What would it look like if sustainability were the foundation of Learning Design? Imagine if Chapter 1 of the book, or Week 1 of the course is about sustainability? What would that do to the way you would enable learners to approach the rest of your course, and who would you need to work with?

Melissa Edwards, UTS Business School

In the final Learning Design Meetup of 2022, we invited A/Prof Melissa Edwards (UTS Business School) and Professor Sara Wilkinson (School of Built Environment/ DAB) to share their extensive experience working with sustainability and university curricula.

  • Melissa is a Director of the Executive MBA program at the UTS Business School and currently serves as the inaugural Climate Action fellow for the Australian Business Deans Council. She researches and teaches about sustainable enterprise and responsible management, complexity theory, and social impact. 
  • Sara is a chartered building surveyor and Australia‚Äôs first female Professor of Property. Her transdisciplinary research program sits at the intersection of sustainability, urban development and transformation, with a focus on green cities and preparing our urban environments for the challenges of climate change.

View their 20-minute panel discussion with PGLD Learning Designer Christina Brauer in the video below, or read on for selected highlights from this fascinating conversation.

Principles: frameworks and definitions

Melissa and Sara both spoke about the importance of ‘principles’ in their work with sustainability and curriculum. For Sara, the difficulty we have in understanding and communicating sustainability stems from what W.B. Gallie would call an ‘essentially contestable concept‘ – something that can be interpreted from multiple perspectives and carry different meanings. Part of the challenge has been in agreeing terms and what they describe (for example, a ‘green building’), and those terms being accepted by professional bodies whose disciplines our teaching reflects.

Once the professional bodies started to adopt it and incorporate it into their learning requirements for professional body members, then we could integrate it more into our university subjects, gearing our students up for those professions.

Sara Wilkinson

Melissa also encouraged us to think about the principles that drive how we think about education and the journey we take students on. She refers to UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development framework, which offers toolkits and guidance for embedding sustainability. She advised starting with aspects you’re already familiar with and consider how you currently think about the subject or course you’re responsible for, then looking at how sustainability can fit in.

Partnerships: working with experts and across disciplines

A strong theme during the discussion focussed on the importance of partnership, working with other people, and bringing partners in from professional practice. Both speakers warned against trying to go it alone, noting that where sustainability is concerned, everyone is developing their knowledge on an ongoing basis.

We don’t always have the answers. We bring in experts from industry and they don’t have the answers, either – we’re writing the case studies as we go!

Melissa Edwards

In a university and curriculum context, they advised working with subject coordinators across your program and learning objectives, looking for opportunities for learners to take sustainability with them through the subject, not just in a single module or activity. Coordinating across multiple levels, with peers as well as academic leadership, is important for ongoing recognition of the time and efforts involved.

Working across disciplines to learn and share practice in embedding sustainability is invaluable, and Sara noted that she has worked with disciplines right across the university, including health, science, engineering and business. Over 35 years of academia, she has seen sustainability become embedded in valuations, property management, and construction subjects, to name just a few.

Place-based: connecting with practice

The final ‘p’ in embedding sustainability refers to ‘place-based’, or as Melissa described, the importance of making it really practical. In Business, this can mean thinking about broader impacts, like how to create change across a value chain, which will be an important part of their future workplace practice.

We have an obligation to prepare thinkers of the future, so we have to give space for that within our curriculum.

Melissa Edwards

Both Melissa and Sara spoke of a capability or mindset here, rather than a specific set of knowledge. In universities, we’re preparing ourselves and our students to think about a future without necessarily knowing what that is.

I get my students to create that knowledge (that isn’t yet known). They love being engaged in something you’re doing that’s real-world research, something that might help change things a little bit.

Sara Wilkinson

What can learning designers do?

As researchers, we’re helping students develop an evidence base to be able to create the future world that we keep talking about.

Melissa Edwards

In bringing their panel discussion to a close, our speakers challenged the learning designers in the meeting to put their unique skill sets into action. Learning designers have such relevant capabilities and a wonderful breadth of exposure to different disciplines and contexts. How do we build that into learning design so we can validate that capability in learners?

If you really want to challenge your own thinking, Melissa suggested a thought experiment, imagining if sustainability principles were the foundation of a program, and not a chapter in book to be ticked off and forgotten. What would that mean for the subject, and the learners? Who would you need to work with in different disciplines? How would your mindset need to change, with this sustainability perspective?

Above all, they both emphasised, we must start somewhere, even if the task looks daunting. Since there is no ‘right answer’ in this broad and evolving area, we all need to have an experimental mindset and be open to learning along the way.

Don’t be afraid to have a go and try things out. Even if you hit a dead end, you’re going to learn something from that, and can try something different next time.

Sara Wilkinson

Further reading and resources

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