MOOCs Bachelor in Sustainable Development

MOOCs Bachelor in Sustainable Development

MOOCs Bachelor in Sustainable Development

by Erling Moxnes

Erling Moxnes (Norwegian, born 1952) is a professor in system dynamics at the University of Bergen (Norway). He has a PhD from Dartmouth College (USA). He has published on resource management and economics with a focus on misperceptions of dynamics and on policy.

Research shows that people have great difficulties understanding and controlling dynamic systems. Therefore, people may argue and vote for policies that are not consistent with own preferences for sustainable development. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) that inform and correct misperceptions have the potential to reach millions of people. Courses can be offered free of tuition. Such courses may be of particular importance for change agents that can make use of such courses in their daily work. The ‘big idea’ is to develop a full distance-learning Bachelor program in sustainable development.

When making decisions, decision-makers, including voters in elections, must rely on their intuition, knowledge, and deep convictions. Learning for improved decision-making requires two crucial conditions to be satisfied: there must be learning opportunities and learning must be effective.

In terms of the first condition, massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a new invention that opens up learning possibilities for people all over the world. No longer do students have to travel to elite universities to get the best available education; it can be available at any computer with web-connections. Since every person in the world does not have internet connections and is not prepared for courses in complex issues, MOOCs are first of all important as a mean to educate change agents; people that can transform advanced knowledge into practical solutions at local levels.

Addressing the second condition, learning about complex issues requires teaching methods that question existing understanding, help students develop intuition, foster analytical skills, and enable transfer and application of knowledge. Interactive, online teaching can be used for these purposes through the use of challenging tasks in the form of simulators, probing questions and suggested answers for gradual knowledge construction, simulation models to learn about structure and behaviour of systems, and application tasks where acquired knowledge is put to practical use. Each task can be followed by debriefing videos that explain the specifics and generalize the results.

Let’s look at an example of how this may apply in practice. People tend to assume that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere vary in pace with yearly emissions. Hence, people are inclined to opt for wait-and-see policies, where the growth in emissions is halted only when problematic climate change is observed. To challenge these incorrect assumptions, students get to see historical data from the early 1980s when the atmospheric concentration increased steadily in spite of stagnating emissions. To understand why halting emissions is not sufficient to stop the increase in the concentration, students work with simulation models and use these to explore policies for sustainable development.

An online, distance-learning course in Natural Resources Management (GEO-SD660) offered by the University of Bergen is a first course that meets the two above conditions. The example with greenhouse gases is from one of the cases in the course. After the pilot class in 2013, increasing numbers of students will get access to the course. The ‘big idea’ is to develop a full Bachelor program in sustainable development.