Digital-only course design: lessons learned from Sustainable Futures

The EAUC, Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges, is an influential leader worldwide on all things sustainability and climate change. I’ve attended several annual EAUC conferences in person and this year online for the first time. It’s always a big affair with thousands of attendees and hundreds of presentations. As a week-long event, it’s quite the time commitment and also relatively expensive to attend (in the hundreds of £££ each!).  

Prof Chris Preist (Engineering) and I attended the 2020 conference earlier in November and presented key lessons learned from designing and running the “Sustainable Futures” MOOC (massive open online course), hosted on the Futurelearn platform. We’ve completed nine runs of the course to date, so we have lots of meaningful qualitative data and observations on how learners respond to the content and approaches taken. 

About the course 

A big difference between our course and others in the “green” category is that we’re not just about or even mostly about environmental sustainability. That is often very surprising to learners who have joined us without reading the description in detail. Despite some initial trepidation, learners quickly get into the swing of things.  

The first week focuses on personal reflection with lots of individual activities undertaken by learners, with a prominent focus on happiness and purpose. The second week looks at Bristol-based case studies, from food waste to homelessness and energy. In week three, we cast our eyes globally to understand greenhouse gases (CF4s), microplastics, and the intersection of community, environment and archaeology in Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage site of Butrint. Finally, the last week draws the learning together framed around personal journey’s, the unpredictability of life, and how we can each make a difference in the world.  

Graphical representation of the Sustainable Futures MOOC weekly breakdown of content

This structure takes the learner on a journey of introspection, followed by enquiries into small-scale local projects, then bigger more complex endeavours, before returning to introspection again with new insights, awareness and revelations. Every year learners express how they are transformed by the experience and how it has changed them not in the moment but their whole direction and outlook on life. When we first set out designing the course, alongside Dr Eleni Michalopoulou (Chemistry), we never imagined this level of meaningful impact. 

Seeing the succession of similar comments over several runs has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, and something I will cherish for years to come. 

Core Principles for Success 

Our course is founded on interdisciplinarity and multi-vocality. We took a challenge-focused approach to engaging with each of the main topics, inviting insights from academics, communities, NGOs, government officials, students and individuals from all walks of life, demographics and nationalities. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework was also used as a unifying device and point of frequent reference.  

It was important to embed diverse roles, contributions and voices so that the course resonated with our global audience. Learners see and hear themselves in the stories from our contributors. It helps them to connect personally and emotionally to the barriers they have overcome, the unexpected twists and turns in their career path, and in how they find motivation to make change.  

Personal stories prompt learners to reflect on their own story, while the humanity and challenges shared, such as overcoming mental health crisis, ensure that we avoid fictional hero narratives that are unrealistic. 


The main benefits to undertaking the course, identified by our learners, are framed around concepts that they explore and personal capabilities that they develop: 

  • Explored the value of community and individual action
  • Explored authentic narratives for positive action 
  • Explored the complexity of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals 
  • Awareness of the ‘big picture’ from multiple perspectives 

Capabilities developed: ​ 

  • Self-awareness​ 
  • Self-reflection​ 
  • Self-care​ 
  • Self-confidence​ 
  • Motivation to act​ 
  • Personal resilience​ 

Each cohort reflected that they: 

  • Learn more about themselves and what motivates them 
  • Learn to appreciate the importance of community action 
  • Develop an increased understanding and practice of self-care and resilience 
  • Are inspired to action – in their personal lives, in their communities and in their (future) careers. 

Changing for the future 

Running this course over several runs has also given the Lead Educators many things to consider in how we change and update the course in the future. Waves of young activist voices rise against climate change and plastic pollution (e.g. Leah Namugerwa, Autumn Peltier, Ridhima Pandey, Kaluki Paul Mutuku, Greta Thunberg, Aditya Mukarji, Nina Gualinga) alongside global environmental movements (e.g. Extinction Rebellion).  

We were proud of the inclusion of a broad range of voices in our course (e.g. LGBTQ+ inclusion; gender, ethnic & political balance), however, the growing calls for inclusion of indigenous worldviews to counter colonialist narratives has spurred us to recognise and embed this facet of global society in a way that was missing from our original design. We are always learning from our community on the course and hope to invite more perspectives as we all change and grow together.  

Finally, in the face of such socio-environmental movements, there is always resistance. In our presentation, I voiced how it can be an important role of educators to both invite change and also resist it when it is counter to the ethos and ethics inherent in our sustainable pedagogies (e.g. the Department of Education’s ban on anti-capitalist educational content). These are pedagogical questions that matter and relate to our values, our willingness to bend but not break, and in some cases actively resist political and ideological interference.  

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