Monday, 20 May 2013

Educational Sustainability.

A theme that occurs in both David Orr's speech and Ken Robinson's talk is of education being geared to meet the needs of University Entrance noting that universities do not result in producing people who will be most useful in nurturing and sustaining our world.

This led me to consider various aspects of sustainability and education, some which link snugly together, others that sit on there own. So at the risk of exposing my rambling nature here are some thoughts.

Creating an Image of Sustainability.

Sustainability is often represented with images of unfolding ferns and pure landscapes. Yet it strikes me that there are so many parts, factors, influences and a degree of the unknown that would make the image of sustainability more microbial.

That is all the great ideas, concepts, plans, goals, methods float around the atmosphere they must wait to find the right host with which to bind to effect change, like bacteria surrounding a cell. If enough come together in the right circumstances then the rate of proliferation can be great and the whole organism can change, yet if the environment is not suitable no host will be found, change cannot proliferate and we remain as we were.

Using the images and metaphors from the world of bacteria and viruses may not paint as pretty a picture as the unfolding fern or babbling brook but it does represent the random nature of how sustainable change occurs in our world.

Binding the Bacteria in Education.

Doubtless the majority of those who work at OP would claim a personal commitment to sustainability. We teach it, weave it thorough our courses and learning outcomes and hope to produce graduates who are cognisant of it as they move into the world post studying with us. Yet what is it that gets some ideas around sustainability in education to stick and how much do we lose by our hands being tied by forces we cannot control?

Flexible Learning and the Corporate Giants.

We may embrace flexible learning and the non traditional delivery methods that come with it. Methods that improve learner diversity, collaboration and learner centred learning. Yet have we considered the devices we ask our students to have to enable them to join us. Laptops, broadband, wifi, ipads, tablets, smart phones have become the enablers of sustainable learning. But what of the companies who produce these devices? What service are we giving to sustainability every time we put our educational dollars in the pockets of corporate giants where profit is king and the creed of capitalism ranks far and above a consideration of sustainability.

Sure there are sustainable features to some of these companies, but if we look at the simple fact that they are global rather than local companies we can illustrate how our reliance on them restricts our options in view of controlling our own destiny by having economic freedom. In Ella Lawton's work around 'Localisation as a Multiplier' she considers that if money is spent locally, 80% of that money will go back into the local economy, spend it globally the economic benefits drop to 20%.

Thus we can consider the sustainable benefits of changes to educational delivery, but the question remains can we reconcile these with the losses that we hand to corporate technology giants.

 Link to Ella Lawton's Tedx talk

The Challenge of Bringing Opposing Forces Together.

One of the challenges facing us when incorporating sustainability into our facilitating and learning are the opposing forces of what is demanded to be quantified and the less quantifiable ways in which people now learn.

It is interesting to read Lockwood's work on timing and content, trying to provide a guideline to us as our courses must fit into credit values and associated hours. Yet this seems to sit at the opposing end of the spectrum when considering effective pedagogy. How do we put a time around reflection  or experiential learning? How do we quantify the moment of transformational change that occurs with some learners?

How truly do we value creativity and the value of learning if it is forced to conform to an assessment and grade to produce a result that must stand up to the scrutiny of qualifications authorities and statutory bodies?

Steve Henry gives us a bit more food for thought on this here:


Lockwood, F. (2005). Estimating student workload, readability and implications for student learning and progression. Australia: ODLAA.


  1. Hi Emma
    I really enjoyed reading your post.
    I had very similar thoughts about 'educational sustainability'. For me, I think you actually summed up the answer as your last question.
    Unfortunately, even in areas of 'creative (arts) education', there are way too many 'boxes' to fit in, which in my experience kills creativity and the joy of learning.

    1. Thanks for your comments. The more I think about this the more I think that unless we have assessment strategies that can capture the creativity and the less mainstream but perhaps brilliant learners out there we are going to find ourselves in a mouses wheel going around and around but going nowhere.

      I don't mean to sound so cynical....having a big week of ticking the boxes!!!!

  2. Yes, that 'mouses wheel going around but going nowhere' is a bit of a worry.
    I think in my teaching context at Addiction Rehab I am actually quite lucky because:
    a) of the subject I facilitate: Art & Creativity - and
    b) I do not have an existing program/policy/assessment criteria etc I have to work by.
    I am free to create my own version of an Art Class, using a very personalized teaching style - very much learner centered.
    The more I learn through this GCTLT course, the more I get the feeling that it could potentially be rather frustrating for lectures working at a Polytechnic or Uni having to 'fit into the existing system', that would not be easy to 'shift'.
    The question then arrises: how much can a teacher be free to apply their own personal, creative style when having to comply to 'this or that'?
    Even so Sir Ken Robinson speaks about Schools/Children, I do think that a lot of what he says applies to any level of education:
    Ken Robinson about : How to escape education’s death valley
    FILMED APR 2013 • POSTED MAY 2013 • TED Talks Education

  3. Emma this is a fabulous reflection. You make many important points about sustainability. I totally agree that in our drive for online learning, we are 'sucking up', if you like, to the big companies who provide the technologies that we need to support it. In many situations, the work conditions are less than ideal. Case in point the people making ipads who are pretty much kept as prisoners. One of the reasons I have resisted. However, I have ended up with an eepad but I am not sure if the producers of android devices are any better.

    I totally agree with this statement: "How truly do we value creativity and the value of learning if it is forced to conform to an assessment and grade to produce a result that must stand up to the scrutiny of qualifications authorities and statutory bodies?"

    However, I still think that we can encourage creativity and the nuturing of imagination through the learning experiences that we create. To be able to do this, teachers need to share and collaborate and develop their confidence in designing creative learning experiences - hopefully technologies can be used to support unique learning and teaching approaches. Is this possible, really within the constraints that we face?