Online education as a catalyst for climate action

Course images-01 Why move

Can online education really drive change? For the last 15 months, the Grantham Institute has been testing this question.  Working alongside the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), online platform leaders EdX, and Imperial’s Digital Learning Hub, staff at the Grantham Institute have developed the Clean Power Programme, three online courses – Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – that aim to drive a shift to clean power across the globe.

So, how do you design an online course to catalyse leadership in climate action? In this Q&A, we speak to Alyssa Gilbert, Grantham Institute Director of Policy and Translation, and Gideon Shimshon, Director of Imperial’s Digital Learning Hub, about the Clean Power Programme and their experiences of working together on it.

  1. What is the overall ambition for the Clean Power Programme?

Headshot of Alyssa Gilbert

Alyssa: There is a political consensus that we urgently need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions globally. Cleaning up our power supply can play a significant part in that process. Policymakers and businesspeople around the world want to play their part to support the global roll-out of renewable power, but might not know exactly how to. We hope that by sharing data and case studies, and connecting learners, we will give course participants the confidence to promote clean power. Our courses should also provide influential professionals with the information they need to increase support for renewable power.

  1. What is unique about this particular programme of courses?

Headshot of Gideon Shimshon

Gideon: The Clean Power Programme  can reach a global audience, which traditionally cannot come into the classroom. These MOOCs go beyond the standard approach of just providing a static online repository of data. Instead, they aim to provide people with a learning experience that they can use and apply in their day-to-day professional or personal lives. It also offers learners a professional credential that they can use in their career development. An added component is the small private online course (SPOC), which enables a smaller group of people to network around the topic and create a community.

  1. How is it different from other renewable energy or clean power online courses?

Alyssa: There are many online courses on climate change and renewable power that contain useful information, but our courses are designed to be both educational and practical. They are directly addressing the specific needs of people involved in the power sector. The three courses are also quite broad. We have combined an understanding of political issues with important technical concepts relevant to power systems to provide a relevant and immediately applicable learning experience.

  1. How do free online courses help break down barriers to higher education?

Gideon: Having free online courses that are open to all benefits society at large. They give a larger and more diverse audience access to content that would usually only be available to a handful of students on campus. This extends our research reach to busy professionals who like the material, but are unable to attend in person. And of course, online courses also benefit our own university students by improving the quality of resources for conventional courses.

  1. How does online learning differ from traditional courses in terms of professional development?

Gideon: I do not differentiate between online and traditional courses. In the end, it is about the learning experience you provide and the content and skills you instill in the students. More and more blended and fully online courses offer an experience that fits the needs of people in busy jobs, and the certification systems that contribute to professional progress are currently adapting. LinkedIn already lists certificates from MOOCs, and people applying for jobs are noting their achievements in MOOCs on their CVs. Upskilling the workforce is more critical now than in the last 20 years, and MOOCs and online courses help do that.

  1. The first course ‘Why Move Towards Cleaner Power’ is about making the economic, social, and political case for climate action. What offline actions are you hoping people will take after finishing the course?

Alyssa: The primary goal of this course is to inform the decisions and actions that many policymakers and businesspeople already have to make. We hope that course participants will use their new knowledge to be strategic about how they promote renewables in their own countries. There are a range of reasons why renewable power is a good idea, but the regional context really matters. By fully considering the health benefits, economic growth and competing national priorities, it will be easier to put forward new clean power policies and have them adopted.

  1. What have been the toughest challenges in developing the courses?

Alyssa: For me, this entire project was a real journey. I didn’t know much about online learning when I started, and I was a bit unsure about what it could achieve and what excellence looks like. Digital learning experts like Gideon have helped me discover this whole new world and, together with our team, we came to understand how much this new medium can offer, especially given the interactive dimensions.

On the practical side, when designing the course I found it was very tricky to get a handle on our audience. In traditional face-to-face teaching, you know who your students are before they walk into the classroom. We were designing a course for a broad group of people, making it difficult to know what would work best.

  1. And finally, how do you think online education can help us foster a community for climate action?

Alyssa: I am already delighted by the type of conversations participants from the pilot are having on the course discussion boards. I can see that communities automatically develop when people learn together and share ideas. I hope that this is the starting point for more interactive conversations between these learners.  And, of course, I hope they will share the courses with their friends and colleagues, to stimulate further progress towards a cleaner powered planet.

Find out more about the Clean Power Program.

You can sign up to all three courses of the Clean Power Program on the EdX platform. 

  1. Why Move Towards Cleaner Power
  2. Creating a Pro-Renewables Environment
  3. Incorporating Renewable Energy in Electricity Grids

If you are interested in finding out more, please email us at the Clean Power Hub

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