on I am following a number of interesting individuals in our field, who also tweet, as the verb has become. I think learners could develop communities, for quite short periods which might be very supportive to them. See what you think. In the meantime, here I am ready for a summer holiday. All best wishes.



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