by Alan Bruce
As we witness the strange and challenging times unfolding before us this extraordinary summer of 2011, we may become aware that these events are indeed epochal. From Wisconsin to Athens, from Fukushima to the Puyehue volcano, our planet is convulsed with a series of social and ecological events of a deep, profound and interconnected nature. These unfolding events can be approached with a sense of gloom and foreboding. Only last month, devotees of a particularly exotic cult were preparing for the end of the world and the transport of their elect to the anticipated rapture - the fantasy escape that would leave the rest of us all behind, naturally. How delightfully elitist and post-modern…
To say that global events and upheavals are connected and also unprecedented is not to lapse into catastrophism. It is to acknowledge the extraordinary advances our species has made in a relatively short period of time and the associated impacts of our now global reach. It is also to put a renewed emphasis on the imperative to learn, to adapt, to create and to innovate. Learning is as much the adaptation to change as the discovery of new facts and data.
The great Greek poet, Yannis Ritsos, hinted at this link between responsibility, learning and problem solving in his poem Duty:
One star gleams in the twilight like a lit
You glue your eye on it – you look inside – you see everything
The world is fully illuminated behind the locked door
You need to open it
In the present set of unfolding events, we need to keep our eyes firmly glued on the patterns of change, expectation and ownership that now shape and determine global human development. Among the emerging themes are ecological degradation, mass migration patterns, immiseration and public health and the explosion of urbanization. On this last issue alone, the University of California academic and writer Mike Davis wrote powerfully in his book, Planet of Slums (2006). He describes the emergence of hypercities (such as Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Shanghai) with populations of over 35 million people.
These patterns suggest that what we are witnessing this summer is not the end, but the beginning, of a new set of planetary realities where the understandings, techniques and categories of earlier times simply do not work. This calls for a deeper and more profound awareness of what we as professionals can and must do to engage with these patterns. In this situation it is vital not to panic but to deliver ever-higher levels of best practice.
Much of this places a renewed emphasis on our understanding of sustainability and learning. Sustainability has become a very fashionable concept. Almost everyone likes the notion. But what exactly does it mean? And how does sustainability impact on learning?
Sustainability emerged into learning discourse from developments in the area of ecology. It had become evident from the late 1960s that environmental degradation, pollution, escalating exploitation of finite energy resources and endless-consumption mindsets were all causing irreparable damage to our planet’s ecosystem. Dismissed as fringe concerns and the apocalyptic ravings of cranks, it took the oil crises of the 1970s, nuclear catastrophes (Chernobyl and Three Mile Island) and growing hard evidence about the human impact on climate change to suggest that ecological issues were central to policy development at several levels.
Today, issues around environmental sustainability and conservation have become mainstream and global ones. As it becomes clearer and clearer that access to resources and the negative effects of climate change will be key elements in future conflict and social dispute, it is evident these issues will also impact in more intense ways on security and disaster management spheres.
But sustainability itself has evolved a number of new levels of meaning and importance. Sustainability focuses on systems, linkage, transparency, responsibility and a deep awareness of both the legacy and impact of human actions. Sustainability is seen in learning contexts in new and important ways. This is true for two reasons.
The first is that we are living through times of accelerated change and crisis. The many and various factors of this crisis are interlinked. In the swirling patterns of upheaval and challenge, we can see that old certainties - which underpinned our understanding of institutions, social progress mechanisms and the wider social contract - simply do not hold any longer. The pressures and strains involved in what is essentially a significant re-ordering of global relationships and structures are of singular significance. Emerging in front of our eyes are movements, structures and systems that represent a break with the general order of the past three centuries. In other words, globalization is both a result of and contributor to our sense of sustainability.
In such a milieu of crisis and socio-economic transformation, a strong emphasis is placed on the careful management of increasingly scarce resources. This calls for levels of analytical skill and careful planning to ensure that the design, delivery, evaluation and support of learning programs are addressed in the context of understood and meaningful sustainability. Learning developers need to pay strict attention to sustainability of their programs and courses from the outset – not as something to be tacked on at the end.
In European contexts, this has had a specific resonance. For many years, learning initiatives supported by the European Union (such as those articulated under the EU Lifelong Learning initiative) have stipulated the need for post project funded programs to be mainstreamed or to demonstrate how the activities or developed initiatives can be sustained. In truth, this has not always been observed correctly. Many project partners have seen their role and engagement linked to the period of supported funding only, rather than to the longer-term engagement with identified learning needs. This mindset is challenged directly by a clearer emphasis on real sustainability.
The second reason is the impact of mass collaboration through new and emerging technologies. The flexibility and adaptability offered by ICT-supported learning solutions reinforces the sustainability of learning in new and attractive ways. The intelligent use of advanced technologies, the inventiveness of new modes of communication and the instant nature of quality communications mean that learning can impact and react to changing circumstances in really astonishing ways. The worldwide web is in its essence an ecosystem of innovation – borderless, interconnected, accessible by all, everywhere. The sense of permanent connectedness means that communication is not the only item to be enhanced. We are also witnessing a situation where virtual collaboration and shared meaning and imagery in real time become the norm and, in their own right, drive newer and collective ecologies of learning.
These two reasons underline why sustainability is now an essential dimension of advanced learning paradigms. Learning is now something that is no longer linear. In one sense of course, it never was. The elephant in the intellectual room is the impact of rigid and circumscribed formal schooling systems that stifle creativity and critical thought. The technologies available now break through this academic straitjacket of rote memorization and data gathering which for far too long have posed as learning.
But this new expansive learning is in itself sustained by technology. It makes possible that which hitherto could only be glimpsed or hoped for. E-learning, open learning, distance learning are all significant anomalies when contrasted with traditional understandings and conceptualizations of the formal acquisition, retention, recall and application of knowledge. For the moment these two forms co-exist. But the fact is clear that technologically supported learning is breaking boundaries and advancing human capacity to assimilate, evaluate and use knowledge, skill and understanding in utterly unexpected and innovative ways.
Sustainability in the context of learning means that we can adopt a prudent and balanced approach to the questions around the resources and structures needed to access, use, adapt and review information and knowledge. We can see that learning sustainability is not about just being cheaper and most careful with resources (although it is that too). It is about a set of associated values and methods that regard learning as a set of resources and approaches that need to be husbanded and nurtured in meaningful ways.
This sustainable culture of learning has much to offer a troubled and transforming world. It sees that the means of production and distribution of knowledge and information can be vastly improved through the use of advanced technologies. It means that storage and retrieval systems (especially within the sphere of emerging cloud computing technologies) can be instant and virtually free. It recognizes that systems of learning which are open and accessible to all are no longer the preserve of guardians of knowledge or keepers of the keys. They are systems which are transparent, enriching and part of a balanced environment of mutual respect between the various stakeholders of the learning process.
Business models, schooling systems, training models, pedagogic processes and structures are all transformed by ICT driven approaches to access to information and knowledge resources in the digital world. All this reinforces a clear and emerging fact. Sustainability and the openness that permeates it underscore new creative patterns of collaborative creativity, connectivity and access.
This richer understanding of sustainability takes us away from simply doing more, cheaper. The need to reduce or contain costs is a valid one. In an era of financial and economic turmoil, efficiency and accountability alone determine that all initiatives must be cost-effective. But human needs require quality and satisfaction to embed real progress, both individual and social. This is the factor which US learning and customer service experts refer to as ‘delighting’ the learner (or customer).
A sustainable approach to learning means that real needs are factored in from the outset, related to external requirements and then embedded in a matrix of technological support and maintained motivation so that autonomous learning and skill acquisition can occur.
So in the current climate of crisis and uncertainty, a move towards sustainability and learning might allow us new dimensions of vision and space where we can look at longer term performance, and embedded best practice. The move from a static and linear model (so deeply engrained in our conceptual mindsets) toward a rhizomatic model of learning that addresses things in a new way may offer a solution.
Dave Cormier wrote in 2006 that
A rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat. In the rhizomatic view, knowledge can only be negotiated, and the contextual, collaborative learning experience shared by constructivist and connectivist pedagogies is a social as well as a personal knowledge-creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises.
This is a fine metaphor. Sustainability may be a critical element in evaluating the kind of learning we now need in security contexts. At a time of crisis this makes sense. But in the longer term it would seem to be the only way to meet the challenges of a multidimensional and ever-transforming globalized environment.