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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Teaching climate change, influencing policymakers


Written by
Clare Sansom

The second ‘day’ of the Centre for Online and Distance Education’s RIDE 2022 conference was held online on the morning of Thursday 16 June. It was introduced by the CODE director, Linda Amrane-Cooper, who began by summing up the proceedings of a successful first day.  She highlighted the wide range of parallel sessions addressing the three sub-themes of People, Practice and Pedagogy, and then Ann Lopez’ timely and thought-provoking keynote lecture on decolonisation. This led seamlessly into an introduction to the equally thought-provoking and even more urgent topic of Thursday’s keynote lecture: climate change, and how it is taught in higher education.

Teaching and learning climate change in higher education

The speaker, Tristan McCowan, is a professor of international education from the Institute of Education, University of London; his talk was entitled Teaching and Learning Climate Change in Higher Education.

Jonathan San Diego, a CODE Fellow, a senior lecturer at King’s College London and the co-chair of the session, introduced Tristan further. His research interests cover higher education in and for international development, particularly in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa; he edited the journal of international and comparative education, COMPARE, from 2015-21, and he is now leading a research project on universities in a changing climate funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund.

Tristan began by stressing that climate change should be central to every part of teaching and learning in higher education: not just the areas and disciplines that seem to be its ‘usual suspects’. Tackling it is an enormous challenge, but it also gives us the opportunity to redesign the whole of higher education. The research project he leads, ‘Climate-U: Transforming Universities for a Changing Climate’, covers all aspects of the educational experience, but he will concentrate on only one: climate change in the formal university curriculum. 
In a world where urgent change is needed to avoid ‘tipping points’ and where those who did least to cause the problem will inevitably the worst affected, deep learning about the complexities of climate change is critically important. There are fewer out-and-out climate change denialists than a few years ago, but there are many ‘soft’ sceptics and techno-optimists who believe that we can simply invent ourselves out of the crisis while retaining our current lifestyle. Technology will certainly supply some answers, but global, national, community and individual changes are all needed, and people must be equipped with the understanding they need to help drive them. The contentious nature of the politics of climate change and the undoubted complexity of the science are both reasons to stress the need for widespread education in this area.

Climate change education, therefore, must involve moving from straightforward knowledge to behaviour change. It will also involve moving from the technical into the political arena and stressing the importance of action (experiential learning) and of the emotions. That last point highlights the importance of arts disciplines and of psychology.

The idea of teaching climate change across the university curriculum, however, presents many challenges. This curriculum is already overcrowded, and it is difficult to work out where another topic might be squeezed in. Furthermore, lecturers are used to teaching in disciplines where they know they are the experts. Those outside geography and other core subjects are likely to find themselves outside their comfort zones. There is a need for practical application, and finally (and more broadly), university teachers cannot seem to impose explicit values on their students: these should arise out of debate and discussion.

So, is the need to teach about the climate an obstacle or a driver? Tristan argued that it was, in fact, a driver of positive change. He explored this through three separate areas of human thought:

  • Ontological: what is the nature of our being and the world we live in?
  • Epistemological: what is the nature of knowledge and how we acquire it, and what is valid knowledge?
  • Axiological: what is fair and just, and what is the good life?

Taking the ontological perspective first: human beings and the climate system are interdependent. Since Early Modern times, however, humanity and the environment have been regarded as independent in Western thought. Philosophies that emerged from and are common in other parts of the world, such as the African Ubuntu (or ‘I am because you are’) focus more on interdependence than independence, and there is a lot that we can learn from them.

The epistemological perspective focuses on where knowledge is derived from, and what gives it validity. We live at a time when the ‘knowledge ecosystem’ is confused by ‘post-truth’ and populism (with Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump as key examples) and climate denial, both the outright version and ‘softer’ scepticism, fit into this framework. We should not shy away from opportunities to engage with and persuade sceptics and to engage with unfamiliar worldviews, whether across disciplines or national boundaries.

Axiologically, the notion of ‘climate justice’ fits alongside other justice movements and questions of freedom and authority. If the ‘system change’ that many believe necessary to solve the climate emergency requires some form of global governance, how much individual freedom would it allow? These are open questions, and they sit alongside questions about what kinds of lives are ‘best’ to live.

Taking all these questions into account, and despite the urgency of the task, it is important to remember that we are educators: we should not be about the business of indoctrination. A ‘transmissive’ approach to teaching climate change is inadequate, and we should allow students to question assumptions, share ideas with others, and tell their own stories. Ideally, including climate change in our curricula will force us to question and deliberate more, producing a ‘virtuous circle’ not unlike the one depicted in a famous cartoon in which one climate conference delegate turns to another with the words ‘What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?’. The kinds of questions that we will engage with if we bring complex environmental questions into our teaching should help us to provide a rigorous, challenging curriculum that causes learners to reflect deeply on themselves and their relationship with the natural world: quite simply, a good education.

Tristan’s fascinating and timely talk was followed by an extremely lively discussion led by Craig O’Callaghan, the managing director of University of London Worldwide and chair of the session. Topics raised ranged from the nature of a global government system to the role of open and distance education in cutting carbon emissions, the problem of rising emissions in the health sector, and climate anxiety.

Roger Mills prize

When Linda welcomed all delegates back together after a rich and varied set of parallel sessions, the first item on the agenda was one that has held a special place at all recent RIDE conferences: the award of the Roger Mills Prize for Innovation in Learning and Teaching. This annual award is given in memory of Professor Roger Mills, a long-standing and well-loved fellow of the then Centre for Distance Education and a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Open University. Linda handed over to Professor Wendy Thomson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, to present the prize.

Wendy began by highlighting Roger’s contribution to educational innovation at the University of London and mentioned that his family continued to be involved in the prize; his daughter Victoria Mills, a lecturer in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, was in the online audience to hear the winning entry announced. There had been five excellent entries, and the judging panel – Mary Stiasny, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International, Learning and Teaching) at the University of London, Linda, and CODE Fellows Neil Moseley and Alan Tait – found it difficult to choose between them. Their eventual choice, however, was unanimous: a project from a large team led by Sarah Channon at the Royal Veterinary College, ‘Dissection at Distance: Interactive Live-Streaming of Practical Anatomy via MS Teams’. The panel commended this as providing a very high-quality learning experience, with rich opportunities for student engagement and opportunities to learn transferable skills. 

Mary handed over to Sarah to give a brief presentation about the project. She began by explaining that it was a team effort from anatomists and support staff at the RVC, in response to the problem of teaching dissection and anatomy to veterinary students when the dissecting room was closed during lockdowns. The students were missing out on not only the opportunity to handle specimens for themselves but interactive small group work teaching important team building, problem-solving and communication skills. Live streams of dissections using the familiar Teams platform, with students interacting with each other and with the staff during the sessions, were designed to replace many of these experiences. The dissection room was transformed into a film studio that could provide detailed full-screen video at high resolution, and the college’s technical staff learned new skills as film crew. Further staff members attended the session to monitor the Teams chat and answer students’ questions in real time. Later, further interactive exercises were introduced, including quizzes and ‘label-alongs’ for students to identify anatomical features.

She reported that most students really liked the live-streamed sessions, and that the project had had some unintended positive outcomes. They fostered community and a sense of belonging among the students, who found that the sessions provided something of the sense of identity as RVC students that normally comes from being in the dissecting room together. Furthermore, the recorded sessions have found many uses outside their timetabled slots. They have been used for outreach and public engagement, in an ‘anatomy club’ for students of non-clinical subjects who have few or no timetabled sessions in the dissecting room, and as revision tools.

Linda and Wendy congratulated Sarah and her team on their prize-winning project and set up a photo of the team in Zoom with Victoria Mills.

Accelerating Innovation through effective policy

One key advantage offered by virtual conferences is the ease of international participation. This was evident in the panel discussion that ended Thursday’s RIDE sessions. The theme was Accelerating Innovation through Effective Policy and the three distinguished panellists offered perspectives on policy from Germany, the US and the UK respectively.

The session was chaired by two CODE Fellows, Norbert Pachler from University College London and Simon Rofe of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, University of London. 

Norbert began by introducing the panellists: Lavinia Ionica from a German think tank, Hochschulforum Digitalisierung; Nanette Levinson from American University, Washington D.C., USA and Alistair Jarvis, who has just left a senior role at Universities UK (UUK) to take up the position of Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Partnerships and Governance at the University of London. He then put the session into context by describing how Michele Donelan MP, then Minister of State for Further and Higher Education in the UK government, had written to universities requiring them to return to face-to-face teaching. According to this, online provision may take place alongside classroom teaching but must not replace it. We can set against this surveys that show how much students value online and blended provision, and exam results that illustrate its success.  As we slowly emerge from the pandemic, a new pedagogy is emerging; perhaps an endemic pedagogy, rather than a pandemic one. This focuses on engagement and contextual learning, where digital is key. The evidence base for this is clear to practitioners, but not, it seems, to policymakers. If we, and by implication our students, are to thrive in this new world, we will need to persuade at least some of them not to force a return to 2019. 

The three panellists then addressed the question of the most effective ways to influence policymakers in their own national contexts. 
The first to speak was Lavinia from Germany. The think tank – or ‘think and do tank’ she represents, Hochschulforum Digitalisierung, is funded by the federal ministry of higher education and focused on digital transformation. She set out four take-home messages arising from the pandemic ‘reset:

  • Collaboration is the key to success
  • Innovation requires the courage to take new and unusual paths
  • Participation and empowerment bring success in education
  • We need openness as an attitude and strategy, including clear strategies that are based on open-source systems and open educational resources.

The pandemic acted as an accelerator of trends that were already in progress in Germany. In one survey of academics in over 100 institutions, over 90% agreed that digital strategies have become a priority and over 60% that the pandemic has led to new strategic collaborations.  She described two examples of projects set up over the last two years: an open online course on digitisation strategies that involved over 500 people – academics, students and learning technologists – divided into 52 geographically-based ‘learning communities’ across Germany, and a Strategy Lab in which participants worked together to solve problems. One of the results of this had been a successful ‘day of teaching and learning’ held the previous day.  All the projects and programmes described had one thing in common: they have relied on collaboration, showing that it is, indeed, key.

Nanette then presented a perspective on digital education policy from the US, discussing ‘pandemic myths and realities’ as a professor who has been involved in both face-to-face and online teaching since the early days of the Internet. She agreed with Norbert that, for both the public and policymakers, ‘online learning is second best’ can be a pervasive myth in the US as well as the UK. It is true that online learning can be second best, if the staff were unprepared and the transition rushed, but institutions where the staff were ready to engage in online learning when the pandemic hit often produced outstanding results. 

We will need to make sure that policymakers hear about these success stories and take them on board. It can be useful to take a two-pronged approach, firstly making our work easily accessible and secondly reaching them through third parties, ‘influencers’ or ‘champions’ and through social media. It is possible to make a savvy political case for online learning, but it must be thought through carefully.

Alistair then brought the discussion back to the UK, where, as exemplified by Michele Donelan’s letter, online learning is often unpopular with policymakers. It is important to recognise that these ideas have some grounding, if only in anecdotes from students and their parents, and we need to counter these with examples of what works.  CODE is ideally placed to provide the evidence and research base that is necessary to counter these negative examples.

He then gave six quick suggestions for how to build a political case for online learning:

  1. Challenge the idea that online education is simply the continuation of the ‘emergency reset’ of 2020. Digital and, particularly, blended learning pre-dates the pandemic, it can be very well thought through, student centred and pedagogically rich.
  2. Route arguments in student feedback. Students rarely see digital as inferior and although, obviously enough, different students prefer different ‘blends’, many find digital more accessible.
  3. Remember that where there is student demand for online education it often arises from difficulties with accessing traditional higher education, because of, for example, disabilities, work, or caring responsibilities.
  4. Explain how innovation in digital education is necessary for the expansion in digital skills, and that, in turn, is vital for international competitivity.
  5. Face up to the challenge of quality assurance, offering reassurance that digital or blended education can be at least as high in quality as traditional face-to-face classes.
  6. Place digital education in the context of the need to expand higher education more generally, given that not all potential students will have the resources to study in the conventional way and that campus expansion is costly and time-consuming. 

He ended by picking up one of Tristan McCowan’s points about the climate. There is an important opportunity to engage with the student body and promote digital education as part of a climate-friendly policy, and it should be possible to persuade policymakers to support this.

The session ended with a lively discussion, chaired by Norbert and Simon, that involved swapping tips for engaging with and persuading policymakers in different countries. One point that frequently came up in different contexts was the importance of advocates who can act as bridges between academics and policymakers and understand the context and culture of both.