“Let’s do this big”: Sustainability transition by co-created learning objectives

One of the most powerful features of Una Europa, to me, is the combination of value-based shared goals and boldness to reach for new solutions. Commitment to sustainability is one of the fundamental values that the University of Helsinki and Una Europa share.

For the University of Helsinki, embedding aspects of the UN sustainable development goals in all our educational offerings​ is one of our strategic goals for this decade. A tangible measure toward this goal is our brand new sustainability course launched this spring and piloted as we speak.

Una Europa, with sustainability as one of its five focus areas, is determined to address the sustainable development goals via dialogue between natural sciences, social sciences, health sciences, engineering, arts and humanities from all eight partner universities. The goal is to co-create innovative formats for education that enable a new holistic approach to sustainability teaching. All academics within the University of Helsinki are welcome to influence their shape and direction.

In concrete, the Una Europa community is working on both a joint bachelor’s degree and a master’s level micro-qualification in sustainability science. The bachelor’s programme in sustainability is a unique initiative as a step toward truly joint degrees: co-created by sustainability researchers from all universities, earning the students a degree recognised by all degree awarding universities. The micro-qualification in sustainability represents a new European opening designed to answer the needs of master’s students, individuals switching fields and life-long learners alike with a 20 ECTS module of four MOOCs.

What can these new approaches to sustainability teaching mean for us at University of Helsinki in practice? To find out, the second UH-Una Open Forum on 31 March set out to discuss our university community’s expectations for Una Europa collaboration. An active group of researchers, teachers, students and specialists sparked discussion circulating around expectations, benefits and needs for Una sustainability cooperation.

The following are my takeaways from the discussion – ideas I intend to keep at heart as we continue paving the way towards our shared goals.

High expectations 

Quality and collaboration were two keywords characterising the participants’ expectations for Una Europa collaboration. The level of ambition and excitement was epitomised in the output of one of the group discussions: “Let’s do this BIG – gather students & researchers & professionals all over Europe to join forces for the sustainability transition!”

Quality expectations were connected to the content and pedagogy of sustainability education but also to the process of creating the joint bachelor’s degree and the micro-qualification. Personally, I am inclined to see precisely the collaborative working method as a solution for increased quality in content. Genuinely co-created contents and methods for education will build on expertise and best practices from all eight universities. However, such a goal can pose needs for a kind of creation process we may not be used to.

Co-created goals to guide collaboration 

In the Open Forum discussion on the needs for successful collaboration, one need named was getting to know each other to create mutual understanding and ultimately shared goals. This is indeed a crucial starting point. It is also something that requires dialogue and proper time and patience given to the process.

Because we also want to advance at pace, the process needs guidance. Intercultural collaborative processes like this can get fuzzy as we come together from our different viewpoints to build something completely new. We easily get lost in mapping out our existing course offerings and figuring out how to best combine them into a new whole, or which practical obstacles to consider as permanent and justified limitations and which ones to work around.

A solution simplifying such decisions is putting our learning objectives to use as the guiding light for our co-creation process. For the micro-qualification, the learning objectives have been defined this spring and the process is well on its way for the Joint Bachelor as well.

Reminding ourselves of these objectives from time to time can solve many problems for us. When in doubt, ask which solution brings us closer to the objective of, say, students critically reflecting the sustainable development goals in different cultural contexts. This can tilt the balance for executing a given course as a joint online course to enable dialogue and participation from all universities.

Keeping learning objectives in mind as our core goals is both a way of keeping focused and building the joint degree and micro-qualification into something more than a reassembling of the courses we already offer – into more than just the sum of the parts, as called for in our Open Forum.

Keeping all on board 

Another insight form the Open Forum was the need for coordination. Fostering participation opportunities and bottom-up development of our sustainability education should be balanced with providing a clear framework supporting the stakeholders involved – students, teachers, administrative specialists, employers and others.

Regular follow up events and updates to keep everyone involved were concrete wishes we should live up to. Here are some of the ways already in use to distribute information and engage interested UH community members.

Updates and viewpoints on Una Europa collaboration are published regularly in this blog. The third UH-Una Open Forum on 19 May will discuss Una Europa seed funding with the aim of supporting the initiation of long-term collaborative activities between the partner universities.

The design of the micro-qualification was created in the leadership of prof. Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, advancing novel MOOC co-teaching within Una Europa. From May 2021 on the implementation of the MOOCs will be led by Laura Riuttanen.

Hands-on work shaping the Joint Bachelor in sustainability is about to get a boost from a new preparatory group with the task of coordinating teaching for the Una Europa joint bachelor’s degrees in sustainability and European studies. A call for members to the group will be open during the first two weeks of May – stay tuned for more information!

Jenna Sorjonen, planning officer for Una Europa’s 1Europe project