Living and Learning Sustainability in Higher Education: A Research Study on Indicators of Social Learning
Higher education institutions not only provide research and policy in sustainability, but also create and facilitate environments for students and staff to develop their understanding and responses to sustainability. Sustainability learning opportunities in higher education are often thought to occur only in formal settings - facilitated by educators and lecturers in a classroom. This research looks at the learning which occurs within the informal and social contexts of higher education institutions. This study refers to this learning as 'social learning'.
The research was conducted at three universities in the UK which had made and explicit commitment to sustainability. Through a critical collaborative inquiry, this research sought to capture and document lived experiences of staff (academic, administrative and support) which were informed by social learning opportunities regarding sustainability within these institutions. This research will ultimately construct indicators as a basis for benchmarking practice which can help universities improve their contribution of social learning in the attainment of sustainability.
Social learning for sustainability in higher education
Numerous international declarations point to education and learning as inherent processes of sustainability. They indicate their central role in strengthening critical reflection and transforming unsustainable practices (Huckle, 1996). Learning for sustainability is aligned to transformative learning (Mezirow, 2000), as it involves experiential learning and critical reflection on actions (Tilbury and Cooke, 2005). However, as the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) (2005-2014) has recognised, there is a need to emphasise more the importance of learning (as opposed to teaching), as education is too frequently interpreted as an activity which takes place within the formal education system (UNESCO, 2005). Learning can take place in any environment or context. Learning is a process in which people develop ways of seeing and interacting with the world around them. Learning influences the way people think, feel and act (PCE, 2004).
Higher education institutions play a vital role in engaging staff, students and local communities in a process of social transformation, as they can contribute to it through education, research and operations, and provide learning for the decision-makers of the next generation. Universities not only provide research and policy in sustainability, but also create and facilitate environments for students and staff to learn and live sustainability. There is a need for creating learning opportunities in which ‘encounters with a diversity of situations and stakeholder perspectives can take place’ (van Dam-Mieras, 2006, pp.17), and where students and staff can develop their understanding and own responses to sustainability.
Research undertaken in the area of sustainability in higher education has been focused on: (i) campus management and ecological footprinting; (ii) embedding sustainability into the curriculum; (iii) policy analysis; and/or (iv) development of theory (Wright, 2006). Although there has been substantial work on these areas, research in higher education has not contributed to understanding the relationships between learning for sustainability and institutional change within higher education itself.
Wals (2007) states that sustainability addressed as a social learning process is rooted in the life-worlds of people and the encounters they have with each other. Social learning provides an environment in which people from different backgrounds can meet; this generates more open, equitable and competent learning processes (Glasser, 2007). This research will consider the ‘learning by individuals that takes place in social settings and is socially constructed’ (Parson and Clark, 1995, pp.429). The present doctoral thesis builds upon this work on social learning, but will extend the concept framework to be applicable to the higher education sector. This study seeks to construct benchmarking indicators of social learning which can assess and improve higher education's contribution to sustainability. The indicator framework which this research seeks to construct is not designed to 'control' social learning processes, but to improve the abilities of an institution to offer social learning opportunities (Breting et al., 2005). The indicator framework, thus, intends to support and encourage learning, research and reflection about social learning processes in the area of sustainability in higher education.
Researching social learning processes in higher education
This doctoral thesis was conducted in three universities in the United Kingdom, which had made an explicit commitment to improving their sustainability performance and provide sustainability learning opportunities for students and staff. These institutions are the University of Gloucestershire (pilot study), the University of Bradford and the University of Bristol. The research sought to capture social learning experiences of staff (academic, administrative and support) in the area of sustainability as a basis to identify institutional opportunities in this area. The study was interested in some of these lived experiences which were informed by social learning opportunities.
The study is located within a critical social theory perspective which provides a deeper and critical understanding of the dynamics of social learning in higher education. The core research method used in each university was collective memory-work. In each university, the research involved a group of members of staff (between 5-8 co-researchers) who wrote and reflected on their individual stories of social learning for sustainability within their institutions, and who identified in a collaborative and participative process structural and contextual issues which enabled and constrained the emergence of social learning processes in higher education. The information collected through the three collective memory-work sessions organised in each university was triangulated with data emerged from other research methods and techniques such as institutional documentary review and semi-structured interviews. The research identified key themes which could enhance sustainability developments and performance regarding social learning processes. These key themes, thus, were identified as the basis to construct benchmarking indicators of social learning.
Constructing benchmarking indicators of social learning in the area of sustainability
In current times of economic unpredictability, increasing competitive and changing markets, declining enrollments and cuts in the higher education sector, higher education institutions are starting to question their internal operations, core mission and relative position in the market regarding sustainability. As Tilbury (2010) states, for some universities, cutting carbon emissions and tackling sustainability issues have proved to be beneficial to save costs which can be reverted to other activities at the institution; for other institutions, engaging in sustainability is a matter of reputation and leadership in the sector as an increasing number of students will make their university choices based on the institution’s sustainability credentials; finally, there are many institutions which genuinely believe that it is the responsibility of universities to lead by example and contribute to such a critical agenda through their operations and core mission, i.e. teaching and learning. It is important to note that most of the universities across the globe have seen more than one benefit to embed sustainability within the institution.
The increasing engagement of higher education institutions in sustainability is reflected in the growing number of universities involved in assessing their contribution to sustainability through self-assessment and monitoring and evaluation tools, as well as engaged in national and international benchmarking initiatives which encourage and guide universities to improve their sustainability performance. Because of the focus on sharing good practice and learning from each other, this doctoral thesis was interested in analysing the ways social learning indicators could be introduced in benchmarking tools as these have a great potential in encouraging universities to review internal processes and to bring about important changes in the way learning for sustainability is approached in higher education (UTC, 2010).
Recognising the need to investigate the value of indicators in providing clear information to improve decision-making processes in the area of sustainability (Tilbury et al. 2007, UN, 2007, Reid et al., 2006), the next step of this research is to open new avenues for the promotion of sustainability in higher education through constructing social learning indicators as a basis for benchmarking practice. Due to the absence of experiences or theoretical approaches to construct indicators in this area and taking into account that current benchmarking tools have totally dismissed the role that social learning plays in moving towards sustainability, the challenge of this research is to explore what types of indicators are aligned to the principles of social learning and investigate their suitability as benchmarking tools.
Research in higher education should seek to transform understanding and practice in sustainability and provide learning and reflection on how sustainability is approached in the higher education sector. However, current research has not contributed to understanding the relationships between learning for sustainability and institutional change. This study has identified social learning as a response to fill this research gap. This research builds upon previous experiences in the areas of social learning and sustainability, but intends to extend the existing definition frameworks to be applicable to higher education.
The information emerged from collective memory-work in three universities in the UK has contributed to understand more deeply how social learning processes in the area of sustainability take place in higher education. Co-researchers participating in this research identified key structural and contextual issues which enable or constrain the emergence of social learning processes. The ultimate goal and challenge of this research is to construct benchmarking indicators which can reflect the role of social learning in the attainment of sustainability. The indicator framework is currently under development and validation and will be made available for stakeholders and institutions later in 2011.
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About the author
Ingrid Mulà is a full-time PhD student and researcher at the International Research Institute in Sustainability (IRIS), at the University of Gloucestershire. Ingrid is involved in research in the areas of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), social learning, monitoring and evaluation, cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue. In 2008, Ingrid was appointed by UNESCO as the European and North American Data Coordinator for the DESD (Decade of Education for Sustainable Development) Global Monitoring and Evaluation. She has also participated in various UNESCO research projects and is an active member of the IUCN Commission on Education and Communication.