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Wicked problems, dynamic solutions and a new global classroom

Concordia teams up with the United Nations for its first-ever Canadian MOOC, a massive open online course on the 'ecosystem approach'
August 10, 2016
By Elisabeth Faure

Peter Stoett, director of the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre: “We are certainly teaching for tomorrow.” Peter Stoett, director of the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre: “We are certainly teaching for tomorrow.”

How can we find solutions to the world’s pressing societal and environmental problems? One way is to provide free education on international issues on a global scale.

So, beginning this fall, Concordia is teaming up with the United Nations to offer its first-ever Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), designed to help global citizens answer this sort of question.

Wicked Problems, Dynamic Solutions: The Ecosystem Approach and Systems Thinking is an interdisciplinary course open to all. Anyone who is interested will have the opportunity to learn about complex ideas such as ecological resilience, environmental governance, urban biodiversity and the impact of climate change in an accessible way.

“While there are many MOOCs out there that introduce ecosystem services and related topics, this is one of the first that focuses explicitly on the ecosystem approach, long adopted as desirable by the UN, while covering so many key ecosystems and overarching themes” explains Peter Stoett, director of the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre (LSRC).

A Canadian first

The Education Department of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi contacted Stoett last year about the possibility of setting up a MOOC together. He immediately set about securing the support of colleagues from across the university.

“This is the first time Concordia has worked with the UN on a major online educational project,” Stoett says, adding that Concordia’s partnership with UNEP on a large-scale MOOC is also a first for a Canadian university.

The Department of Geography, Planning and Environment (GPE) will host the course, which will feature speakers from both GPE and LSRC, including Stoett and fellow researchers in the areas of environment and sustainability,  Damon Matthews, Annie Lalancette, Katja Neves, and Pascale Biron — all of whom helped to develop various aspects of the course. Concordia experts will be joined by international colleagues from UNEP in Nairobi and elsewhere.

“We are very excited about this initiative and proud to be associated with a MOOC that has been so thoughtfully and collaboratively designed and developed," says Monica Mulrennan, Associate Professor and Chair of GPE.

Always eager to provide Concordia students with exciting options,  Stoett and FAS Dean André Roy ensured that the initiative will include a course credit option  (“GEOG 298 – Selected Topics in Geography”), in a blended-learning format — partly online and partly in the classroom. “This will provide a greatly enriched opportunity for students to engage with the material they’ve been exposed to through the MOOC and take it further,” says Mulrennan.

Facilitating international dialogue

The MOOC is being produced in partnership with KnowledgeOne, the digital learning developer for all of Concordia’s online courses. CEO Robert Beauchemin says there was a steep learning curve involved, referring to the technical complexity of the powerful Open edX platform adopted for the course.

“We are eager to step up to the challenge of seeing this project succeed.”

For those wishing to take the online-only course, registration is free and open to all. A high-school level education is recommended.

“The MOOC will provide the opportunity for students and professionals from across the world to interact,” says LSRC Co-ordinator Rebecca Tittler. “Participants will also be able to apply course material from their own geographic perspectives.” For example, the course includes interactive mapping exercises which ask students to post pictures from their neighbourhood and then link them to similar pictures from elsewhere.

The course will also have an active online discussion board to facilitate international dialogue about the issues being taught.

“Wicked Problems, Dynamic Solutions” was designed to be open to as many people as possible. “It is all about accessibility,” says Stoett. “Thousands of individuals from various age groups and backgrounds can take the course.”

Available on your mobile

One other crucial element — people can follow the course on their cell phones. “This is important because in many places around the world, cell phones may be a lot more accessible than computers,” explains Tittler.

Both Mulrennan and Stoett agree it will be important to pay close attention to how this initial MOOC works in practice, in case the university wants to plan for more of them in the future.

“The course is considered a pilot project this fall,” says Stoett. “After that, we will revisit the entire production and teaching process and strive to improve it.”

For now, with registration up and running, enthusiasm for the course is high. The university is already committed to developing another UNEP-based MOOC for 2017, and discussions are ongoing around a third option.

“We are certainly teaching for tomorrow with MOOCs and blended-learning approaches,” Stoett says. “But more importantly, we are teaching the basics of an ecosystem approach that will be vital to the survival of future generations.”

Learn more about the course or register. Concordia students wishing to take the blended course can register online via the MyConcordia portal. The course begins on Monday, September 12.

Find out more about Concordia's Department of Geography, Planning and Environment.


Banner image by Peter Dowley (Flickr Creative Commons.)



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