Towards a Global Online Course in Computational Sustainability

A number of us at CompSustNet have been talking about the timeliness of an open, online course on computational sustainability. This blog post elaborates on that suggestion, drawing significantly from my unpublished presentation on the subject to the 18th Annual Conference of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (October, 2012) entitled Regional Sections of Massively Open Online Courses.

Open online courses, both synchronous (aka “massive”) and self-paced, and other “unbundled” educational content encourage a world community of learners and educators. Perhaps for the first time in history, instructors at different institutions, even separated by great distances, can co-create and co-teach courses (see my  Online Learning report with Armando Fox for the Computing Community Consortium of CRA). Beyond the considerable research prowess in CompSustNet, there is growing experience with the teaching of computational sustainability. The time seems right for a global course on computational sustainability.

Experience with open, online courses is that local groups sometimes self-organize, meeting in coffee shops and libraries, to discuss and collaborate on online course material. Moreover, local study groups can be organized by the online course teams (e.g., an online course for future STEM university educators), anticipated by my 2012 talk.

In a distributed computational sustainability course created and managed by CompSustNet, we can also explore ways that collocated institutions can cooperate in hosting more formalized regional “sections” of the online course, allowing students at these institutions, together with other enrolled community members, to come together to collaborate on the materials, perhaps facilitated by faculty and other partners. The images below show cities with CompSustNet-affiliated institutions in the United States and Europe, with other affiliates, not shown, in Australia and Ecuador.


Image: Cities of CompSustNet-affiliated institutions in the U.S. and Europe (click to enlarge).

A global course can also be a way of growing the network of affiliates, both in the immediate vicinity of current affiliates, but also into new parts of countries and continents.

Regionally-situated sections may bring special perspectives to the material, feeding into the course’s world discourse. For example, a worldwide course on machine learning and optimization for environmental and societal sustainability may have a theme of “What will ‘our’ region be like in 30 years?” A Nashville section with Vanderbilt University, and other local universities, such as Fisk, Tennessee State, Belmont, and David Lipscomb universities as partners could have a special focus on computing analysis of water resources, flood events, and other Nashville-specific concerns, with additional partners such as the Nashville Civic Design Center, the Cumberland River Compact, and the Richland Creek Watershed Alliance, with possibilities for community-based projects.

As I prepare the second offering of Vanderbilt’s course in Computing, Energy, and the Environment for this Fall, I will be contacting guest presenters from across CompSustNet, and I hope that this and other guest lecture arrangements across the network serve as a stepping stone towards a computational sustainability online course that is open to the world.

Douglas H. Fisher is CompSustNet’s Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis. The opinions expressed herein are Doug’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. Contact Doug at Doug would love to hear about your computational sustainability education efforts — in universities, colleges, K-12, and professional development.