Educational Innovation in Universitary Education. A proposal from the UNESCO Chair in Environmental Education and Sustanaible Development (UNED)

Novo, María; Murga-Menoyo, M. Ángeles; Bautista-Cerro, M. José - UNESCO Chair in Environmental Education and Sustainable Development National University of Distance Education (Spain)

The Unesco Chair in Environmental Education and Sustainable Development of UNED considers that the methodological changes motivated by the Bolonia Process offer an opportunity to intensify the research in the field of teaching innovation. Following this line of work, it is carrying out multiple pilot projects to optimize the use of IT and software applications to reinforce the methodological procedures of its formative model (Novo et al., 2010). Two projects are presented in this work, which are focused on two educational strategies, respectively: a) online groups of collaborative learning, which is a technique that promotes teamwork and enhances participation, discussion and divergent thinking; and b) the construction of conceptual maps, which is a technique that enhances analytical and rational thinking, using the editor Cmap tools.

One of the factors that has allowed the Chair to have the trajectory it has for more than 15 years, is the quality of the education that it gives at the post-graduate level. The Master in Environmental Education is a pioneer in its field and has educated highly qualified professionals, managers and social leaders involved in the decision making in Spain and Latin America. Since the beginning, the constant update process of both the content and the methodology of its programs is motivated by a serious social and academic commitment.

In this second dimension, the methodological, the advances in information technologies and communication and their implementation in the field of education, through the use of application, learning platforms, etc., are a very relevant work topic at this moment, due to the necessities derived from the change to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).
The addition of the subjects “Environmental Education” and “Sustainable Development”, to the didactic platform Web-CT provided by UNED for its courses was the first step and later developed into the design of the pilot projects presented in this work.

The confirmation of the possibilities of this virtual space, the Web-CT, motivated the exploration of new applications and the use of educational software as a tool at the service of the Chair’s educational objectives.

With this line of teaching innovation, the Chair identifies, through pilot projects, a range of educational methodologies which are efficient and adequate for its programs and the profile of students. The first project presented has the specific objective of enabling the acquisition of cognitive skills and enhance systemic thinking. The second project is focused on promoting in the students attitudes and values of cooperation, solidarity and constructive discussion. Both projects also provide, additionally, instrumental skills: a) capacity of work-planning, self-organization and efficient use of the available time resources; and b) use of the IT at the service of autonomous learning.
The two projects presented in this work have been implemented in the academic years 2006/07 and 2008/09, respectively. Each of them was presented to the students as a pilot experience with an expected work load of 25 hours (equivalent to 1 ECTS credit) and participation was voluntary. The information was communicated through the virtual space that each subject has assigned in the Web-CT, by means of a presentation letter which explained the objectives, the participation conditions and the effect of the results in the final grade of the subject. A didactic guide with the instructions required to perform the tasks in the project was also provided to the participants through the same channel. Making use of the virtual space, a folder was created containing documents of interest related to the contents of the project. In the second project, the students had access, additionally, to a theoretic and practical video-lecture on the use of the educational software required.

In the first project, five network collaborative work groups were assembled. Their objective was to perform successfully the tasks given previously by the research team. The group had to choose between different topics (which were environmental problems) and design an educational project to increase awareness of the problem, adapting it to the circumstances and characteristics of one of the educational levels (school/professional/universitary/adults), one of the educational fields (formal/non-formal), and the possibilities and necessities of the given context. In order to achieve these goals it was absolutely necessary that the members of each of the groups practiced the skills of discussion, consensus building, active commitment, etc., which were all the project’s educational objectives.

In the second project, the students had to work individually in the construction of a conceptual map associated to the topic of an environmental problematic chosen from the list of proposals made by the professors. In order to do that it was necessary to: a) know very well the basic concepts of the subject; b) understand the reciprocal relations between such concepts and consider the corresponding knowledge field as a whole; c) advance in the development of the own pedagogic thinking, based on solid arguments.

Once the projects were implemented, the evaluative research was focused on identifying the strong and weak points of each methodology and possible improvement areas. The evaluation process used qualitative and quantitative tools to gather the required information, such as on-line tests, the conceptual maps produced by each student, or the reports on the educational projects designed by the students. Furthermore, a satisfaction questionnaire was distributed among the students that took part in the experience. Finally, the research team celebrated several meetings to evaluate the projects that were dedicated to the analysis, interpretation of the results and elaboration of conclusions.

The evaluative research supports very positive results for both projects (Murga et al., 2008; Murga-Menoyo et al., 2011). We can affirm that the methodology of network collaborative working groups promotes the practice of attitudes and values which are in line with the axiological objectives of Environmental Education. Its ability to promote teamwork, the values of participation and discussion to achieve consensus are completely confirmed. Because of this, this methodology can be considered an adequate tool that contributes to the acquisition of the ethic competencies required for sustainable development.
In a similar way, the Cmap tools editor enables the construction of conceptual maps, which allows consolidating both analytical thinking and understanding of the relations between the basic concepts, thereby supporting the development of systemic and complex thinking.
In both cases, the satisfaction indicated by the students with the experience shows the strong motivational power of IT and their suitability as a tool at the service of educational processes.

Innovative aspects
Both the network collaborative working groups and the construction of conceptual maps using the Cmap tools editor are two techniques whose incorporation to the educational model of distance higher education is innovative. The Unesco Chair in Environmental Education and Sustainable Development (UNED) not only has incorporated both methodologies to its educational processes, but it also supports their suitability in the field of environmental education for sustainable development at the university level.

Recommendations to other institutions/organizations
The results obtained show the powerful motivational effect of both methodologies. However, note that the use of software tools requires additional dedication and time in order to instruct the students on the technology skills required to use the specific educational software. Furthermore, the dedication and time required to put in practices both methodologies requires a ratio of professor/student that allows a personalized tracking of the formative process.


Novo, M.; Murga-Menoyo, MªA. y Bautista-Cerro, MªJ. (2010) Educational advances and trends for sustainable development: a research project on educational innovation, Journal of Baltic Sea Education, special issue focuses on "Perspectives on Education for Sustainable Development", Vol. 9(4), pp. 302-314. Available at: [Accessed December 14. 10].

Murga-Menoyo, MªA.; Bautista-Cerro, MªJ.; Novo, M. (2011) Mapas conceptuales con Cmap tools en la enseñanza universitaria de la Educación Ambiental. Estudio de caso en la UNED, Revista Enseñanza de las Ciencias, 29(1), pp.61–74. Available at:

Murga, MªA.; Novo, M.; Melendro, M. y Bautista-Cerro, MªJ. (2008): Educación ambiental mediante grupos de aprendizaje colaborativo en red. Una experiencia piloto para la construcción del EEES, TESI, Vol. 9: 1, pp. 65-77. Available at: [Accessed January 15. 11].

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About the author

María Novo, PhD in Philosophy and Educational Sciences, is a Senior Professor and the Chairholder of the Unesco Chair in Environmental Education and Sustainable Development at the National University of Distance Education (Spain). She has worked as a Unesco Consultant concerning environmental issues, environmental education and sustainable development. She is Director of the Research Group EDUCAMDES and of the ECOARTE Project, which aims towards the integration of Science, Art and Environment.

Mª Ángeles Murga-Menoyo, PhD. in Philosophy and Educational Sciences, is the Director of the Department of Theory of Education and Social Pedagogy at the National University of Distance Education (Spain). She carries out her research, mainly in two areas: environmental education for sustainable development and innovation in the distance education. Over de last fifteen years she has worked as Professor of Unesco Chair in Environmental Education and Sustainable Development.

Mª José Bautista-Cerro, PhD. in Education and LD in Sociology Sciences, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theory of Education and Social Pedagogy at the National University of Distance Education (Spain). She is a member of Unesco Chair in Environmental Education and Sustainable Development and has been working in the Research Group EDUCAMDES.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

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