Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Adult E-Learning in Education for Sustainable Development

According to Nicholas Stern, global climate change is the defining issue of our time requiring immediate and decisive action (Stern, 2006). A much required global transformation will emerge from: individual actions, sustainable business strategies, government regulations, and non governmental organization initiatives (Muller & Siebenhuner, 2007). This paper will argue that the only way that businesses can manage their climate change risk is through the comprehensive implementation of sustainable development strategies. These strategies require a paradigm shift toward more systems, future and critical thinking skills, by everyone in the company. This will require the re-education of the workforce from the current, largely one dimensional focus on economic value; to a multi-dimensional, interdependent, values-based, focus on environmental, social and economic issues. This transformation will be complex and will evolve over the lifetime of a learner. Businesses will find that education for sustainable development through learner-centred e-learning, within a blended learning program, will be the most efficient and effective means of achieving long-term business survival and prosperity.

Opportunities and Risks

For business, the response to global climate change and adoption of sustainable development will be driven by opportunities and risks. Business opportunities include: new markets, increasing brand equity through corporate social responsibility programs, attraction and retention of labour, and brand differentiation through leadership values (Lovins , Lovins, & Hawken, 1999). For instance, companies like Unilever have adopted sustainable development for their world-wide Corporate Social Responsibility program in order to enhance and protect brand equity (Unilever, 2008). Business will also be driven to manage climate change risk: physical risk, regulatory risk, litigation risk and reputation risk (Van Bergen, Soonawala, & Wisse Smit, 2008).

Mainstream economic theory would have us believe that we can have infinite growth on a finite planet (Daly & Farley, 2004). The menacing implications of climate change such as rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide; and the depletion of water, natural resources, and soils, speak to the unsustainable nature of our current economic paradigm. It has been proposed that the concept of sustainable development and its balance among economic, environmental and social priorities is the basis for shifting to more sustainable practices. Organizational learning is an essential enabler to achieving sustainability (Siebenhuner & Arnold, 2007).

Sustainability Defined

Sustainability, a term often used interchangeably with the term sustainable development, has been commonly defined as “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WCED, 1987). The Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987) identified two key concepts within this term: 1) the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and 2) the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs (WCED, 1987). Although the concept of sustainable development has been around since 1970, the Brundtland report legitimized it as a template for global decision-making. The idea that there should be a balance between economic, social and environmental priorities in the decision making process was born.

Since the notion of sustainable development is centered in the use of new “thinking processes” to realize new values and attitudes; learning and reinforcement of learning must occur continuously and should be part of a lifelong learning process.

Lifelong Learning

The re-education of the workforce for the implementation of sustainable development, and its required shift in thinking must be systemic and evolve over the lifetime of a learner. The concept of lifelong learning within business returns as an important element in the sustainable development solution.

Lifelong learning first emerged in the early 1970s, and was briefly popular among intergovernmental think-tanks such as UNESCO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD)(Field, 2000). It re-emerged in 1994 in the European Commission, in a White Paper on competitiveness and economic growth. When the Commission declared 1996 to be the European Year of Lifelong Learning, the idea spread throughout Europe (Field, 2000). Lifelong learning is a concept that recognizes the accelerated rate of change in industrial society and the advances in technology, information systems and global markets (Merriam & Callarella, 1999). Lifelong learning signals a shift from a solitary focus on formal schooling to a broader focus that also embraces ongoing learning by adults.

E-learning, inconjunction with face-to-face learning, holds the promise of accessibility and a framework for a sustained engagement in a lifelong learning process.

Education for Sustainable Development

As noted earlier, a shift to sustainability is a change in paradigm for business, which has traditionally viewed economics as a dominant notion within society. Springett suggests that education on sustainability challenges the “rationality” of the capitalist economic paradigm of production and consumption (Springett, 2005; Siebenhuner & Arnold, 2007). Many advocates for sustainability question whether incremental changes in business strategy can go far enough, suggesting that transformational change is required (Tilbury, 2002). Numerous researchers also suggest that a transition to sustainable development must introduce changes in personal values and institutional structures to achieve an environmental, social and economic balance (Gladwin et al, 1995; O’Connor, 1998; Huckle, 1996 as cited in Springett, 2005).

While studying organizational learning for the management of sustainable development, Siebenhuner & Arnold (2007) defined sustainability-oriented learning as a process:

“… where organizations display behavioural changes that are attributable to a change in the knowledge and value bases as a result of reflexive processes, and where the concept of sustainability served as a fundamental framework” (Siebenhuner & Arnold, 2007, p.341).

Numerous researchers have identified that education for sustainable development requires the building of skills in systems thinking, critical thinking, futures thinking, visioning, problem solving and participatory decision-making (Springett & Kearins, 2005; Springett, 2005; Carew & Mitchell, 2008; Wheeler, Zohar & Hart, 2005; Vann, Pacheco & Motloch, 2006; Galea, 2004 as cited in Tillbury, 2002). In addition, researchers have identified that specific professional groups such as professional managers, engineers and accountants require reorientation to incorporate sustainability into their professional standard bodies of knowledge (Bebbington, 1997; Carew & Mitchell, 2006; Baas et al, 2000).

Pedagogical approaches for sustainability must be experiential, inter-disciplinary, based on action-learning and provide “just in time”, real world learning and application opportunities (Wheeler, Zohar, & Hart, 2005; Siebenhuner and Arnold, 2007; Dieleman and Huisingh, 2005; Bebbington, 1997; Springett, 2005). Instructional techniques such as the inquiry method lend themselves to the reflective nature of sustainability concepts, where learners “increase their competency as learners” and focus on the learning process rather than a final predetermined answer (Postman & Weingartner, 1969).

E-learning and blended learning can be designed to meet many of these requirements. For instance, games and simulations have been used as experiential learning tools for sustainability (Dieleman & Huisingh, 2006). Given the wide variety of learners in business (front line employees to professionals), it is necessary to use a number of educational techniques to establish and provide long term reinforcement of sustainability attitudes, knowledge and skills. E –learning or computer based training can play a role in this evolving activity.

E-Learning – A Component in Blended Learning

Sustainability-focused workplace learning will redefine e-learning and its contribution to blended learning. E-learning has been defined many ways including: “the use of computer network technology, primarily over or through the internet, to deliver information and instruction to individuals” (Welsh et al., 2003 as cited in Servage, 2005), “instructional content or learning experiences delivered or enabled by electronic technology” (Commission on Technology and Adult Learning, 2001 as cited in Servage, 2005), and “…us(ing) information and communication technologies (ICTs) to deliver content (learning, knowledge and skills) on a one-way [asynchronous] basis” (Conference Board of Canada, 2001 as cited in Servage, 2005).

Blended learning incorporates e-learning with various methods of face to face learning. Blended learning at an organizational level can be defined as:

“…a purposeful mix of delivery media (particularly face-to-face and various forms of technologies) to improve learning/performance solutions which are derived from the goals and needs of an organization.” (Yoon & Lim, 2007, p.481)

Face to face learning may range from formal instructor-led training to informal peer discussions. The blend of face to face activities and e-learning provide the best of both worlds and have been proven to be more effective than either method on its own.

In the past, e-learning’s ability to deliver on its promises of customized, “just-in- time”, impactful learning have fallen short (Servage, 2005). However, e-learning could be effectively used to provide “just in time” reinforcement and coaching on the application of sustainable development concepts. B&Q Stores, the largest home improvement retailer in the UK, used e-learning to create awareness and reinforce the award-winning work they were doing on sustainability and diversity. The company reached over 9,500 staff in over 320 stores by using scenarios and case studies from actual B&Q employees featured in interactive e-learning modules. The e-learning modules were supported by face to face staff meetings and discussions among colleagues (Epic Company, 2007; B&Q Stores, 2004).

In other situations e-learning can support sustainable development implementation by providing decision making templates for purchasing, tools for policy development, and systems for communicating new policies and procedures. The Sustainable Development Department in the United Kingdom provides procurement personnel and policy analysts with on-line decision support forms and tools for sustainable development (Sustainable Development UK, 2008).

Sustainability is about people and their way of knowing and acting in the world. Learning new sustainable ways of knowing and being will depend on learners’ self-awareness, strengths, weaknesses and locus of control, in addition to language, cultural and socio-economic factors (Servage, 2005). Furthermore, the interdependency of learning and social context for sustainability is critical. It is for this reason that e-learning, with its ability to use an array of technologies, learning objects, languages and learning theories can help bridge the language, culture and employment divide. Unlike face to face instructor-led training, e-learning has the ability to provide a choice to a learner about when, how and what they need to learn, thus supporting the principle of androgogy and self directed learning. Some of the technologies that can be used include: group or individual webcasts, discussion boards, podcasts, simulations and games, blogging, learning objects and e-portfolios (Mason, 2006). Blended with face to face learning, e-learning can be imbedded into organizational learning and operational strategies to create life long learning in sustainability.

Learner Centred E-Learning within a Blended Learning Program

Learner centred education is central to the success of education for sustainable development due to its dependence on aligned values, attitudes and behaviours. Particularly, the depth and breath of learning theories are critical to the design and implementation of instructional strategies. Critical learning theories include andragogy, self-directed learning, critical reflection, cognitive, and social learning (Waight & Stewart, 2005). These theories, when properly employed will contribute directly to the success of the implementation of sustainable development strategies.

Knowles identifies andragogy as the art and science of helping adults learn (Knowles, 1980 as cited in Waight & Stewart, 2005). He suggests that adult learners are autonomous, self-directed, motivated, goal oriented, practical and have rich experiences. In order to value adult learners within a framework of sustainable development, e-learning should incorporate these concepts in meaningful ways. As in the case of B & Q Stores, the Sustainability and Diversity program used the rich experiences of employees and allowed the self directed use of the materials. Word of mouth spread the news that the program was interesting which resulted in its successful uptake (Epic, 2007).

Brookfield identified critical reflection theory as a process that engages the learner in reflection of self-images, norms, assumptions, and behaviours (Brookfield, 1986 as cited in Waight & Stewart, 2005). As noted earlier by Siebenhuner & Arnold (2007), implementation of sustainable development is a change management process that requires behavioural changes that take place when an individual reflects upon their values and newly acquired knowledge. For instance, a procurement manager many need to learn about, and reflect upon, the environmental, social and economic impacts of unsustainable forestry practices before realizing that only products certified from sustainable forests should be procured. For this reason, e-learning and blended learning for sustainability need to incorporate critical reflection that challenges the cultural assumptions that make Western society so unsustainable.

Cognitive learning theory refers to a change in thinking patterns over time. Both dialectical thinking and contextual thought processes affect how learners view knowledge. In dialectical thinking (Riegel, 1973; Kramer, 1983 & 1989; and Kegan, 1994 as cited in Waight & Stewart, 2005) we understand that our thoughts are affected by our personal histories and culture. As our lives change, so does our interpretation of knowledge and its importance, therefore our understanding of knowledge is constantly changing. Contextually, we know that social, political and economic forces also shape how we value and view information (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999). These theories are significant when considering how to communicate sustainability to a multi-cultural workforce or to different cultures around the world at branch plants. There is no “one size fits all” e-learning or face to face learning solution. The sustainable development program will need to be situated and sensitive to the cultural, social, political and economic factors faced by the learners in their current context. An understanding of cognitive theory allows e-learning designers to see how their programs might influence knowledge interpretation and short-term and long-term memory storage (Waight & Stewart, 2005).

Social learning emphasizes that learning occurs by observing role models (Bandura, 1977,1986 as cited in Waight and Stewart, 2005). Social learning theory also identifies how behaviours are repeated if they are reinforced and rewarded. Self-efficacy, which relates to a person's judgment about whether they can successfully learn knowledge and skills, is also an important element to social learning. Therefore, learning for sustainable development requires: 1) interaction with model business leaders, managers, and peers, 2) building confidence in learner’s abilities pertaining to the application of sustainable development, and 3) developing learning activities that reinforce and reward the learner. Although social learning plays heavily upon the role of face to face training, peer discussions, coaching, mentoring and meetings; e-learning can be used to build confidence and reinforce learners through interactive e-learning programs. As a business builds a new balance of norms and values within a company, e-learning can often be the quiet partner that helps employees navigate this new territory.


Rising energy prices, resource depletion, water shortages and climate disruption will change the way that businesses fundamentally operate. The only way to manage these risks is through the comprehensive implementation of sustainable development strategies. These strategies require a paradigm shift toward more systems, future and critical thinking skills, by everyone in the company. The re-education of the workforce and its subsequent transformation will be complex and evolve over the lifetime of the business and its employees. Businesses will find that education for sustainable development through learner-centred e-learning, within a blended learning program, will be the most efficient and effective means of achieving long-term business survival and prosperity.


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