‘Get engaged and enraged’: imagining sustainable futures for digital education in times of climate crisis

The planet Earth depicted as a melting ice cream cone.

Hayley Johns ~ Learning Designer 

Earlier this month, in a world first, the University of Barcelona announced that their students will take a mandatory climate crisis module from 2024. This development came in response to a sit-in by student activists as part of a protest to end fossil fuels and confront the climate emergency. A professor described the new course as a ‘change in the paradigm of university education’.

Similar changes are afoot in the educational technology (ed tech) sector. Back in June, ahead of a summer of record-breaking temperatures across the northern hemisphere, I attended a talk by Professor Neil Selwyn of Monash University, entitled ‘Studying digital education in times of climate crisis: what can we do?’. Sustainability in ed tech is an emerging topic but an important one, and Neil began by posing a key if troubling question – is digital education part of a realistic ‘liveable future’?

He explained that ed tech is currently built on a model of excess; it’s always expanding and, in some quarters, the use of technology is excessive. Some might say that we’re fixated on the idea of ‘digital as saviour’ – that the more tech we use, the better. However, Neil is clear that more tech is not the answer to any problem. In fact, he goes as far as to term ed tech in its current guise as ‘a standardised hellscape’, from which we’re losing the human aspect of learning.

Three possible pathways

In confronting this situation, in which the climate and biodiversity crises intersect with and emphasise our separation from the world around us, Neil proposes three possible pathways we could take: three distinct futures through which our professional work in digital education can play a part in shifting the dial, each offering different challenges and possibilities.

Firstly, we could continue with business as usual. Neil labels this ‘unthinkable’ – it’s becoming increasingly apparent that a dramatic shift is needed in how we in the Global North live, travel and consume resources.

The next possibility Neil suggests is a move to green ed tech. This is more attractive and certainly sounds promising, but Neil urges caution; this approach needs scrutiny and stress-testing first.

The third and final option? ‘Burn it all to the ground’. Even Neil himself describes this as a bleak prospect – ‘a bit prepper’.

So, supposing we aimed for somewhere between Future #2 and Future #3 – what possible responses are there for our sector, which would constitute both a more sustainable future and a fundamental reimagining of what we do, though without the arson?

Neil envisages two parts to an effective response, the first being eco-justice. Through this lens, we should see environmental and social harms as two sides of the same coin. This is an issue which requires both societal and humanitarian action. We need to rethink ed-tech in communal, collective ways, making less use of technology for more just educational outcomes.

The other key factor is de-growth, which has long been a key focus for climate campaigners and rebels against a throwaway, consumer society. In ed tech terms, this would involve a proactive renewal and re-imagining of how we use technology, de-coupling this tech (and ed tech) from economic growth (it might interest you to know that this is already happening on a wider scale too – in many countries, economic growth no longer hinges on an increase in carbon emissions). It would be a voluntary simplicity, slowing down, consciously minimising resource consumption.

Well, what now?

Neil highlighted the importance of illuminating these issues: the harm done by current forms of technology, such as the carbon footprint of big tech, huge cloud servers, mining, and so on). In creating change, it will be key for us to highlight problems with the status quo and possible responses to these.

All of this can seem overwhelming. When it comes to the climate crisis, there’s one question we all want to ask, and to be given a reassuring answer to: is there room for hope?

Neil has an interesting answer to this. He says that hope leaves us vulnerable – in the face of such challenges, it can be a radical, adversarial position to take. His view is that we in the education sector ‘should get properly engaged and enraged’. But there are reasons to be hopeful. If we consider ‘our own backyard’, as Neil puts it, education is a symbolic place to start. It’s a well-connected sector pushing back. We’re not the biggest criminals in the climate crisis, but we are implicated. This crisis needs a global response, and education is a global industry. No, education is not entirely to blame -but we might be a powerful force to lead on the solutions.

At the Open University, we’re busy striving for sustainable, equitable, open futures through the work we’re already doing in the present. From our central mission as a distance learning provider, through which we support and collaborate with learners from all backgrounds, ages and walks of life, to our specialised workstreams in EDIA and other fields, we’re already taking into account Neil’s recommendation that social justice be a key part of ed tech’s future in a climate-changed world.

The future is ultimately unknowable, but we can anticipate different, new futures and forms of ed tech. Storytelling is gaining traction as a way of fighting the climate crisis – if we can’t describe positive, sustainable, more just futures, then how will we build them?

If we shake off our complacency, we can help each other and those outside our sector to make connections between ed tech and communities of eco discourse.

If you want to learn more about what you and your organisation can do to help combat the climate crisis, whether you work in higher education, ed tech, or another sector completely, you might be interested in the OU’s micro credentials, including TZFM320 Climate Change: Transforming your Organisation for Sustainability.


[Image via: Pixabay / Pikachu123]