Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thoughts about SUSTAINABILITY for this week's chat

Gearing up for our #OpenTeachingOU Twitter chat on SUSTAINABILITY tomorrow morning (Friday, March 27 - details), I wanted to write up some quick thoughts about concepts and questions that come to my mind as I think about sustainability.

My guess is that when most people think about sustainability in the context of education, it is at an institutional or program level, which makes perfect sense. Sometimes sustainability is even just shorthand for costs, revenue streams, income, business models, etc.

In our chat, though, I hope we can broaden that out to think about sustainability on all levels, big and small, institutional and personal, going beyond just business models. Rather than an implicit or explicit business model, I'd like to appeal to an ecological model.

If you look at the Wikipedia article on Sustainability, here is how it opens: "In ecology, sustainability is how biological systems remain diverse and productive."



As a teacher, those are concepts that resonate with me in a very powerful way, much more so than talking about just economic sustainability, although obviously the economy is part of the big picture in ecology just as it is in education.

So, if you have a few moments, I'd urge you to take a look at that Wikipedia article; it is very clear, very informative, and full of all kinds of concepts we can use to extend our thinking! For example, just look at this nifty Venn diagram which I found there:

In terms of education, thinking about our educational "environment" is a good way to ponder all the RESOURCES that we need to do our work. Everything that we do as learners and as teachers will require resources... and if we want to be able to carry on with our work, whatever our work might be is, those resources must be sustainable. That is, they need to exist in an abundant supply and/or they need to be renewable. Ideally, the resources would be renewable as a natural part of our workflow!

So, for example, there is the personal ENERGY we need just to do what we do and to keep on doing it. If we don't have enough energy, our work will suffer. We are at risk of burn-out.

Another crucial resource is TIME. I would guess that finding enough time to do our work and keep on doing it is  one of the biggest challenges of all. I know it is a challenge for me, and I can tell that it is an even bigger challenge for my students.

There are also MATERIALS that we might need. That can be content, or it might be tools, along with the spaces (physical or digital) in which we do our work.

On a systems level, we need FEEDBACK so that we can monitor and improve the system. I need detailed, reliable data to make strategic decisions about how to use all available resources.

Also on a systems level, we need to think about processes and strategies. For example: REUSE. The more reuse I can get out of anything — reuse of my work, reuse of my students' work, reuse of other people's work, etc. — the more productive and sustainable my courses will become.

As someone who has been teaching the same online courses for over 10 years, I have thought A LOT about these topics on a micro-scale (i.e. at the course-level, in terms of what the students and I are doing), and I have been constantly improving my courses to make them more productive, more resilient, etc. My goal is to design courses that are sustainable and sustaining for both me and for the students.

So... just for fun, I decided to use HTML5 Word Clouds to make a word cloud of the ideas on my mind here, a sort of snapshot of what I think about when I think about sustainability in education:

I've tried to brainstorm some questions that reflect these ideas, and if you have ideas for questions to help propel our chat on Friday, that would be super - let me know here at the planning post or here at the GoogleDoc.

And I'll see everybody on Friday, 9AM, Norman time. :-)

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