Archive for October, 2010

Sustainable development and education in the digital age

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

What is the role of education, open education and online communities in sustainable development?

sustainable education1 Sustainable development and education in the digital age

The classical definition of sustainable development is that we should use the global resources only so that the generation coming after us will inherit the planet in as good shape as it was when we were born. We got something from the earlier generations and should past it forward for our children and grant children.

Sustainable development is often divided to (1) ecological, (2) economical, (3) social, and (4) cultural sustainability. The different elements of sustainable development are in a close interaction, having an effect on each other.

The ecological sustainability means that the ecosystem, the global system as a whole (climate etc.) and all local ecosystems, are protected. For instance, as long as there are species disappearing cause by human behavior and reckless usage of non-renewable natural resources, there isn’t sustainable development in the ecological sense.

In economical sustainable development the growth should be stable and balanced. We should not be in depth and consume only according to the sustainability of the ecological system. For instance, it is reasonable to ask is the climate change is a result of unsustainable economical development?

Social sustainability would mean that all people of the world would have basic living conditions: health, well-being, education, dignity and freedom to do sustainable choices. If you follow any world news you know that we are far from this.

Reaching cultural sustainability we are not doing much better than with the social sustainability. Cultural sustainable development would mean that we protect the cultural diversity of the world. All cultures should have a right to persist and develop. With the fact, that humankind is loosing language every two week we are far from a cultural sustainability.

As said before the ecological, economical, social and cultural sustainable development are interlinked: they have an effect to each other. In the Global North, in the wealthy world, we easily put a lot of attention to the questions of ecological and economical sustainability. Engineers and economics often see that this is something they can solve: we simply develop clean technology and build economical system that is sustainable. Unfortunately the actual problem is far more complex: there is the complexity caused by the social and cultural aspects, the complexity of a human and mankind.

In the Global North we largely have — though not for all (that is a huge shame) — socially and culturally sustainable life. We all get maternity package, basic health care and education. Because of this we are able to focus on ecological and economical sustainability. This is also behind the illusion of seeing the question of sustainable development trivial; technological and economical challenge.

Majority of the world is not like Finland, Europe, Australia or North America and the causes of unsustainable development do not respect national boarders. Because the sustainable development is a global phenomena, we in the Global North must pay attention to social and cultural sustainability, too. Without doing it our investment on ecological and economical sustainability will be lost.

A simple example. You may have the perfect technology and logistics to collect and recycle domestic waste, but if you do not have incentives for all the ordinary people to “feed” the system it will be useless. You must understand what is the cultural-historical practices of waste management in homes to design experiences and new practices that will have the incentives in them.

What is the role of education in sustainable development?

Educational system (schools, colleges and universities) should primary contribute to social and cultural sustainability, and from that angle provide skills and knowledge to solve the problems of ecological and economical challenges.

Understanding human behavior, social structures, culture and cultural differences is critical when we aim to reach sustainable development. Having solid knowledge on science, technology and economics is needed, too, but it is not enough.

Educational system should guarantee, that all the people of the world will have critical thinking skills and a set of basic skills and knowledge that will empower them to choose sustainable lifestyle. Education should provide people with ability to balance with the different aspects of sustainable development.

Paradoxically the real problem lays in the point when people move from absolute poverty to have more material resources. In absolute poverty people often have ecologically and culturally sustainable life. The unbalance is in the social and economical sustainability; unstable economical situation, no health, no well-being, no education, no dignity, nor freedom of choice.

When people get more material resources they also get more social good. Same time their effects on ecological and cultural sustainability often gets unbalanced. Suddenly the things that use to be good from the sustainable development point of view becomes problems: people start to have a greater impact on issues related to ecological and cultural sustainability: They start to consume more, ask for cheaper products, produce more waste and same time loose connection to their original cultural heritage.

To provide people with skills and knowledge that will help people to keep the balance in sustainable development is a task of the educational system. People should be “educated” enough to recognize how the achievements in social and economical development will effect on ecological and cultural development.

What about open education and online communities?

A huge challenge for the “official” educational system is that more and more of learning takes place outside the “system”. We learn online with others: sometimes in more or less structured manner (like in Open Education) but mainly informally in our social network. We read and watch what our friends in the network are recommending for us and share our discoveries with them. The big question is: what is the quality and value of this kind of learning?

I am afraid that the quality of learning in online social networking, if measured with classical factors — such as deep understanding, assimilation, proportion and seeing the big picture — stays relatively low. The use value, the exchange value, of knowing the latest buzz can still be very high.

To have quality we need schools, colleges and universities. We need people who are committed to guide new generations to explore and discover the big picture, to have critical thinking and problem solving skills. Having these requires years of hard work, often called studying.

Schools, colleges and universities are there also to bootstrap the open education and other communities in social media to achieve discourse that is constructive and progressive.

This post is related to the lecture I gave last week at the Aalto University School of Science and Technology. The lecture (in Finnish) is available online, too.