Creating new courses around sustainability – 5 questions with the winning team of the PRME Leaders +20 competition

A team from the University of Auckland has recently been chosen as the winning team in the PRME Leaders +20  Challenge organised by Aarhus University. The challenge asked students and lecturers within management related education to team up to integrate sustainability perspectives into new or existing course descriptions.

The winning course was created by Dr Ross McDonald, Sian Coleman (masters student) and Daniel Cullum (undergraduate student) from the University of Auckland in New Zealand. I had the chance to speak to Ross, Daniel and Sian, who attended the Rio+20 PRME Global Forum as part of the prize, about their winning entry.

1. Tell us a little bit about your winning entry.

The course is called “Managing Change for a better world” and is designed for undergraduate students in their third year of study. It is designed as a collaborative learning experience, emphasizing open-discussion, practical engagement and reflective enquiry as modes of critical learning. The course is divided into three parts. The first part is about managing personal change where students learn about self-management and the impact that they can have as an individual. The second part looks at managing local change by engaging in small groups with projects in the community. The third part of the course looks at managing global change where students see how these issues are affecting the country and the world. The assessment of the course is based on reflective journals, a practical local project and an innovation social business plan where their ideas are judges by a panel of mentors from the community.

2. Why did you develop the course?

Ross: Expertise lies in looking over our shoulders to the way things have been, and hardly any time is spent looking forward to how things will change and how they will have to change. At the moment it seems that we have forgotten that business is not an end in itself but part of a larger system of mutual obligations. With this course, it was interesting to be able to think openly about what could be done without being limited by existing regulations and bureaucracy. In essence, the course is about empowering people to build a better world by challenging themselves to become more responsible in their daily lives, asking them to work with and local community groups and challenging them to design positive impact social businesses.

Daniel: A really key concept is viewing the course and its parts as building blocks on top of one another. How the personal reflection component is essential before tangible community involvement, and tackling global issues can be undertaken. Business schools desperately need to change their approaches to educating students for the future, a future that is shifting and changing in ways that we are struggling to measure and keep up with.

Sian: The course aims to address these issues from a very practical and experiential perspective. It aims to literally get students’ hands dirty with real life experiences. We want students to feel empowered and inspired that what little action they may engage in during their lifetimes really can make a positive impact to those around them.

3. What parts of the course excite you the most?

Ross: The community engagement part. My feeling is that if we get students involved in making these critical decisions and give them the responsibility to make projects work, they will more than adequately rise to the occasion.

Daniel: I love the fact that the course is one complete journey. I see it this way: when we travel we are so conscious of the landscapes and cities that change around us, but sometimes miss the change that also happens inwardly.

Sian: One of the most exciting aspects of this course is the engagement with the wider community. It takes learning out of the confines of the four walls of a class room, gets students working in real-life, practical situations where they reflect on their practice and their interactions with others

4. Is sustainability becoming the norm at the University of Auckland?

Ross: Yes, but slowly. As with most business schools, old ideas adapt slowly and many in the middle realms of our teaching structures are still operating largely oblivious to the need to adapt. With the changes coming from above and below, and with an increasing number of staff actively researching and teaching around issues of sustainability and justice, the norms are shifting, but it needs to be accelerated.

Daniel: Yes, because it has to! But we have a lot of opportunities to improve on. My heart is for it not to become the norm, but rather the culture. Where people don’t just grudgingly oblige to sustainability education or practice, but rather are passionate about engaging with why it is so important.

Sian: I feel there are pockets of action dotted around the university but there does not seem to be an all-prevailing attitude throughout the campus towards more sustainable outcomes. On saying this though, there is generally a good push from students whose eyes have been opened to issues of broader significance to humankind who are demanding more courses that center on sustainability issues. However, this tends to fall on rather deaf ears, typically.

5. So what’s next?

Ross: The next thing is to apply this whole course. The wonderful thing about winning this competition is that it is as much a beginning for us as an end. The first thing Dan said to me when we had a moment to say things beyond a stunned ‘unbelievable’ was, ‘So when are we going to do this course?’ We would like to collaborate with others interested in the practicalities of changing curriculum and class processes to ensure a better form of education for management students.

Daniel: This course has to happen. We’ve designed it as a very open and adaptable model, which will hopefully be taken and replicated by other universities. If other institutions wish to take on board the idea, we would love to give them our resources and experience to make it happen.

Sian: As Dan said, this course needs to be established in our university first and foremost. It is this kind of dialogue between teachers, learners, and stakeholders that is needed to widen the sustainability agenda and improve consciousness and action regarding the issues.

To see the full winning entry, visit Managing Change for a Better World. To see the other 21 entries submitted, visit the PRME Leaders +20.



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