‘A global community of learners can challenge things and bring in their own perspectives’ © Getty Images

In August 2019, when Ioannis Ioannou started designing an online sustainability course for London Business School, he had no idea how quickly it would become necessary. “When the pandemic hit, we were ready to go,” says Ioannou, a strategy and entrepreneurship professor at LBS.

In 2020, as MBAs and other business courses went online, management educators soon saw the value of virtual instruction. However, those teaching sustainability programmes discovered an extra benefit: that the interdisciplinary, global nature of the topic was surprisingly well suited to an online format.

Most notably, there was the ability to bring together an international cohort of students — many of whom might otherwise not have been able to participate.

“More diverse and rich conversations are enabled by international participation through the online mechanism,” observes Tensie Whelan, who teaches many of the online courses at New York University’s Stern School of Business, where she is director of the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business.

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She argues that, since students can learn as much from each other as from the instructor, participant diversity is particularly important when teaching an interdisciplinary topic such as sustainability. “It affects virtually every industry and player in the value chain and it has science and policy implications,” she points out.

The LBS course — Sustainability Leadership and Corporate Responsibility — has demonstrated the student diversity that can be achieved online. While its largest cohort is from Europe, students are based everywhere from Latin America, Africa, central Asia, and Australasia. They work in sectors ranging from finance and consulting to agriculture and healthcare.

Ioannou: ‘Sustainability means different things to different people’ © Rob Greig

“Sustainability means different things to different people,” says Ioannou. “And, online, you can speak to people from industries and countries that as an executive you might not otherwise have the opportunity to.”

With diverse participants, sustainability topics elicit a wide range of reactions, says Jason Jay, director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan, who has seen this when using the school’s simulation tools to explore different climate change scenarios.

“What it means to put a tax on carbon feels very different for wealthy communities in Northern Europe than it does for people in India,” he says. “A global community of learners can challenge things and bring in their own perspectives.”

Meanwhile, since sustainable business strategies have implications for many corporate functions, courses that do not require travel away from the office allow executives to apply what they are learning in real time, says Richard Barker, director of the Oxford Leading Sustainable Corporations executive programme, which is part of the online portfolio at Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

“What you’re doing is inherently applied and complex,” he says. “It’s partly about technical skills and it’s partly about levers of change and understanding governance and institutional structure — you have to live those things to see how you can make a difference.”

Even so, some parts of a sustainability programme remain hard to replicate in the virtual world. “The pedagogical experience can be done extremely well,” says Jay. “It’s the community building — outside the classes — that is much harder to do.”

Given that sustainability strategies can involve tough trade-offs, and tackle sensitive topics such as modern slavery, the inability to have longer conversations in more relaxed settings can be a disadvantage.

“With sustainability, you’re challenging the idea that economic growth is the right objective function for humanity,” says Jay. “That requires some soak time with people going through the same inquiry.”

Teaching sustainability virtually has also required an ability to adapt, says Brandi Robinson, a Pennsylvania State University assistant teaching professor who specialises in sustainability and renewable energy.

“Pre-Covid, we pushed students to get out from behind the computer screen and go out into the community,” says Robinson, who teaches a capstone course — a programme that involves students working directly with a business or a non-governmental organisation on a specific project.

Even so, she says moving into the virtual world has opened doors, because businesses that might lack the time and capacity to have an intern in their office can now take them on remotely. “They realise that, in giving a little time, they might get a lot more benefit in terms of the work a student can do,” says Robinson.

In addition, securing top-quality speakers is far easier and cheaper when you do not have to fly them across the world. “I can have a social entrepreneur working on a solar microgrid development in the Congo join a session,” explains Jay.

Of course, videoconferencing technology made this possible long before the pandemic hit. But, when the academic world was forced to move fully online, it gave educators a new understanding of the opportunities offered by virtual formats.

“We have fancy classroom technology, but we weren’t taking advantage of that before,” says Jay. “So my life has been permanently changed by the opening up of these platforms.”

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