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Mobilising for sustainability: New technologies bring learning to everyone

This story is the fourth entry in a Future Earth blog series series called “Mobilising for sustainability.” We're highlighting people, programmes and technologies from around the world that seek to build new ways of bringing non-traditional groups, including young people, hackers and more, into sustainability research – and in generating new solutions for the challenges of today. We encourage you to share your own examples of efforts to create momentum toward global sustainability in the comments section below and on Facebook and Twitter.

Read earlier stories from this series about sustainability summer programmes, a 30-day challenge and hackathons.

Editor’s note: To get the full sensory experience, we recommended that you play this while reading.

Seagulls croon overhead while the lazy sea laps on the beach. A man in a blue shirt appears, introduces himself and invites you to join him on a voyage of discovery to the mysterious depths of the ocean. He gestures to a strange-looking contraption, a personal submarine – the kind you might be familiar with from that favorite Leonardo DiCaprio tear-jerker, Titanic. The man hops in, and the hatch closes.

But this is not a Hollywood movie. It’s a virtual classroom run by marine scientists, economists, lawyers and philosophers with a passion for making sustainability science freely available to anyone. It’s what is called a Massive Open Online Course, or a MOOC. The couse is an example of how educators are using new technologies to bring university learning to people living around the world – all you need is an internet connection.

One Planet: One Ocean: From Science to Solutions“ has enabled thousands of people around the world to learn how the ocean functions, how humans interact with this watery ecosystem and what solutions are available to support both sustainable use and stewardship of our blue planet. And as its name suggests, the course emphasises that there is only one ocean – with the Pacific, Atlantic and other ocean basins joined in a single connected environment. The programme is part of a series of open online courses commissioned by the educational arm of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) that go beyond the traditional sustainable development curriculum.

“We’re giving people around the world a wonderful distillation of knowledge that matters. They have access to good information, good reasons, good arguments and good material,” says Avan Antia, Head of the Integrated School of Ocean Sciences at the University of Kiel, Germany, and an instructor in the course.

Democratised knowledge

With the average cost of university tuition now at U.S. $9,000 per year, higher education has become increasingly inaccessible for many would-be learners. That’s where MOOCs come in. Since they  entered the education scene in 2008, MOOCs have democratised knowledge by making courses free or low cost. They take diverse forms but often include lectures that students can tune into from anywhere and may include assignments and discussion forums.

Take “One Planet: One Ocean,” which started on 25 April 2016 and wrapped up on 20 July. Organisers professionally recorded and edited the courses, often filming on beaches, in the lab and on research vessels, breathing life back into learning material that, in many cases, has slowly suffocated in lecture theatres over the years. The course was also an interactive experience – participants could discuss course material and ask questions to lecturers and other students through online forums and live web seminars (webinars).

“We’re trying to make it as interesting as we can. Indeed, it’s been quite exciting for us," says Martin Visbeck, chair of Physical Oceanography at GEOMAR Helmholtz-Zentrum für Ozeanforschung Kiel and Kiel University in Germany, and lead instructor of the online course. "In the first three weeks we had more than 1000 entries on the forum. I read most of them and gave a short comment back,”

The MOOC was also one of the most diverse classrooms at the University of Kiel, with 3,700 students beaming in from 100 countries. Thirty percent of the participants were 25 to 40 years old, and over half were professionally employed.

“This is certainly not your typical enrolment of a university-type class,” says Visbeck, who is also the chair of Future Earth’s National Committee in Germany. “We’ve been really managing to reach around the world with this.”

More than just a digital textbook?

Online learning environments can also be more responsive to learners’ interests and needs than traditional settings. For example, in the “One Planet: One Ocean” discussion forum, lots of participants expressed concerns about marine litter, such as the plastic debris that builds up in huge patches in various locations around the world. While this was not a focus of the course, instructors took the opportunity to turn this into an applied learning exercise.

“On the forums we asked: ‘You learned about physical oceanography, so where do the plastics end up and why? What kind management might be needed?’ We responded by inviting two guest lecturers with specialisation in marine debris to conduct a live discussion,” Antia says. “In a traditional educational setting, your students may be having such a discussion, and you may never find out about it.”

But for all their promise of transforming the educational space, MOOCs have suffered some serious challenges. Some academics have criticized MOOCs for not meeting their original aim – the University of Pennsylvania found that the MOOCs led by its faculty predominately attracted well-educated, employed people who were taking classes out of interest rather than to gain an essential education.

MOOCs have also struggled to maintain an extended connection with their audiences; data show that only 13% of people who enroll in a MOOC actually complete it. But that wasn’t a statistic that scared Visbeck.

“For me, completion rates are not important, particularly as ours is not a MOOC designed for university credit. I would like to see participants keep in touch after the MOOC, especially as they are exchanging their own local problems, their stories, their ideas on our discussion platform. That is more important for us than having a 100% completion rate,” he says.

And it is precisely this engagement that a new technology is aiming to strengthen.

Virtual reality transforming online learning

What if, instead of watching a person hopping into the personal submarine and voyaging to the depths of the ocean, you could be the person in the submarine, experiencing the expedition at your own pace?

Virtual reality is already making this possible. Since 2008, Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interactions Lab (VHIL) has been examining how virtual reality can transform learning environments.

The lab has found that immersive virtual experiences can be carefully designed to help students meaningfully engage with their instructor and their fellow students. Research shows that when lecturers use 3D head tracking to look their virtual students in the eye, attention spans increase. Matching the gender and race of the teacher to the student also significantly reduces negative stereotyping, and test scores can be predicted with 90% accuracy by analysing how a student’s body moves during lectures.

And new technologies like virtual reality don’t just enhance the pedagogical process, they can also lead to greater connection with the course content, says Cody Karutz, VHIL’s hardware manager. Karutz is the creator of the Crystal Reef – a 360-degree video where you swim through a scientifically accurate virtual reef in Italy with biologist Fio Michelli to learn about the impacts of ocean acidification.

“We then connect the devastation on this reef to the person's own carbon dioxide emissions, showing them the future of our oceans if we don't reduce our carbon dioxide emissions,” Karutz explains. “We found that people who experience this dive in virtual reality cared more about ocean acidification than other people who just watched a video about it.”

Dubbed the “empathy machine," virtual reality has consistently led to measurable behaviour change in those who experience it (which, to date, has been mostly students and people in the tech industry). In a 2015 VHIL study, a group of students took a virtual shower and were shown images of themselves eating coal. The longer and hotter their shower, the more coal would be needed to heat and transport the water, and the more coal their image would eat (and cough and splutter). After the experiment, the students were taken outside of the experiment room to wash their hands. Those who saw themselves eating coal tended to use cooler water to wash their hands than those students who just saw a billboard counter telling them how much coal they had used.

The reason that MOOCs haven’t already employed virtual reality en masse is mainly due to cost, says Elise Ogle, project manager at VHIL. But this is set to change. Virtual reality headsets have become more accessible to mainstream audiences in the last year (headsets like the Google cardboard can now be purchased for US$15). Exploratory and interactive virtual “field trips” are fast becoming cost effective.

In September, Harvard University will be the first university to run a MOOC in virtual reality, focusing on computer science. A group called Ocean First Education has also launched courses on the planet’s seas drawing on immersive, 360-degree videos.

So get ready to dive in.

Future Earth Media Lab is co-hosting a virtual reality hackathon in Australia next month to explore the future of cities. You can learn more here.