Using Online Tools to Engage Students in Sustainability – WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management

PrimetimeThe Sustainability Lab is a new course at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany, focused on taking on challenges for business in sustainability. One of the unique elements of this course is that it uses social media, blogging, wikis and a range of other online tools to further engage the students in the topic. I recently had the chance to speak with Prof. Dr. Christoph Hienerth, who runs the Sustainability Lab, about his innovative course.

 1.  Describe the Sustainability Lab and how it came about?

The Sustainability Lab at WHU is a course that emphasises gaining an understanding of theoretical and practical aspects of sustainability. During the course, students work on real projects provided by partner companies and develop thoughts and concepts on implementation. The course is partitioned into three segments. In the first segment, the students attend lectures focused on different topics relating to sustainability. In the second segment, students search for and collect data dealing with the respective thematic topic of the semester. During the third segment, students develop their thoughts and concepts and present their results to partner companies. Every year a theme is chosen for the course and this year’s is the question, ‘What is sustainability in packaging and how can it be measured?’ reflecting the difficulties of managing the many different aspects of sustainability and also creating concrete measures for outcomes.

2. Describe your use of online tools for the different segments of the course and why you chose to take this specific approach.

Throughout the course, students do a lot of the work over the internet. In order to communicate with each other and with the instructors we have individual and group wikis. Students are asked to search for and collect relevant data and present their research results on their individual wiki on a continuous basis. We use a web tool called Moodle, as well as a programme called ‘spacedeck’ to keep track of what was done and how well that was done. This platform also enables us to openly share teaching results with the public.

Another important part of the course is the public blog where students write blog entries on sustainability topics of their choice. Here we regularly post student thoughts about the themes being brought up in the course such as, most recently, posts on Critical Consumerism, Sustainable Packaging and Ingredient Marketing.

3. What have been some of the challenges of using these tools for a large part of the course? What about the benefits?

Students shy away from many new forms of teaching – they have to get used to a different system and experience it hands-on. That said, the platforms we use are not unfamiliar to the students as many of them are used on a daily basis outside the classroom.  We just started incorporating blog posts into the curriculum— providing bonus points for really good blog posts—and that has worked really well. So far the format has worked well, but we only had twenty students in this course. Starting next semester we will have a hundred, so we shall see whether this online format leads to frustrations or passivity.

4. What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?

I think it requires a lot of experimentation with various formats to see which one works best, and the flexibility to change formats or assignments in case something doesn’t work. It also requires very close contact with students. It is important to really show the students the relevance of a new format and the tools to use it, through this type of teaching innovation. Otherwise students will reject it. Even though students always say they want new formats, in the end they usually prefer to stick to classic classroom teaching.

5. What’s next for the programme?

We will continue to provide this course to more and more students. In about a year we plan to have the first part of the course (the lectures) available online – with short videos, challenges, cases, etc. – similar to MOOCs. Students will view the lectures ahead of time so that classroom time can be focused on discussions. This will also give us opportunity to get similar modules from international colleagues working on the topic. The goal is that within a couple of years, we have many of these modules from all over the world.

– Do you use online tools in your courses? Share your experiences in the comments section below. –


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