Virtual Campus for a Sustainable Europe (VCSE) network has been selected to be part of the EC DG EAC Inventory of innovative good practice on education for sustainable development.
A case study of an e-learning course in higher education is presented with respect to the added value it brings to the learning environment. Students’ evaluation of the more traditionally taught blended-learning course showed their specific interest in the technical support that ensures availability of the teaching material, fair assessment, and wider communication opportunities. On the basis of this interest, the course was developed into an e-learning version and is now used in international collaboration in ESD teaching. Based on the need for an open space for virtual student mobility, the Virtual Campus for a Sustainable Europe (VCSE) network of universities was established. This European initiative represents a functional model of collaboration on different levels of education (Bachelors, Masters).
This case study is focused on meeting learning objectives of ESD (education for sustainable development) in the virtual environment.
Interdisciplinary approaches in ESD are essential due to the complex character of environmental problems. The challenge faced by educators is that interdisciplinary studies require changes in concepts, structure and overall organization of learning to be sustainable in the long term. After reflection and evaluation of the interdisciplinary teaching/learning environment we can conclude the following:
The course “Critical approaches to globalisation: developing writing competences” is a successor of the traditional face-to-face ‘Globalisation and Global Sustainability Issues’ framework course, which provided general information on the nature of globalisation and the major related issues. The topics cover the entire range of the study area from various perspectives; to maintain this inter-disciplinarity, inputs from various specializations are used in the course, originally from leading professionals in their respective branches.
New goals in developing an e-learning version of the Globalisation course were extended to fulfill educational objectives neglected in the traditional face-to-face lecture. Due to this objective, new “active learning strategies” were included, which slightly changed its general concept. Now the course is includes training writing skills – using the globalisation theme as a topic for envisaged students’ products.
In the new setting, the multi-disciplinary course is not only focused on the process of globalisation and its problems. It has twin objectives: to develop students’ capacity for critical thinking in exploring the complex reality of the globalised world, and ability to work in a heterogeneous environment, thus preparing them for future involvement and participation in society. The other goal is to foster powerful skills crucial for everyone in academic environment and beyond: clarity in presentation of ideas, structured argumentation and critical analysis of texts. Students can choose a particular area of interest which serves as a background to completing specific assignments to develop analytical and writing skills. The learning environment supports cooperation of students in exchange of ideas on global problems or case studies, and also within the process of “peer review” of writing products.
The course is still focused on the process of globalisation and its problems – the core of recent discussion focused on searching for sustainable solutions to global challenges. It gives a holistic view of globalisation issues from the perspectives of various constituent disciplines (economic, social, environmental, political, security, ethical, etc.). From cognitive point of view, the aim of the course is to:
In the e-learning version of the course, knowledge is gained as a result of active exploring of the topic done by students themselves. Through independent work (carefully guided by tutor) with the texts of the course, participants are encouraged not only to learn about the offered themes, but also to develop skills necessary for any university student. Reflection, relevant research and production of text (of a sufficient level corresponding with the study level and background of students) are methods of learning at university level that support the following skills:
The aim of the course is fulfilled as a constructivist task; active learning and critical thinking objectives are met. At the same time, students’ work creates a visible product – a Wikipedia educational resource – that may be suitable for further development and serve as a common knowledge base and resource for other members of the academic community.
The course leads step by step from 1) understanding texts, 2) reconstruction of texts, 3) the more advanced and comprehensive ability to make an original contribution to the theme of the texts while meeting all necessary academic demands. In each step, skills in formal procedures of scientific writing are taught and students should be confident in coping with complex issues.
Knowledge of the globalisation process is acquired through reflection of the relevant texts – not only reading, but also writing summaries, annotating every paragraph, doing structural analysis, transfer to the common educational space – Wiki environment – and discussing every point with other students.
The method of teaching includes thorough preparation of learning materials so that students have to fulfill very simple tasks and do their job more or less mechanically. The “mental capacity” is not overfilled and they can concentrate on “higher order thinking” jobs: the content of the text and analysis of its qualities, which leads them to the first experience necessary for their own writing. Students have to:
All participants are invited to gradually contribute to a common educational environment by
These products are realized through mastering an easily acquired technical skill – Wikipedia software. Respect to the academic criteria is trained through the students’ peer reviewing of the final text.
In the course, communication and the exchange of experiences between students of different backgrounds is supported. In a “global” network of participating institutions the course provides an opportunity to collaborate in tasks and constructively peer review and comment on each others’ progress.
Students should be prepared to collaborate in an online educational space by contributing to focused discussion forums and working with text via the Moodle electronic learning platform. At the end of the course, students should have necessary skills to meet academic criteria – this will support their future career whatever their professional orientation might be.
Through the process of learning, students become happy to have an opportunity to contribute to the learning environment. They are using active learning strategies – constructing the knowledge base instead of pure utilization of it.
On the content side, the virtual environment is supportive for understanding complex issues – it gives an access to diverse resources and possibility to link different information and reflect mutual relations.
On the side of teaching method, e-learning provides an opportunity to fulfill pedagogical objectives appropriate at university level – develop knowledge independently by researching relevant resources and working with texts and materials in a process of reflecting and re-formulating ideas, building on them and amending them by personal contribution. That is a core of academic skills which often are not practiced along with fulfilling study duties on a university level.
The virtual space also opens opportunities to train team competence and communication skills and it has potential in promoting an international aspect – ensuring cooperation of students across national borders, thus addressing the Bologna process of student mobility, which otherwise would be difficult or expensive to organize.
The new approach in the described case is based on the idea of Writing Support Centres (see some 15 000 000 Google hits for “University Writing Support Centre”, mainly from universities in the US). Implementation of this approach is highly innovative in the context of university studies in the Czech Republic.
Course is part of VCSE e-learning environment offering courses on sustainable development for European higher education institutes, see www.vcse.eu
The VCSE project provides opportunities for cooperation with students across Europe; it provides a space for virtual mobility between students and tutors of partner universities and also between local “actors” on sustainability issues.
The original course ‘Globalisation and Global Sustainability Issues’ was developed by the Charles University Environment Centre with the support of the Chancellor of Charles University. E-learning version of the Globalisation course is based on materials used by this concurrent Czech course. The course Critical approaches of Globalisation: Developing writing competences is taught online by Charles University Environment Centre in English to university students (Bachelor or Masters Degree) from across Europe. It lasts for 10 weeks. Number of credits – 4. The course workload is 120 hours per semester.
Both courses were co-funded by following grants: the EU European Social Fund, Prague Municipal Government, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs of the Czech Republic. The translation of the materials into English was funded by grants by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of the Czech Republic and e-learning course is a part of the VCSE project financed from the EU Lifelong Learning Programme.
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 Disciplinary discourses could not be ignored or substituted (they represent the epistemological space for knowledge generation). These discourses participate in the “language games” that guarantee diversity of views and make “unification of worldviews” impossible. The dialogue between different discourses in interdisciplinary settings suggests that practical and variable frames for structuring of knowledge (generated in different discourses) should be designed so that constructivist approaches are respected.