Massive Open Online Courses for Education for Sustainable Development

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a key trend in education technology in recent years, challenging traditional models of education (Johnson et al., 2013).  In this post, I will examine research on MOOCs and online learning for education for sustainable development (ESD), as well as review the types of MOOCs available through major platforms such as Coursera, EdX and Futurelearn. I move on to look at other online learning approaches in ESD, which have useful principles which could be adopted in MOOCs for ESD. I will then highlight some of the benefits and challenges facing more wide-scale implementation of MOOCs in ESD.

MOOCs for ESD: an overview

Many MOOCs for sustainable are available online – a survey by Zhan et al. (2015) identified more than 50 offered via 10 different platforms – mostly EdX and Coursera. Although EdX and Coursera are American platforms, they noted that both “American and European countries [and universities] outperformed other English speaking countries as early birds in sustainability education using MOOCs”. Interestingly, the most frequent provider of MOOCs for sustainable development is Delft University in the Netherlands; all others identified were either North American or Northern European. The researchers did note that they may have missed courses in other languages than English or Chinese due to their lack of fluency in the language to be able to search for and retrieve courses online.

Zhan et al. (ibid) also surveyed the types of topics covered by the MOOCs for sustainable development. The topics identified are displayed in the table below.


Source: Zhan et al., 2015

From this one can conclude, that although many MOOCs covering the content of sustainable development exist, very few look at ESD per se targeting the specific pedagogies, strategies and approaches required for teaching and learning ESD.

Pedagogy and interaction in MOOCs for ESD

Zhan et al. (2015) identified the pedagogical models of MOOCs for sustainable development, finding that most adopt what they term “direct instruction […] without adopting specific pedagogies”, while 27% use project-based learning, 18% research-based learning and 10% team-based learning. Indeed, although “most MOOCs are well-packaged and well-organized, the instructional design quality is low” (Janssen, Claesson, & Lindqvist, 2015). One can infer from Zhan et al.’s paper that they understand direct instruction as a pedagogical approach which combines video lectures with “traditional pedagogical methods such as assignments, final examinations, reading lists, lecture slides, case study materials, field expert communication, presentations, poster activities, self-assessment and reflection.” In project-based learning, they state that “students are assigned to projects either individually or with a team, so that they can learn together when doing the project” while in research-based learning “[s]tudents pick a research topic and learn related subjects accordingly. The outcome of this pedagogy is usually research reports.” They define team-based learning in more detail:

“MOOC instructors divide students according to their individual interests, knowledge background, and location as reported in their initial online activities. Subsequently, each group selects a suitable task and accomplishes it through collaboration. The outcomes of the group work can be research reports or recorded videos through remote presentations to peer classmates, which helps to enhance social presence among learners.” Zhan et al.

MOOCs also provide some unique pedagogical means such as peer evaluation, social media, surveys, mapping locations, Google Video Chatting and offline get-togethers, in order to promote course quality in the massive open online environment. Peer evaluation opens up the opportunity for students to evaluate their classmates’ assignments. Surveys open up the opportunity for instructors to understand students’ levels and needs. Social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) provides an opportunity for learners to share knowledge and exchange ideas in their own social networks. Location mapping and offline  get-togethers are both special features that are only suited to open education. The former activity shows students’ locations on the map and helps them to get acquainted with each other. The latter tries to gather students from the same place to meet with each other and build up deeper relationship (Zhan et al., 2015).

Principles from online learning for ESD that could be applied to MOOCs

Although Zhan et al.’s work demonstrates that many MOOCs use relatively traditional pedagogical models, and focus more on the sustainable development than ESD per se, an Australian case offers an interesting model that MOOCs might emulate. Foundations in Sustainability in Education (FSE), an online course for first year pre-service teachers offered at James Cook University (Tomas, Lasen, Field, & Skamp, 2015). The course leaders’ objective was both to tackle key sustainability topics, while also engaging “students in active, experiential and praxis-orientated learning”. The FSE course brought together an interdisciplinary team of academics with experience in science, social science, environmental science, online delivery and science education as well as an online designer. The approach combined more typical MOOC content like video lectures, reading lists, etc. with hands-on science experiments and real-world data collection to be reported back in the online course. To illustrate:

“Weekly tutorials provide opportunities for experiential learning and modelling of classroom pedagogies for science and sustainability education. […] students perform simple science experiments and activities involving the simulation of the greenhouse effect in a jar, the identification of soil samples and the use of dichotomous keys to classify plants and animals. All of the activities and experiments are designed such that they can be performed with simple everyday materials, making them accessible to online students”. Tomas et al.

They also engaged in place-based learning and investigations of local sustainability issues, and a formal written assessment designed to test both scientific and ESD pedagogical knowledge. Synchronous communication opportunities helped to create a feeling of belonging to a learning community and a more direct experience of interaction.

The JCU case appears to be unusual “interactive theories of learning do not seem to have permeated the research on online professional development courses for environmental educators” according to Li, Krasny, & Russ (2016).

Benefits and challenges of MOOCs for ESD

In this section I will consider the benefits and challenges of MOOCs for ESD, from three perspectives: pedagogical, technical and organizational

  1. Pedagogical

From a pedagogical perspective, the benefits of MOOCs are broadly similar in the ESD domain to other areas of education, in terms of enabling access to learning on a students own terms, facilitating collaboration, and enabling new forms of pedagogy spanning distances which are not achievable in traditional contexts.

“[I]n MOOC platforms, students can gain access to a video whenever they need it, and replay it over time” (Zhan et al., 2015). This illustrates how learners can revisit learning materials on demand via a MOOC to be able to enhance their understanding of key points – however, this does not apply to the social elements of MOOCs in the same way, as other students and course leaders are typically only active within the timeframe of the MOOC. On the other hand, this can be somewhat mitigated by the use of social media which enables facilitators and students to keep in touch beyond the course. Als “use of social media can increase course ‘stickiness’ and facilitate student interaction in ways not exploited by traditional courses” (Zhan et al., 2015). And even when using collaborative tools, “teamwork is more difficult than in face-to-face courses, because it requires additional organization and is sometimes not easy to control in a massive user context” (Zhan et al., 2015).

Social media and other collaborative tools will only have success if they include
“[c]arefully designed course objectives and success criteria [to] facilitate increased student engagement and participation. For instance, setting requirements on number and frequency of posts ensures deeper student interaction (Zhan et al., 2015). Otherwise the risk is that the MOOC simply clones a traditional pedagogical model which does not reinforce ESD principles of social problem solving, collaboration and restructuring of educational hierarchies.

Despite the potential for more innovative pedagogies, MOOCs still face challenges in implementing more innovative pedagogies. “Team-based learning, project-based learning, and presentations are pedagogical methods that have not been used sufficiently in the current status of MOOCs” (Zhan et al., 2015).

From an ESD perspective, MOOCs can also be challenging in that they drive the educational experience through an online platform. Some of the principles of ESD is to encourage real-world engagement, and experience of the natural environment. Using models such as the one described by Tomas et al. (2015) can help to mitigate this, but the pedagogical understanding among teaching staff of how to marry ESD content, pedagogies and technology is often lacking in many institutions (Tella & Adu, 2009). The organization and targeting of content to specifically acquire both ESD content as well as ESD skills is also a major challenge, “devising courses that don’t just teach about sustainability but teach for sustainability” (Tella & Adu, 2009).

2. Technical

Technical benefits and challenges for MOOCs, similarly to the pedagogical ones, are both general and ESD specific. At a general level, MOOCs have implications for costs, content ownership, learning curves for both students and instructors as well as access. From a more ESD-focused perspective, MOOCs present some technical barriers in terms of integration of ESD specific tools and pedagogies, driven in part due to the lack of expert HR in this area.

From a general perspective, use of MOOCs reduces technical costs for educational institutions to deploy online courses, as only relatively few public platforms are used by numerous universities such as EdX, FutureLearn and Coursera (Zhan et al., 2015). This significantly cuts the need for technical support, maintenance, hosting costs, etc. as resources are shared. On the other hand, this does bring risks as it raises questions of ownership of content, and long term sustainability of platforms – “ if a MOOC provider ceased to provide a service, what happens to the course content? This is somewhat mitigated by the move by EdX to make their platform open source, and thus reusable by any provider (Daniel, 2012). The relatively few technology platforms for MOOCs available in the market also brings pedagogical and organizational benefits: once students have learned how to use a platform, they can use it to take many courses; the same applies to course leaders in terms of creating and structuring content on the MOOC platform. Another challenge with MOOCs if that few MOOCs (with the exception of some examples highlighted by Commonwealth of Learning) are adapted for access by those in developing countries with low bandwidth or difficulty accessing digital platforms.

From an ESD perspective, current MOOC platforms do not offer specific functionalities to support ESD ICT-based pedagogies. For instance, “citizen science” tools to share and visualize data, mapping and geographic information systems, etc. (Wals, Brody, Dillon, & Stevenson, 2014) or immersive virtual laboratories (Wu, Longkai; Looi, Chee-Kit; Kim, Beaumie; Miao, 2013) are not well integrated with MOOC platforms. They can however point to external tools and embed simulations, which may require additional logins and passwords, which can act as a barrier to a seamless learning process. The pedagogical affordances of MOOC technical infrastructure remain relatively hierarchical and instructor-centred, as few have been built with an explicit focus on more innovative pedagogies and can be a barrier to optimal collaborative design (Laurillard, 2014a). Both of these former issues reflect the fact that relatively few people have a combination of both a technical background, pedagogical knowledge and ESD (Tella & Adu, 2009) which would enable and drive closer integration of these issues in the MOOC tools available on the market. Bringing together interdisciplinary teams could help to mitigate this.

3. Organisational

In organizational terms, MOOCs raise general issues such as completion rates, language availability and subtitling, training, costs and processes for production and deployment of MOOCs, and careful design of hands-on elements.

At a general level, a major challenge for all MOOCs is the very low completion rates (Wagner et al., 2005). Anecdotal evidence (via personal communication with European Schoolnet) does however indicate that educators are more likely to complete MOOCs than the average. The European Schoolnet Academy MOOCs (European Schoolnet, 2014) have completion rates closer to 50%. A MOOC jointly run by Institute of Education and UNESCO (Laurillard, 2014b) also showed higher than average completion rates among teachers: 1 in 9 teachers registered completed the course (Laurillard, 2014a).This illustrates that MOOCs targeting in-service teachers may be more likely to be completed than for the average MOOC participant.

Although MOOCs are available for free and online, the language barrier remains significant as the ESD materials are mostly in English, some in French and very few in regional languages (Tella & Adu, 2009). The use of subtitling helps, but is typically only in English rather than local languages (Zhan et al., 2015). Subtitling and human translation cannot help to facilitate collaborative interactions either. Integration of new dynamic translation tools like Skype Translator (Microsoft, 2016c) could be introduced by instructors to support collaboration, and automated translation tools for web content such as Google Translate (Google, 2016) and Bing Translator (Microsoft, 2016a) could be more effectively embedded in MOOC interfaces. As automated translation tools have significantly increased in quality in recent years, this relatively simple step could radically increase the reach of MOOCs – although they would still not address minority languages which are not available in translation tools. Increasing access would better address the ESD objective of integrating developing countries most at need of ESD.

Effective deployment of MOOCs requires training for MOOC educators, including on speaking and video lecturing, creating online materials, social media, and facilitating the online learning process (Janssen et al., 2015). Similarly, more training is required to bring together both ESD pedagogy and MOOC-based pedagogical approaches.

Finally, MOOCs can be relatively low cost to create and deploy – for example around $25,000 but can also be produced more expensively (up to $150,000) (Laurillard, 2014a). MOOC content can be revised and reused in consecutive courses, reducing the costs for further reuse of the content – although HR needed to moderate and animate the courses will still involve some investment. Course content would also require refreshing every so often, which can be an expensive process if full video production teams are used to create video. Using new tools like Office Mix (Microsoft, 2016b) can further cut costs however, by enabling instructors to create their own content without the need for a video crew or graphic designers. As the content is created slide by slide, it is also more easily adjusted than via traditional video editing.

Finally, including real world and sustainability focused activities also poses an organizational challenge. Participants are likely to be in radically different environments and countries, so activities must be designed extremely flexibility to enable participation despite these differences. Thinking globally and designing experiments which require very low investment in materials and equipment is critical to ensure they are open to all.


Despite the massive growth in MOOCs, sustainable development still remains a relatively new topic of coverage, and ESD more specifically is very rarely offered via MOOCs. Sustainable development MOOCs, although involving a relatively large number of people, are relatively traditional in terms of pedagogical model. They thus do not always respect the philosophical underpinning of ESD which requires more innovative social models of knowledge building as well as a combination of theoretical with real world investigation. A number of online learning approaches in ESD have good models for MOOC instructors to follow in improving the ESD aspect of MOOCs. MOOCs have huge potential benefits from a pedagogical, technical and organizational perspective, but also pose a number of challenges in addressing ESD effectively. One of the major obstacles to overcoming these challenges is the lack of staff in universities and technical companies who are able to bridge the gap between technology, ESD and pedagogy. Building multi-stakeholder teams to address this – as well as increasing access to ESD would be a major step forward to tackle this.


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Laurillard, D. (2014b). ICT in Primary Education: Transforming children’s learning across the curriculum. Retrieved August 10, 2015, from

Li, Y., Krasny, M., & Russ, A. (2016). Interactive learning in an urban environmental education online course course, 4622(April).

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Tella, A., & Adu, E. O. (2009). Information communication technology (ICT) and curriculum development: the challenges for education for sustainable development. Indian Journal of Science and Technology, 2(3), 55–59. Retrieved from

Tomas, L., Lasen, M., Field, E., & Skamp, K. (2015). Promoting Online Students ’ Engagement and Learning in Science and Sustainability Preservice Teacher Education. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 40(11).

Wagner, D. a, Day, B., James, T., Kozma, R. B., Miller, J., & Unwin, T. (2005). Monitoring and Evaluation of ICT in Education Projects. Evaluation, 1–17. Retrieved from

Wals, A. E. J., Brody, M., Dillon, J., & Stevenson, R. B. (2014). Convergence between science and environmental education. Science, 344(May), 583–584.

Wu, Longkai; Looi, Chee-Kit; Kim, Beaumie; Miao, C. (2013). Immersive Environments for Learning: Towards Holistic Curricula. In Reshaping Learning: Frontiers of Learning Technology in a Global Context (pp. 365–384). Berlin: Springer.

Zhan, Z., Fong, P. S. W., Mei, H., Chang, X., Liang, T., & Ma, Z. (2015). Sustainability Education in Massive Open Online Courses : Sustainability, 7, 2274–2300.


Origins and Definitions of Education for Sustainable Development

Today, education for sustainable development (ESD) can be defined as ”a vision of education that seeks to balance human and economic well-being with cultural traditions and respect for the Earth’s natural resources” (Wals & Kieft, 2010). However, as recently as the late 2000s, “despite the prevalence of the term and discussion surrounding ESD, and perhaps because of it, a widely used or accepted definition [did] not exist” (Landorf, Doscher, & Rocco, 2008). ESD has emerged over the last 50 years, from a confluence of educational themes: environmental education, global citizenship education and development education. Although initially focused on environmental concerns such as climate change and biodiversity loss, over time ESD has evolved to include a wider range of sustainable development (SD) issues, such as poverty reduction. In this post, I will first explore the origins of ESD in the context of the United Nations, before going on to discuss definitions of ESD in research literature.

Origins of ESD in the context of the United Nations

The United Nations (UN) and its associated bodies – in particular the United Nation Education Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) have played a key role in ESD. Wals & Kieft note that a focus on education in international environmental conferences going back as far as 1972 (cf. the Man & the Environment Conference held in Stockholm), evolved into Agenda 21. Agenda 21 was launched at the “1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), where 178 Member States agreed on a framework for action in Agenda 21 – chapter 36” (Buckler & Creech, 2014).

Agenda 21 defined four threads to ESD (Wals & Kieft, 2010): “improving access to quality basic education; reorienting existing education [curricula] to address sustainability; increasing public understanding and awareness of sustainability; and providing training for all sectors of the economy.”

Three years later, ESD was made a key part of the UN Decade for Sustainable Development (DESD) from 2005-2014 (UNESCO, 2015b). DESD “was an explicit global movement towards improving and reorienting education systems towards sustainable development” (Buckler & Creech, 2014). Under DESD, ESD was framed in a more tactical light (Wals, 2009), aiming to:

  • facilitate networks and bonds among activists that defend ESD;
  • improve ESD teaching and learning;
  • help countries to adopt the Goals of the Millennium by means of ESD;
  • offer countries new opportunities to adopt ESD in their efforts of educational renewal.

Now, UNESCO aims for “every human being to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to shape a sustainable future” (UNESCO, 2015b). Post 2015, in the context of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that supersede the former Millennium Development Goals (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2015) and the Rio+20 conference, UN member states have now moved on to adopt a set of new targets for all countries – not just developing countries. SDG 4 targets education: “[e]nsure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” although arguably education is required to reach all SDGs (UNESCO, 2015a).


The DESD has been explicitly succeeded under the SDGs via the Global Action Programme (GAP) on ESD, with two key objectives:

  • “to reorient education and learning so that everyone has the opportunity to acquire the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that empower them to contribute to sustainable development – and make a difference;
  • to strengthen education and learning in all agendas, programmes and activities that promote sustainable development.” (UNESCO, 2014, p.14)

Definitions of ESD: perspectives in education research

Educational research offers a more nuanced and debated definition of ESD. Landorf et al. (2008) remark that: “the meaning of ‘education for sustainable development’ is complicated first by controversy over the nature of its primary component concept, sustainable development, secondly over the actual role of education, and finally over the broad and inclusive social issues it seeks to address”.

This debate seems to be ongoing since the 90s, as Jickling (1992) states: “There is considerable debate about the merits of sustainable development and the actions it requires. As we enter the 1990s, this term has become, for many, a vague slogan susceptible to manipulation. For some it is logically inconsistent. For others there are concerns that efforts to implement it will obscure understanding of the economic, political, philosophical and epistemological roots of environmental issues, and adequate examinations of social alternative”. However, this hardly advances the debate in terms of setting clear limits to what is entailed by ESD.

Although “[n]o one discipline can or should claim ownership of ESD”, and “[ESD] poses such broad and encompassing challenges that it requires contributions from many disciplines” (McKeown, Hopkins, Rizzi, & Chrystalbridge, 2006) a number of disciplines have more actively contributed to definitions and development of concepts of ESD. These are principally environmental science, global citizenship and development education.

ESD and environmental science

Ulbrich, Settele, & Benedict (2010) examine biodiversity as an environmental science (ES) topic in the context of ESD. They note that “In an ESD perspective, pupils should acquire not only a scientific understanding of biodiversity, but also an understanding of the complex interactions of economy and society which impact biodiversity, and the skills and attitudes needed to participate as citizens in the management of biodiversity for sustainable development”.

A similar perspective is demonstrated in Makrakis, Larios, & Kaliantzi (2012), who explore climate change in the context of ESD. They cite a definition from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of climate literacy, which feeds in to implicit definitions of ESD as scientific knowledge combined with the ability to make informed and responsible decisions for the future.

However Jickling (1992) cautions against a wholesale replacement of environmental science topics by ESD, stating: “[t]here does appear to be considerable momentum amongst environmental educators who wish to teach sustainable development […] this momentum is not without anomalies which should raise our suspicions. […] [S]ustainable development is being criticized. […] I want them to realize that there is a debate going on between a variety of stances, between adherents of an ecocentric worldview and those who adhere to an anthropocentric worldview. I want my children to be able to participate intelligently in that debate”.

This contrasts with the view of the UK Council for Environmental Education, who assert that ESD aims to “improve the quality of life now without damaging the planet for the future’” (Landorf et al., 2008), thus marrying much more effectively the concept of development while also preserving ecological integrity.

ESD & Global Citizenship

McNaughton (2012) uses the terms Global Citizenship Education (GCE) and ESD interchangeably, while also leveraging the work of various researchers (e.g. Hwang, Hart and Barrett) who exclusively focus on environmental education. Although McNaughton does not discuss definitions explicitly, ESD implicitly comprises both global citizenship education and environmental education. Similarly Sims & Falkenberg (2013) situate global citizenship within ESD implicitly, without exploring the decision process. UNESCO (2014) in contrast explicitly mention that “new concerns have come to the fore, such as the need to promote global citizenship” and Buckler & Creech (2014, p.37) consider global citizenship to be a sub-element of ESD – although they acknowledge that various countries (e.g. Muscat, Scotland) see global citizenship as a companion to ESD instead.

Unifying ESD from an ES and GCE perspective

“Learning for a Sustainable Future […] describes ESD as follows: ESD is about respecting and preserving our histories, valuing culture and community, caring for others and the environment, and taking action to create a fair, healthy, and safe world for all beings. ESD also supports flexibility, creativity, critical reflection, and fosters a sense of personal responsibility for the economy, society, and environment .” (Landorf et al., 2008) This definition is useful in that it encompasses concepts drawn from the three traditions of environmental science, citizenship and development while also situating ESD as a process as well as a set of content drive topics. A similar approach his reflected by a more recent research review (Azeiteiro, Bacelar-Nicolau, Caetano, & Caeiro, 2015) which highlights that “[s]ustainability science (although a distinctive research field (Kajikawa, 2008) with capacities, scientific and technical skills, methodologies and competences of its own), links knowledge to action for sustainability, embracing the principles of ESD, which is an emerging field within educational science with strong ties to sustainability science (Disterheft et al., 2013).”

Education systems via “[s]chools can […] exert an influence on young people’s engagement with environmental issues including their contribution to the development of sustainable societies” noted Kennedy, Po, & Chow (2013). From a broader perspective, “[t]ransformative versions of ESD require alternative teaching and learning strategies that also allow for the development of new competences” (Wals & Kieft, 2010) through the adoption of participative teaching and learning methods that encourage the development of critical thinking, collaboration and behavioural change.

Definitions of ESD are diverse, and have evolved significantly over time, moving away from purely ecological perspectives to include more anthropocentric concerns, balancing human and ecological needs. As this shift has taken place, ESD has thus also evolved from covering a set of environmental science topics, to including issues of citizenship. In part due to this shift, the definitions have thus moved from describing only content to process and competences expected to arise from ESD. This change requires deeper educational changes when examining how to integrate ESD into the school system, and how to design policy to effectively offer ESD to every student.


Azeiteiro, U. M., Bacelar-Nicolau, P., Caetano, F. J. P., & Caeiro, S. (2015). Education for sustainable development through e-learning in higher education: experiences from Portugal. Journal of Cleaner Production, 106, 308–319. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.11.056

Buckler, C., & Creech, H. (2014). Shaping the Future We Want: UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). Paris. Retrieved from

Jickling, B. (1992). Why I Don’t Want my Children to be Educated for Sustainable Development: Sustainable Belief. The Journal of Environmental Education, 23(4), 5–8. Retrieved from

Kennedy, K. J., Po, T., & Chow, J. K. F. (2013). Schooling’s Contribution to a Sustainable Future in Asia: Can Schools Develop “Green” Citizens? In R. Maclean, S. Jagannathan, & J. Sarvi (Eds.), Skills Development for Inclusive and Sustainable Growth in Developing Asia-Pacific (pp. 345–361). Dordrecht, Heidelberg, New York, London: Springer.

Landorf, H., Doscher, S., & Rocco, T. (2008). Education for sustainable human development: Towards a definition. Theory and Research in Education, 6(2), 221–236. doi:10.1177/1477878508091114

Makrakis, V., Larios, N., & Kaliantzi, G. (2012). ICT-Enabled Climate Change Education for Sustainable Development Across the School Curriculum. Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 14(2), 54–72.

McKeown, R., Hopkins, C. A., Rizzi, R., & Chrystalbridge, M. (2006). Education for Sustainable Development Toolkit. Paris. Retrieved from

McNaughton, M. J. (2012). Implementing Education for Sustainable Development in schools: learning from teachers’ reflections. Environmental Education Research, 18(6), 765–782. doi:10.1080/13504622.2012.665850

Sims, L., & Falkenberg, T. (2013). Developing Competencies for Education for Sustainable Development: A Case Study of Canadian Faculties of Education. International Journal of Higher Education, 2(4), 1–14. doi:10.5430/ijhe.v2n4p1

Ulbrich, K., Settele, J., & Benedict, F. (Eds.). (2010). Biodiversity in Education for Sustainable Development – Reflection on School-Research Cooperation. Sofia-Moscow: Pensoft Publishers.

UNESCO. (2014). Roadmap for Implementing the Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development. Paris, France. Retrieved from

UNESCO. (2015a). Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action: Towards inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all (Final draft for adoption).

UNESCO. (2015b). Education for Sustainable Development. Retrieved June 25, 2015, from

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2015). Post 2015 Process. Retrieved June 26, 2015, from

Wals, A. E. J. (2009). Review of Contexts and Structures for Education for Sustainable Development. Paris, France. Retrieved from

Wals, A. E. J., & Kieft, G. (2010). Education for Sustainable Development: Research Overview. Sida Review 2010:13. Stockholm. Retrieved from ESD rapport feb 2010.pdf


Case Studies in Educational Research on ICT and ESD

According to  Bassey (1999, p.65) the aims of case study research are to enable the researcher:

  • “to explore significant features of the case;
  • To create plausible interpretations of what is found;
  • To test for the trustworthiness of these interpretations;
  • To construct a worthwhile argument or story;
  • To relate the argument or story to any relevant research in the literature;
  • To convey convincingly to an audience this argument or story;
  • To provide an audit trail by which other researchers may validate or challenge these findings, or construct alternative arguments.”

O’Leary (2013, p.195) offers a similar list, but adds that case studies can be used to “debunk a theory”, “bring new variables to light” and “form the basis of a theory”.

Typically, “case study approaches are usually drawn from ‘real-life’ situations, and seek to take account of and to preserve the interwoven relationships that exist between the phenomenon under examination and the context” (Cranmer, IOE lecture pack). O’Leary (2013, p.194) adds a nuance to this view, mentioning that they entail “comprehensive description and analysis of a single situation or case”, and “can refer to single and multiple case studies”.

Though O’Leary mentions that some methods books present case studies as a qualitative methodology, but that she considers cases as a “site” of data collection, implying they can also involve quantitative approaches. Indeed, Bassey situates case studies as an element of a mixed methods approach enabling deeper explanation of findings from data (whether quantitative or qualitative) – as demonstrated in the below diagram.


Source: Bassey (1999, p.85)

In relation the area in which I am researching – ICT and education for sustainable development (ESD) – case studies are essential. Bringing together these two apparently diverging areas of work remains the exception rather than the rule, and thus case studies will provide a key element of my research. The aim is to uncover what are good practices and approaches in common among cases which persist, are scaleable and resusable in different national and regional contexts. There is almost no empirical research in the field, and I aim to base my approach on a similar framework to that proposed by Bassey. I will first use a survey to gather a wide base of data which will then allow me to zoom in on specific case studies of note.

However, such an approach does have a number of disadvantages. Firstly, it will be important to carefully select case studies, to ensure they are representative and feasible for reinterpretation and use in other locations. The risk is also to compile a set of “good practices” which do not represent a holistic policy approach which could be adopted by a country. Thus, it will be key to ensure that the case studies chosen represent a wide range of centralized vs. decentralized approaches which reflect the structure of the education system in a wide range of countries.

There are numerous examples of research in my area that use case a study approach, which dive deeply into higher education (Azeiteiro, Bacelar-Nicolau, Caetano, & Caeiro, 2015), teacher education (Sims & Falkenberg, 2013), specific country or regional ESD approaches (Watanabe, 2015; Van Poeck, Vandenabeele, & Bruyninckx, 2013). However none have yet brought together numerous cases to propose holistic guidelines for countries to follow in implementing ESD, and scaling ESD implementation with the assistance of ICT.


Azeiteiro, U. M., Bacelar-Nicolau, P., Caetano, F. J. P., & Caeiro, S. (2015). Education for sustainable development through e-learning in higher education: experiences from Portugal. Journal of Cleaner Production, 106, 308–319. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.11.056

Bassey, M. (1999). Case Study Research in Educational Settings. Buckingham – Philapdelphia: Open University Press.

O’Leary, Z. (2013). The Essential Guide to Doing Your Research Project. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi: Sage.

Sims, L., & Falkenberg, T. (2013). Developing Competencies for Education for Sustainable Development: A Case Study of Canadian Faculties of Education. International Journal of Higher Education, 2(4), 1–14. doi:10.5430/ijhe.v2n4p1

Van Poeck, K., Vandenabeele, J., & Bruyninckx, H. (2013). Taking stock of the UN Decade of education for sustainable development: the policy-making process in Flanders. Environmental Education Research, 20, 695–717. doi:10.1080/13504622.2013.836622

Watanabe, R. (2015). Implementation of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in Japan. Stockholm University. Retrieved from

Use of Surveys in Educational Research

O’Leary (2013) define surveys as a process of “[c]ollecting data through a questionnaire that asks a range of individuals the same questions related to their characteristics, attributes, how they live, or their opinions.” She asserts that they can aim to:

  • Generalize findings to a target population
  • “figure out why things might be the way they are”
  • Understand a trend over time by measuring changes in individuals

de Vaus (2013) in contrast says they are “not just a particular technique for collecting information” but defines them in more statistical terms based on the data they generate – namely a “structured or systematic set of data” which he terms a “variable by case data grid”.

Typically, when one thinks of surveys, questionnaires immediately come to mind. Indeed, O’Leary uses the two terms almost interchangeably. de Vaus (2013) and Aldridge & Levine (2001), in contrast, see questionnaires as just one tool among many (including structured or in-depth interviews, observation, and content analysis) that can be employed to carry out surveys. O’Leary sees these approaches as methods by which you administer a survey or questionnaire (e.g. via a panel, via a phone interview).

As de Vaus (ibid) notes surveys are typically “regarded as being inherently quantitative and positivistic” as they generate factual information rather than more nuanced views. However, using mixed methods approaches that combine questionnaires with other approaches such as interviews and focus groups can overcome this perceived limitation.


Advantages Limitations
O’Leary (2013) notes they:

·       “Reach a large number of respondents;

·       Represent an even larger population;

·       Allow for comparisons;

·       Generate standardized, quantifiable, empirical data;

·       Generate qualitative data through the use of open-ended questions;

·       Be confidential and even anonymous.’


·       “Survey instruments are notoriously difficult to get right.”(O’Leary, 2013)

·       “Getting enough survey respondents within your timeframe” (O’Leary, 2013)

·       There is no “ideal typical” model to be adopted (de Vaus, 2013)

·       Surveys are not truly scientific as variables cannot be controlled (Aldridge & Levine, 2001)


In terms of my specific area of interest, I am planning to use a survey as one of the first stages of my research. The survey aims to uncover both perception and practice in terms of ICT for Education for Sustainable Development – which will be particularly useful as the literature actually offers rather few examples and cases upon which to build.

In my field, a number of examples demonstrate surveys in ESD or ICT:

  • Buckler & Creech’s (2014) review of the impact of the UN Decade for ESD used surveys and semi-structure interviews to consult stakeholders on their views on outcomes and changes as a result of the policy initiative.
  • European Schoolnet & University of Liege (2013) carried out a large-scale randomised survey examining the status and use of ICT in education in schools, to act as a benchmark and inform future policy decisions.


Aldridge, A. E., & Levine, K. (2001). Why Survey? In Surveying in the Social World (pp. 1–24). Buckingham: Open University Press.

Buckler, C., & Creech, H. (2014). Shaping the Future We Want: UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). Paris. Retrieved from

de Vaus, D. (2013). Surveys in Social Science Research. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.

European Schoolnet, & University of Liege. (2013). Survey of Schools: ICT in Education, Benchmarking Access, Use and Attitudes to Technology in Europe’s Schools, Final Study Report. Brussels. doi:10.2759/94499

O’Leary, Z. (2013). The Essential Guide to Doing Your Research Project. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi: Sage.

Summative assessment: like real life?

As part of my course at the Institute of Education in London, when I read the literature on assessing in different contexts, and in general ed-tech discussions online and at conferences, I feel often that summative assessment is characterized as being unrealistic due to the high levels of pressure and requirement for individual performance. Especially when compared to formative, online tools of assessment (e.g. those highlighted in Redecker 2013’s review of ICT tools to evaluate key competences) which enable collaboration.

However, during my work, I have often found myself in situations in which skills I developed through “sudden death” examination systems like those used in the UK in the 90s have been extremely useful. These skills include: ability to learn and recall a large body of content in a short period of time; ability to write quickly under heavy deadline pressure, and to be able to manage a high workload without much input from others. In my former job, I had to submit proposals to the European Commission with tough deadlines, synthesizing a large amount of information and with relatively little time available to do further research to input into the proposal drafts. I would often write the bulk of these documents alone due to the low availability of HR to support.

Nonetheless, even in this kind of pressured environment I did still have internet access and could call on expertise if needed. In this respect, I think that it points to the Danish approach to summative examinations as being a realistic one. In Denmark, students are allowed internet access, and are even allowed to collaborate during exams (Cunnane 2011 and Knight 2013). This has forced exams to evolve to test competences, analytical skills and higher order thinking rather than recall. There’s a video about it available via the BBC (cited in Knight, 2013). Although the literature available in English mentions it as a pilot, it has now been scaled out to more institutions according to Danish colleagues. An interesting model to replicate elsewhere.


Cunnane, S. (2011) The Danish gambit: online access, even during exams. Times Higher Education Online.

Knight, S. (2013) Danish use of internet in exams – epistemology, pedagogy, assessment… Finding Knowledge blog.

Redecker, C. (2013) The Use of ICT for the Assessment of Key Competences. JRC Scientific and Policy Reports. EUR 25891 EN. Accessed 24/05/2015

Constructing online identities: choices and platforms

My work for IOE London included an activity on analysing a post, and constructing online identity. It made me want to explore two issues: one the clash between different identities online and second, how the affordances of platforms affect identity construction.

First, I want to share some points from Danah Boyd’s book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” is a seminal book on online behaviors and identity. In the first chapter of the book she highlights some interesting cases. One I’d like to highlight is the first case she raises: a black teenager from South Central LA (a deprived neighbourhood) applyling to an Ivy League college. The admissions team searched for his online profiles, and came across his MySpace profile. They were shocked to find that he had gang signs and imagery on his profile, which was not at all what he had been projecting in his college application. Boyd was offered to give advice on the situation to the admissions board; she posited that this behaviour was a needed survival strategy in his neighbourhood.

This vignette indicates some of the typical issues which can be encountered when various identities clash. It is an illustration of an anthropological vision of modernist behaviour in society: “Although many people continue to be members of and identify with groups, they believe their group identities to be matters of individual choice, which can be changed without stigma.” (Merelman, 1984 cited by McCracken 2008).

As Boyd goes on to explain later in her chapter, it is much easier to segregate identities in the real world than in the virtual one in many ways. As social platforms become more widely adopted, spaces which were previously targeting only one subset of people in a person’s life become much more public places. Facebook is a typical example of this, as a space which was initially colonised by young people (students) and then latterly widening out to include almost anyone. Thus, content which could be shared freely in earlier stages of the platform’s existence becomes less appropriate as it evolves to encompass new users. However, as Facebook has evolved, tools have also been put into place which allow differential sharing of content depending on who accesses an individual’s profile – I am not convinced that many people are using these features though.

A contrasting example is Second Life, where all identity expression is collapsed into one virtual avatar, in a 3D game-like space. I have been thinking again about SL since the tutors plan to use it for a course activity during this module. Personally, I had stopped using Second Life as my impression was that many people were using it for sexual purposes rather than as a broader community platform. I started to dig into some of the literature on SL for education and I wasn’t immediately reassured – Baldwin & Achterberg’s 2013 chapter on SL for education starts with this:

“At first, I noticed something rolling across the circle we were all seated in, and then their appeared in the middle of our circle a big pile of virtual feces, complete with flies buzzing around it. As if this weren’t bad enough, the next thing that happened was unthinkable. On every student’s screen, as well as my own, appeared a repeated image of a super-sized, naked woman.”

However the author then remarks that such incidents are extremely rare once the tutor has more experience and has identified a more protected environment where “trolls” and “griefers” (i.e. virtual vandals) cannot affect or disturb educational environments. Indeed, I know there used to be a Second Life educational server for children – but I’m not sure this still exists.

As regards identity, my impression has been that SL, due to the ability to control very effectively physical embodiment, stimulates individuals to take on very “beautiful” roles and identities. Indeed, in Baldwin & Achterberg’s chapter they go on to explain that many students take on two stereotypical roles: the macho man, and the sought-after woman. So despite the freedom the platform gives, it seems to result in many people taking on just two “desirable” identities. However, the chapter also goes on to describe that the platform can also be used to explore identity in a very tangible way: all students were forced to become the “Kool Aid Man” (a well-known US cartoon character used to advertise a soft drink). As Kool-Aid Man, the students experienced many forms of discrimination in SL, and it made the experience of being an “outsider” much more tangible.

So what can I conclude from all this? Firstly, that identity is a fluid concept, and as individuals we need/want to portray different identities to different people in our lives. We need online tools that enable us to do this. And secondly, that virtual spaces which give a more singular tangible virtual form may push us towards normative identities. Finally, SL may have more educational potential than I estimated and I’m more positive about the potential for the platform during the course than I was prior to writing this post!


Baldwin, Dianna, and Achterberg, Julie, eds. (2013) Women and Second Life : Essays on Virtual Identity, Work and Play. McFarland & Company, Jefferson, NC, USA.

Boyd, D. (2014) It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press, New Haven.

McCracken, Grant David (2008) Transformations : Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture.  Indiana University Press

Merelman, RIchard M (1984) Making Something of Ourselves: On Culture and Politics in the United States University of California Press, Berkley US.

Models for building online communities for learning

My first weeks of involvement in the Institute of Education course have inspired a few thoughts. The first is the similarity between online course leadership and  community building from a broader perspective. The second focuses more on the first weeks of this course, and how it acts as a case study for the exploration of Salmon’s model.

While reading the various references, I am struck by how much the early principles identified for community building have persisted despite the increasing technical sophistication of platforms and broader applications of collaborative tools from work to learning and leisure. In particular, the models in Salmon (2011) are broadly similar to those in Kim (2000). In contrast to Salmon’s work, Kim’s work focuses on communities more broadly rather than specifically in education. I have mapped Kim’s nine principles to Salmon’s five step model in the below table.

Salmon’s five step model Kim’s 9 design strategies
5. Development – links outside conferences; supporting, responding  
4. Knowledge construction – conferencing; facilitating process Facilitate member-run subgroups; Create rituals of community life
3. Information exchange – searching and personalizing; faciliate tasks and support learning material use Create meaningful and evolving member profiles
2. Online socialization – sending and receiving messages; familiarizing and providing bridges Design for a range of roles; Develop a strong leadership program; Encourage appropriate etiquette; Promote cyclic events
1. Access and motivation – setting up system; welcoming and encouraging Define and articulate purpose; build flexible, extensible gathering places

One can observe from this comparison, that the majority of activities involved in online communities for education are essentially the same as in other areas. In the table, it appears that the final “development” stage is neglected in Kim’s approach – however she further develops her principles through three underlying principles – the final of which is “empower members over time” which broadly maps to “development” in stage 5 of Salmon’s model. Arguably the only key difference is that the ultimate purpose of the cases that Salmon explores is for learning, which is assessed in a formal context such as a university course.

Salmon’s five step model of online learning communities is particularly interesting to help structure online activities. In this module, the first week of introductions fit squarely into “access and motivation” (stage 1) and “socialising” (stage 2) in her model. Of the two stages, stage 1 is much less visible to the students, but presumably is highly visible for tutors prior to launching the course and in tracking which students are not able to access the tools. The exception to this is “welcoming” which has been clearly visible via our co-tutors kick off posts, as well as their follow up mails to encourage/reply to participants. Meanwhile the “socializing” stage is significantly more visible to students as we have all participated heavily. The tutors method for creating “stickiness” in this phase was more effective than I have witnessed in many other similar online courses. The introduction of a game-based element (spot the lie among the statements) generated much more engagement between participants in this step. Other courses I have been involved in sometimes end up with students just posting their own introduction while not reading those of others. It will be interesting to see if the initial high level of social interaction creates a dynamic which is sustained over the course.


Kim, Amy Jo (2000) Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities, Peachpit Press, San Francisco.

Salmon, Gilly (2011) e-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online. 3rd edition. Routledge, New York.