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Versteijlen, M.; Wals, A.E.J. Blended Education for Developing Sustainability Competencies. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 11 December 2023).
Versteijlen M, Wals AEJ. Blended Education for Developing Sustainability Competencies. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed December 11, 2023.
Versteijlen, Marieke, Arjen E. J. Wals. "Blended Education for Developing Sustainability Competencies" Encyclopedia, (accessed December 11, 2023).
Versteijlen, M., & Wals, A.E.J.(2023, June 05). Blended Education for Developing Sustainability Competencies. In Encyclopedia.
Versteijlen, Marieke and Arjen E. J. Wals. "Blended Education for Developing Sustainability Competencies." Encyclopedia. Web. 05 June, 2023.
Blended Education for Developing Sustainability Competencies

Climate change forces higher educational institutions (HEI) to reconsider their traditional ways of teaching and organising education. This implies that they should reduce their impact on the environment and provide sustainability-oriented education. Blended learning (fusion of on-campus and online learning) provides an appealing solution to achieve both objectives. It may reduce HEI’s climate impact by reducing student travel to and from campus and additionally, support the development of students’ sustainability competencies.

blended learning sustainability competencies

1. Introduction

Seemingly unrelated developments in climate urgency and information and communication technology (ICT) challenge higher education institutions (HEIs) to reconsider their traditional ways of teaching. To contribute to addressing climate change, HEIs should take measures to lower the climate impact of their organisation[1] as well as provide sustainability-oriented education[2], that can help develop and unfold the competencies students need in a climate-changed world[3][4]. Technical developments in ICT provide higher education (HE) with the possibility to create a virtual educational space adjacent to the physical space of the campus. This virtual space became the only space students could use for their learning during the COVID-19 pandemic when most HEIs made a rapid transition to so-called “emergency remote teaching”[5]. This forced response seems to have accelerated a development in HE to consider a mix of on-campus and online learning (so-called blended learning). What most HEIs do not realise is that blended learning may also contribute to addressing climate change. It may lower the climate impact of their organisation by decreasing the student commute to and from the campus and additionally, support the development of sustainability competencies. To achieve this objective, blended learning should be carefully designed. In line with Allen and Seaman[6], we call a course or curriculum blended when a large portion (typically anywhere between 30-80 per cent) is delivered online. Furthermore, blended education should comprise a responsible fusion of online and on-campus learning. The term ‘responsible’ is used because the fusion is characterized by using a pedagogical approach to integrate online and on-campus learning, and contributing to the well-being of planet and people[7]. The research first address the opportunities for lowering the climate impact of HE and for developing sustainability competencies. The research then present design principles for sustainability-oriented blended learning, to end with a conclusion. 

2. Blended Education for Lowering the Climate Impact of Higher Education

Blended learning (BL) can be deployed as a means to lower the climate impact of an HEI by reducing student commuting to and from campus [8]. Across the globe, students’ travel to and from campus is a large contributor to carbon emissions. Visiting a virtual space is place-independent and can reduce travel movements and associated impact on the HEI's carbon footprint [9][10]. According to the study by Caird et al.[10], distance-based HE teaching models (distance, online, ICT-enhanced) achieve carbon reductions of 83 per cent in comparison with on-campus models (in-class, ICT-enhanced). This is for the most part due to commute-related student travel, especially to universities and former polytechnics that provide no or very little on-campus housing. Indeed, the use of ICT also has a carbon footprint but one that is minor in comparison [10]. Considering these findings, an educational design limiting on-campus learning to one or two days per week supplemented with online course delivery, thus reducing commute-related student travel, seems to be one obvious possibility for HE to meet its sustainability objectives [11]. Combining on-campus learning, where student–student and lecturer–student interaction is crucial, with online learning might create an optimal learning environment both from an educational and a sustainability perspective. A focus on travel reduction can be seen as an institution’s effort to “walk the talk”. Blended learning, like all education, has a normative aspect in that it willingly or unwillingly promotes certain values and behaviours. If reducing the environmental impact of HE on climate change by mitigating student commute is a normative aim then one of the indicators of a blended design should be the extent to which online learning is used to substitute on-campus learning to realise (and disseminate) this normative aim.

3. Blended Education for Developing Sustainability Competencies

A competency is an in-situ combination of knowledge, skills, and attitude needed to accomplish the desired educational outcome[4][12]. Brundiers et al.[3] have collated and synthesised the sustainability competencies that have emerged in higher education contexts over the last decade or so. These competencies include systems thinking, strategic thinking, value thinking, futures thinking, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and implementation competency. These competencies are interconnected; for instance, developing strategies for transformative change (i.e., strategic thinking) requires analysing the underlying problem while considering the nested systems of which it is part (i.e., systems thinking), applying and assessing sustainability values while considering ethics (i.e., value thinking), and considering future consequences (i.e., scenario thinking), using this knowledge and understanding to realise a solution to a sustainability problem or make an attempt to improve the situation (i.e., implementation) [3][4]. Every step of the process should be of an inter- or transdisciplinary and collaborative nature [3][4]. Next to these key competencies for sustainability, there are some general basic competencies which serve “as the foundation of academic sustainability education [4] (p. 212) such as critical thinking, research, data management, and self-regulation skills. The educational challenge is to identify which pedagogical approaches are appropriate to develop these (key) competencies in students and, in this case, whether a blended learning design can be supportive or counterproductive.
Two features emerge when considering a blended learning environment for developing students’ sustainability competencies, namely, place-independency and just-in-time education. Place-independency, as stated before, may affect the travel behaviour of students by decreasing their travel movements, but it can also widen the horizon for students. In BL, a student can use the virtual space to collaborate and interact with students from different disciplinary, national, and cultural backgrounds together at a place and time of their choice without the environmental and financial costs of travel[13]. This provides opportunities for developing interpersonal or transboundary competency, as De Kraker [14] calls it, by incorporating different perspectives while having group discussions and organised feedback[14]. Moreover, this flexibility of time and place broadens access to learning opportunities[15].
Digital technology creates networks that connect not only people but also systems, establishing “a rapidly evolving information ecology”[16] (p. 3). Today’s certainties in the sciences technology, politics, economy, society, and culture are constantly outdated by new insights[17], making it vital to know how and where to find reliable knowledge and, in addition, how this information can be interpreted in the context of social, economic, and environmental issues. A complicating factor is also that the amount of knowledge, available through the World Wide Web and, more recently, AI-powered chatbots such as ChatGPT[18] has been increasing exponentially. For these reasons, learning cannot be a linear process of acquiring knowledge and skills anymore but should become a continuous process, lasting for a lifetime [3]. Therefore, HE should prepare students for this just-in-time education[19] and blended learning can probably provide an appropriate learning environment[20].

4. Pedagogical Design Principles for Sustainability-oriented Blended Education

Blended learning may make a difference when considering HEI’s climate impact, but its design should maintain, or ideally improve educational quality. To enhance educational quality, a blended educational design requires more than just adding ICT enhancements to on-campus courses as it constitutes a fundamental redesign of the educational approach[21][22]. This is because blended learning changes or extends the mode of interaction with fellow students, lecturers, and content [21]. Blended learning can improve a student’s engagement and learning outcomes [23][24] but needs to consider factors such as, “educator presence in online settings, interactions between students, teachers and content, and deliberate connections between online and offline activities and between campus-related and practice-related activities”[25] (p. 53). According to the United Nations [26], one of the aspects of educational quality is also how an educational design stimulates acquiring sustainability competencies needed for students to address the complex challenges of this climate-changed world and to create a sustainable future. In Table 1, pedagogical design principles of sustainability-oriented blended learning are presented. In this section, these principles are discussed for their value to support the development of sustainability competencies.

Table 1. Design principles of sustainability-oriented blended learning.

Pedagogical design principles for sustainability-oriented blended learning
Aiming at self-regulation and self-awareness of learning and practice in the student’s learning process.
Fostering a safe and social learning environment.
Facilitating (a)synchronous interaction and discussion among fellow students and with the lecturer to stimulate reflection and critical thinking.
Transforming learning through acquisition and inquiry into an active process based on existing knowledge in which new knowledge is constructed to contribute to sustainability.
Working on authentic and action-oriented tasks with scaffolded and theory-based practice meeting the learning preferences of students.
Inter/transdisciplinary collaboration for constructing a shared outcome through participation and negotiation with fellow students in a technologically enhanced learning environment.

The first design principle is about a pedagogical approach that stimulates self-regulation in a student’s learning process. In a blended learning environment, students get more control over when, where, what and how to learn. A virtual space adjacent to the physical space adds more spaces for discussion, conversation, exploration, acquisition, practice, reflection and so on. In a well-designed blended learning configuration, balancing online and in-class activities, a student can, to a certain extent, integrate spaces, places, activities and resources to fit his or her own needs and learns how to create and implement their learning ecology[27]. So, having more control and autonomy as well as more possibilities in time and place helps a student to develop the self-regulation skills that are essential in blended learning. In addition, blended learning utilizes technological tools that can support students, for instance, by providing relevant and personalized content and assessment and tracking their learning performance[15][28][29]. Self-regulation skills are also needed in a dynamic professional environment where technological innovations, globalized competition and environmental demands ask for flexibility, responsiveness to change[30] and a responsible attitude. To prepare a student for taking a role in such an environment not only self-regulation is important but also self-awareness of one’s own values regarding sustainability issues[3]. Brundiers et al.[3] call this the intrapersonal competency and add it to the key sustainability competencies of Wiek et al.[4]. Developing an intrapersonal competency corresponds with what Biesta [31] calls ‘subjectivation’, meaning, awareness as an individual of “our freedom to act or to refrain from action” (p. 93). Hesen et al. [32] add, in the context of sustainability, “bound by the ecological boundaries in which this becoming occurs” (p. 86). To conclude, to be suitable for developing students’ sustainability competencies, not only self-regulation should be the objective in the student’s learning process but also self-awareness.

The second design principle is about fostering a safe and social learning climate. A safe learning climate can lead to students feeling free to be creative and critical and take on new challenges, unafraid of the risk of failure [32][33][34]. This feeling of freedom to express oneself is, according to Hesen et al. [32], a prerequisite in search of the self (subjectivation or intrapersonal competency) and also, in collaborating while taking different perspectives into account (transboundary [13] or interpersonal competency [4]. In blended learning, creating a safe and social learning climate is perceived as a challenge [35]. Having to communicate in a digital learning environment, “can isolate some students detrimentally affecting their motivation and enjoyment” [36] (p. 537). Boelens et al.[29] mention several ways for lecturers to contribute to a safe and social learning climate: “showing empathy, having a sense of humour, providing encouragements, directing attention to task-relevant aspects, and attending to students’ individual differences” (p. 4). This design principle seems equally important for blended learning as sustainability-oriented learning.

The last four design principles are about learning methods in which students interact and discuss, acquire knowledge, bring theoretical knowledge into practice and collaborate for constructing a shared outcome. As presented in section 3, living in a rapidly evolving information ecology, students need to learn how to learn. Passive knowledge acquisition during a lecture is no longer adequate and should be transformed into a more active process in which discussion, acquisition, practice and collaboration are interwoven. Lecturing has a low likelihood of addressing any of the sustainability competencies [12] in contrast with a participative and research method such as project and/or problem-based learning which can address all sustainability competencies, as defined by Lozano[12], especially, inter-disciplinary work, anticipatory thinking, critical thinking and analysis, interpersonal relations and collaboration. Three studies present examples of how a blended design may support participative and research methods, that is, research activities based on professional practice [37], problem-based learning with additional cognitive tools for documentation, presentation and argumentation[38], and social networking, tutoring and presentation to build content knowledge and a professional community of peers, so-called dialogic learning [39]. These blended course designs, to a greater or lesser extent, combine active knowledge acquisition embedded in the professional context, scaffolded practice and collaboration through participation and negotiation supported by a technologically enhanced learning environment. Blended learning seems to have various possibilities to activate students’ learning, but “sustainability learning requires seeking and cultivating learning environments that invite and enable people to envision alternative futures, experi­ment with action, anticipate different outcomes, and learn from their attempts. All these processes combined help build transformative capacity, especially the capability of individuals and collectives to bring about fundamental change.” [2] (p. 71). Two examples demonstrate how technological enhancements may support transformation in knowledge, skills and attitudes of students towards sustainability problems, challenges and opportunities by increasing students’ autonomy to direct their own learning. Sibbel[40] describes the online development of students’ knowledge management skills (capture, interpretation, integration and reconstruction), supported by face-to-face interactions, applied in cycles of collection and sharing, encouraging (peer) feedback and self-reflection to create awareness of personal attitudes and values. Archambault and Warren [20] describe a blended course design for future educators, in which digital storytelling techniques are used to stimulate students’ engagement and knowledge acquisition of sustainability issues, followed by in-class discussions on how the content can be implemented in their future classrooms. Both courses aim to bring about sustainable change in personal attitudes and values for one [40], and professional practice for the other [20]. In both designs, in-class sessions were used for discussions. Critical thinking skills and in-depth exploration could have been encouraged if these synchronous discussions had been accompanied by asynchronous discussions online [41]. To conclude, to emphasize transformative learning, knowledge acquisition should not only be based on existing knowledge but also on constructing new knowledge contributing to sustainable change and while bringing this knowledge into practice the corresponding tasks should not only be authentic but also action-oriented.

The last design principle, collaboration for constructing a shared outcome through participation and negotiation with fellow students is a commonly used learning activity in blended learning to motivate students. Participative learning methods are also mentioned as appropriate methods for sustainability-oriented learning [12][42][43] because collaboration is a contingency to develop interpersonal competency[4]. As a key component of this competency, Wiek et al. [4] mention “the capacity to understand, embrace, and facilitate diversity across cultures, social groups, communities, and individuals” (p. 211). A digital learning environment can easily facilitate this diversity in collaboration activities without having to travel, so at low costs [13]. In sustainability-oriented education, interpersonal competency is connected to all other key competencies [3]. To realize this, a collaborative approach should use the aforementioned disciplinary and cultural perspectives to address complex social, ecological, technical and other problems to bring about transformative change [44]

5. Conclusion

At first glance, the guiding principles seem to be rather generic and relevant for higher education in general, but the given directions are crucial in blended learning and they can also be valuable in informing sustainability-oriented education, because self-regulation, community building, interaction and discussion, knowledge management and collaboration have been identified as critical in students’ learning around wicked sustainability problems [12][13][42][43]. In a high-quality blended learning design, the added virtual space can enhance sustainability-oriented learning by enabling self-directed learning, (a)synchronicity in time and place-independency. Regarding self-directed learning, digital technology can engage an individual student in acquiring (reliable) knowledge and understanding of sustainability issues through multimedia content delivery [20] and tools for feedback and assessment [40]. Making use of the advantages of (a)synchronicity in time enhances the reflection and critical thinking skills of students[45][46][41][39]. And lastly, place-independency creates possibilities to facilitate incorporating different disciplinary, cultural and social perspectives in collaboration activities[13]. This inter- or transdisciplinary approach of collaboration could be one of the affordances of blended learning, but it represents also one of the omissions in the blended learning practice studied. Further research is needed on how inter- or transdisciplinary collaboration can reach its full potential in a blended design.

Although all design principles are essential, one principle in particular requires more attention and that is Fostering a safe and social learning environment. The forced online learning modus during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a negative impact on students’ performance and well-being [47][48]. Several academic studies have studied this impact. A search in Google Scholar with the search term “emotional well-being COVID-19 online learning "higher education" resulted in 44,600 hits (accessed 24 Feb. 2023). The emotional well-being of students has not been explicitly included in Fostering a safe and social learning environment and probably a study of the aforementioned post-COVID-19 studies can add recommendations to fill this gap.

Transformation to a sustainable world needs ‘change agents’, who are aware of what they can or want to change and know how to take action for implementation [3]. Two blended learning designs demonstrate how this can be done [20][40], but it is not common practice in a blended learning design. To create this self-awareness and transformative capacity action-oriented methods are supportive, such as environmental place-based learning and community-oriented service learning. Opportunities to facilitate this by blended learning probably lie in creating value for the local community [49] or experiencing the surroundings through a virtual augmented reality platform [50]. This could also be employed as a preparation or follow-up activity for a field trip [51]. Further research into these opportunities is recommended.

The integral utilization of the guiding principles might well lead to a more ecological or relational perspective on educational design in higher education, especially in universities seeking to become more relevant, responsive and responsible in light of current and emerging global challenges. A high-quality ecological blended learning design can also help HEIs in reducing a part of their travel-related carbon footprint. This is an essential aspect of a whole institution approach to sustainability [52], where universities need to become living practices of sustainability.


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