OER 2022 – Online learning in a time of environmental crisis

I’m pleased to have had a paper accepted for this year’s international Open Education (OER) Conference on the topic of sustainability and online learning. Open Education has always been a core principle of mine as a educationalist, enabling knowledge creation and sharing outside the walls (be they physical or virtual) of the university. This year I’ll be discussing the complexities in interweaving the rhetoric of online learning and sustainability, and demonstrate how universal design for learning can support the design of online courses that address learners’ environmental, societal and economic contexts. Within the context of my talk I’ll be introducing two recently launched open short courses: Carbon and Energy in the Built Environment and Introduction to the Rapid Planning Toolkit developed by UCEM in collaboration with the Climate Framework and the Princes’ Foundation.


Rising ecological instability and its accompanying societal and economical turmoil is our planet’s most pressing crisis. For educational institutions the challenge is stark – ‘if we as educators are serious about preparing our students for the future, we must […] ensure that every graduate has not only the knowledge and skills but the attributes that will enable them at least to cope and ideally thrive in the face of the multiple challenges they will face across their life course in the 21st century’. (QAA & AdvanceHE 2021).

Education for sustainable development (ESD) develops learners’ knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to address sustainability issues. It helps learners to understand the interlinked economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainability and in doing so ‘empowers them to take informed decisions and make responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society’ (UNESCO).

Open education resources and educational technologies can enable wide scale ESD, opening up access and bringing learners together to ‘live what they learn and learn where they live’ (UNESCO). This accompanies the assumption that digital education is a positive and progressive endeavour – reducing paper resources, on-campus power use and the carbon emissions of travelling students, enabling learners from across the globe to come together to become ‘agents of sustainable development’ (Becker and Otto 2019). However, environmental issues rarely feature in discussions of educational technology. As Neil Selwyn (2021) proposes, positive assumptions do not consider possible futures where digital technologies will no longer be available and accessible on mass, or the role that they play in exuberating the climate crisis itself – online learning is after all a practice that relies on the mining of natural resources, energy hungry systems and processing.

This presentation will invite participants to consider the role of educational technology in a sustainability context, moving beyond what we teach to the opportunities and limitations in open online modalities of learning. Using two open online courses as a lens, it will reflect on how sustainable approaches can be used within the course design process and how we can actively address the environmental, societal and economical contexts of learners: one course is designed for busy professionals in the UK, the other for secondary city mayors and leaders in the global south. It will address the pedagogical tensions between designing online learning at scale and employing inclusive glocalized approaches best suited to ESD. The session will conclude by inviting participants to critically consider our community’s role and actions to support a more sustainable future in the midst of a climate crisis.


Becker, S, Otto, D (2019) Digital learning and sustainable development. In: Leal Filho, W (ed). Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education. Rotterdam: Springer.

QAA and Advance HE (2021) Education for sustainable development: Guidance. Quality Assurance Agency & Higher Education Academy (March 2021). Available online: www.qaa.ac.uk/quality-code/education-for-sustainable-development.

Selwyn, N (2021) Ed-Tech Within Limits: Anticipating educational technology in times of environmental crisis. E-Learning and Digital Media. 2021;18(5):496-510.

UNESCO. What is education for sustainable development? Available online: https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-sustainable-development/what-is-esd

OER 2022 is organised by the Association of Learning Technology and co-chaired by the Global Graduate OER Network. It is being held over three days on the 26-28 April. This year the conference is hybrid.. You can register to attend at OER Conference 2022 (alt.ac.uk).