International Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) (7th : 2015)

A multi-national, multi-disciplinary, multi-platform course on rural sustainability Mayer, Alex; Golden, Denise M.; Maher, Patrick T.; Stroink, Mirella Jun 30, 2015

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A MULTI-NATIONAL, MULTI-DISCIPLINARY, MULTI-PLATFORM COURSE ON RURAL SUSTAINABILITY Alex Mayer1,4, Denise M. Golden2, Patrick T. Maher3, Mirella Stroink2 1 Michigan Technological University, USA 2 Lakehead University, Canada 3 Cape Breton University, Canada 4 Abstract: The course approach was to foster learning from multiple disciplines and cross-culturally so as to understand sustainability concepts and issues in rural communities across North America. The course learning materials and activities included web-based lectures, journal articles and other readings, and a synchronous discussion session involving students and faculty from the six participating universities in Canada, Mexico and the US. The on-line, synchronous discussion sessions were designed to involve the sharing of knowledge among the participants drawn from world experiences, both personal and educative. The primary form of student assessment consisted of weekly reflection papers based on the course content, weekly discussion and their own personal experiences. 1 INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND Over the past twenty years sustainability (and sustainable development) have become some of the most important topics of discussion – whether at academic symposiums, in classrooms or even in coffee shops across the globe.  Sustainability is a topic that is now ubiquitous across many disciplines with each discipline educating about its importance from a corresponding disciplinary perspective. In fact, Education for Sustainability (EfS) or Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) have grown into fields in their own right as outlined by a recent report by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) regarding educational growth (CMEC, 2012).  There is also corresponding interest in concern over the sustainability of rural communities (see Augustana University 2015; Brandon University, 2015).   The last twenty years have also seen tremendous development in the tools for distance learning.  They have grown from correspondence courses via ground mail to E-learning (electronic learning) aligned with the advancements and deployment in technology (i.e., computers, internet) and technological capabilities such as, webcast audio-visual conferencing equipment and communication software (Ritzhaupt et al. 2010).  With the advancement and explosion of technology there has been a constant change in both learning environments and teaching methodologies (Carter 2009).   While it has been argued the globalization of technology and the internet have paved the way for greater exchanges of information, Carter (2009) warns of the disparities in developing nations (and rural or remote communities) in the lack of technical infrastructure along with other challenges. The challenges with cultural, language and technological diversity are likely to create a “pandemic of problems” in the transfer of internet-based educational practices (Carter 2009; Zhang and Kenny 2010), in addition to, course theme selection, facilitating student planning, and task preparations critical in the early stages of distance instructional development (Cabaroglu et al. 2010).  Technical support issues are even more pronounced between educational institutions in developing countries and developed nations in areas EESD’15    The 7th International Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development Vancouver, Canada, June 9 to 12, 2015  053-1 such as broadband capabilities (Muhirwa 2009) and challenges to incorporate interactive web-based activities due to poor internet connectivity (Fresen and Hendrike 2009). To implement distance or interactive multi-media web and internet educational tools between institutions with such disparities has significant hurdles.   In this paper, we discuss the development and implementation of the six-university Rural Sustainability course. This course was part of the Sustainable Development for Rural Communities: Social, Health, Economic, and Environmental Advances (SustR)” program. The SustR consortium of six universities from Canada, Mexico, and the US and was developed through a project funded by the North American Mobility Program in 2008. In this program, the sponsoring governments (Canada, Mexico, and the US) funded separate budgets for the country’s participating universities through educational and human resources agencies in each participating country. The primary goal of the North American Mobility program was to enrich students’ knowledge of cultures, institutions and languages in the three countries.   The objective of the SustR project was to educate students in the area of sustainable development for rural communities in the North American context. In addition to the Rural Sustainability course, the major components of the SustR project consisted of one- or two-semester study abroad experiences at the partner universities and short-term, intensive field experiences for exploring rural sustainability issues in the three countries. Each partner university’s effort was led by a faculty director, coming from disciplines as broad as wildlife ecology, sociology, geography, natural resources management, environmental engineering, and tourism management. The partner universities were Lakehead University and the University of Northern British Columbia in Canada, the University of Sonora and the Autonomous University of Aguascalientes in Mexico, and Michigan Technological University and the University of Puerto Rico – Mayagüez in the Unites States.  2 COURSE DEVELOPMENT AND CONTENT The course materials were developed by the SustR program faculty leads and other faculty and graduate students at the partner universities. The project proposal outlined the concepts of the course, but the faculty participants at the partner universities met early in the project to develop details on learning expectations, course outline, module format, and calendar logistics. Discussions of the course by SustR faculty participants continued throughout the four years of the development and delivery of the course. The ongoing discussion, was critical for making adjustments in the course from offering to offering, based on impressions of the course and formative evaluations by the students in the class.   The course was divided into eleven one-week modules. The course was delivered as web-based lectures and readings and synchronous discussions held via the internet. Lecture materials and readings were supplied to students from the six consortium universities each week via the course website. The topics were divided into three to four modules of introductory material, followed by seven to eight modules of case studies (see Table 1 for a sample list of topics). The introductory topics included principles of sustainable development; economic, political and cultural characteristics of rural communities; local and global forces shaping development; and governance issues related to development. The case studies considered topics related to issues of development in rural communities, including agriculture, food security, tourism, water and sanitation, and renewable energy, all viewed from the lens of the three countries.   The web-based lectures were designed for roughly 90 minutes equivalent of lecture time. The readings included peer-reviewed journal articles videos and reports from government agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGO), and government and NGO websites. A series of three to seven suggested discussion questions were included in each module, designed to provide a starting point for the weekly discussions and reflection paper assignments.     053-2 Table 1: List of topics from fall 2012 course offering Week Topic 1 Goals and objectives of rural sustainable development 2 Global, regional and local forces 3 Governance and the Commons 4 Case Study: Renewable Energy 5 Case Study: Food Security and Cultural Connectedness 6 Case Study: Sustainable Agriculture 7 Case Study: Sustainable Rural Tourism 8 Case Study: Natural Resource Extraction – The Case of Mining 9 Case Study: Biodiversity and Rural Communities 10 Case Study: Water and Sanitation 11 Case Study: Population  Box 1 gives an example of the case studies: the food security module.  Box 1: Case Study Module: Food Security and Cultural Connectedness in Northwestern Ontario Learning objectives • Students will be able to define food security and understand its multifaceted relationship with sustainability. • Students will have an awareness of the workings of the global food system and its implications for rural communities. • Students will be able to identify the various ways that food security is challenged in rural and remote communities. • Students will understand how cultures emerge through people’s efforts to adapt through interactions with each other in a particular social‐ecological system. • Students will understand the implications of this place‐based view of culture for the sustainability of rural communities. On-line lecture: Food Security and Cultural Connectedness  Readings King, C.A. (2008). Community resilience and contemporary agri‐ecological systems: Reconnecting people and food, and people with people. Systems research and behavioural science, 25, 111‐124. DOI: 101002/sres.854. Quandt, S.A., Acury, T.A., McDonald, J., Bell, R.A., & Vitolins, M.Z. (2001). Meaning and management of food security among rural elders. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 20, 356‐376. Stroink, M.L. & Nelson, C.H. (2009). Aboriginal health learning in the forest and cultivated gardens: Building a nutritious and sustainable food system. Journal of Agromedicine, 14‐2, 263‐269 Discussion questions  • Given the definition of food security that will be discussed in this module, how food secure are different groups of people in your area? Think about people of different ages, socio‐economic statuses, and abilities, as well as of rural and urban settings. • Describe the food system that sustains your community as it currently operates (there may be more than one). How sustainable is this food system? How resilient is it to external shocks? • What effects is this food system having on the dynamics and evolution of the culture in your community? In other words, can you detect changes in the culture that correspond to changes in the food system? • What could be done to increase the resilience and sustainability of the food system? Are changes in the culture of the community required in order to make these changes in the food system?  053-3 3 COURSE IMPLEMENTATION The interactive structure of the course allowed self-guided learning from the assigned materials. Once a week, students from the partnering universities participated in an on-line, synchronous video discussion in English. The on-line discussions were meant to be an integrating activity for the course, where the module materials were synthesized and the cultural perspectives of students and instructors were heard. A key goal for the course discussion was to connect the required readings to the participants’ personal experiences with a given topic.   The students took turns leading short presentations and facilitating discussions based on the weekly course content. This responsibility rotated among the groups of students at each participating university. The presentations included a summary of the material from the week’s module and a set of discussion questions, to provide a platform on which to start the discussions. Each site had a number of students in the local classrooms, as well as students from the other institutions linked synchronously via teleconferencing software. The synchronous discussion sessions lasted from 30 minutes to an hour. In most of the discussion sessions, the dialog flowed naturally following the presentations; but faculty at the participating universities also would ask follow-up questions directly of the students physically present in their classrooms. The instructors were careful to motivate their “home” students to join the dialog so that the contributions of the universities to the discussion was roughly equal. However, the balance in the discussion was sometimes difficult to maintain, given the technology disruptions that sometimes prevented participation from one or more of the universities.   The students were expected to develop reflexivity though writing weekly, three-page reflection papers based on the course content, weekly discussion, and their own personal experiences. The reflection papers frequently referenced issues raised in the weekly discussions, including issues specific to the geographic areas represented by the universities. Reflection papers were graded using a rubric where grades were based on organization of the discussion (logic of progression of and construction of paragraphs), depth of analysis (relation of information to module topic and synthesis of module material) and mechanics (spelling, grammar, and punctuation). The final assignment was a capstone synthesis paper drawing upon the course content as well as their experience in the course. A rubric similar to that used for the reflection papers was used for the final synthesis paper.  The demographics of the course participants over the three years of course offerings are summarized in Table 2. The participating students’ home towns were usually close to their university, which reflected not only national, but local differences in cultural backgrounds. A good example is the students at the two US universities, which were located in the rural, upper Midwest and the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. The number of students participating in the course was roughly equally distributed across the three participating countries. However, 10% of the participants were graduate students who were originally from other countries, including Ghana, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia.   Table 2: Participants in the rural sustainability course  Offering Universitiesa Student Level Total LU UNBC MTU UPRM UNISON UAA Undergraduate Graduate 2010 5 2 6 1 5 2 15 6 21 2011 5 0 5 0 2 0 8 4 12 2012 3 0 4 0 0 0 6 1 7 a LU: Lakehead University; UNBC: University of Northern British Columbia; MTU: Michigan Technological University; UPRM: Universidad de Puerto Rico Mayagüez; UNISON: Universidad de Sonora; UAA: Universidad Autónoma de Aguascalientes    The students were drawn from a wide range disciplines and degree programs including engineering (biomedical, civil, environmental, and geological), environmental policy, forestry, social work, nursing, biology, earth sciences, tourism, and rhetoric. The diversity of disciplines greatly enriched the course 053-4 discussions, as each student contributed knowledge and viewpoints related to their disciplines. Table 2 indicates that the number of students declined through the years. This decline was driven by shifts in the interests of the faculty participants due to positon changes, sabbaticals, and maternity leaves and competing obligations from other teaching and research projects. 4 COURSE EVALUATION At the end of the class, students were asked to anonymously evaluate the course by reflecting on three open-ended questions: 1. Provide some examples of changes in viewpoints you have experienced as a result of taking this course, e.g. changes in your world view, your view of your nation, your career intentions. 2. Have you come to understand differences among the countries that occupy North America in their approaches to rural sustainability that you did not previously know about? 3. In what ways might the course have been offered differently to have served you better?  In total, 31 student evaluations were completed and returned, with the breakdown by year and university shown in Table 3. While not every student completed an evaluation the numbers that responded by year and university more or less reflect the numbers of students who took the course (see Table 2). In Figures 1-3, we have synthesized the students’ responses to the three questions and assembled them into three categories: impacts on knowledge and professional orientation (derived from answers to questions 1 and 2), recommendations for improving the course (derived from answers to question 3), and the synchronous discussion sessions (derived from answers to question 3), The responses were then classified into common comments and are given in the form of the most frequently indicated student comments.   Table 3: Completed student evaluations by year and university   Offering Universitiesa Total LU UNBC MTU UPRM UNISON UAA 2010 4 2 4 0 3 2 15 2011 3 0 5 0 1 0 9 2012 3 0 4 0 0 0 7 a LU: Lakehead University; UNBC: University of Northern British Columbia; MTU: Michigan Technological University; UPRM: Universidad de Puerto Rico Mayagüez; UNISON: Universidad de Sonora; UAA: Universidad Autónoma de Aguascalientes    053-5    Figure 1: Student response to course evaluation questions on knowledge and professional orientation Figure 2: Student response to course evaluation questions on recommendations for improving the course Figure 3: Student response to course evaluation questions on synchronous discussion sessions  053-6  In terms of knowledge and professional orientation, more than 60% of students indicated that the course offered them an improved understanding of rural sustainability issues in other countries, and a similar number indicated that it offered an improved understanding of natural resource or environmental issues more broadly.  The course also influenced the career plans of over 50% of the sample, which is optimistic in terms of promoting work in sustainability with an international lens. In addition, 35% and 20% of the sample also self-reported improved understanding of governance and indigenous issues respectively.   For improving the course, just under half of the students indicated that a different approach to student presentations and more frequent assessment would be beneficial. The desire, expressed by almost 40% of the sample, for more guest speakers also points to the need for diverse perspectives in engaging around the topic of rural sustainability. The technical issues that were encountered in the course were mentioned as disruptive to over 20% of the sample.  Almost 20% of the students indicated that the discussion sessions were particularly beneficial and could be structured in ways to optimize these benefits. The course instructors agreed with the students’ suggestions for improving the course and attempted to implement the suggestions in subsequent years. The process of building trust and connection through the challenging barriers of both technology and culture does take time, and in future it may be beneficial to consider facilitated, semi-structured group discussions that build intentionally on trust and group dynamics so that the discussion based learning can be enhanced.  The results in Tables 1 and 2 suggest some degree of success in achieving the learning goals of the course, which focused on the relevance of natural resources and the state of the environment on the sustainability of rural communities. Governance was a core topic in the third week of the course and Indigenous issues were woven throughout most of the topics and case studies. It is noteworthy that these two topics stood out for these percentages of the students, and this finding may point to the benefits of building on these topics in future offerings of courses like this. The repeated themes in the final synthesis papers support the notion that student’s gained critical knowledge of rural sustainability issues, including the following. • The goals of sustainable development are especially important for rural communities. • Government policies regarding rural communities are not always in the best interests of rural populations and environments. • Non-governmental organizations play a large role in sustainable development efforts in rural communities. • The disproportionate impacts of resource extractions on rural communities are not recognized by the people that consume the resources. • The geographic isolation of rural communities can be a positive, in terms of environment, but also a negative, in terms of lack of access to services, economic and educational opportunities.  • There are substantial differences in how North American countries approach the sustainability of rural communities. • There are significant variations between North American countries’ treatment of indigenous rights. • The mining and food security topics were particularly provocative in terms of their novelty and significance to rural communities. 5 SUMMARY The Rural Sustainability seminar course aimed to foster learning from multiple disciplines and cultures to understand sustainability concepts and issues in rural communities across North America. The faculty and student participants were from universities in Canada, Mexico and the US. The course learning materials and activities included web-based lectures, journal articles and other readings, and a synchronous discussion session involving students and faculty from the six participating. The on-line, synchronous discussion sessions were designed to involve the sharing of knowledge among the participants drawn from world experiences, both personal and educative. Student assessment consisted of weekly reflection papers and a synthesis paper, all based on the course content, weekly discussion and their own personal experiences. The course evaluations indicated the majority of students felt that 053-7 the course offered an improved understanding of rural sustainability issues in other countries and that the course offered an improved understanding of natural resource or environmental issues more broadly.  The evaluation also resulted in a number of suggestions for improving the course, the majority of which concerned the improving the synchronous discussion sessions. Acknowledgements The course was funded by the Program for North American Mobility in Higher Education, administrated collectively by the U.S. Department of Education, Human Re Resources and Skills Development Canada, and the Mexican Secretariat of Public Education (Dirección de Desarrollo Universitario, Secretaría de Educación Pública). The authors also wish to thank and acknowledge the following faculty, staff and students contributing to the partnership and delivery of the course: Brian E. McLaren, Lakehead University; Jason E. Dampier, Lakehead University; Carol MacLennan, Michigan Technological University; Dagoberto Burgos, Universidad de Sonora; Cecilio Ortiz, Universidad de Puerto Rico de Mayagüez; Jim Randall, University of Prince Edward Island, formerly at University of Northern British Columbia; Andrea Zavala Rodriguez, Universidad de Sonora; Katie Snyder-Marr, Michigan Technological University; Mariah Maggio, Michigan Technological University; Ellis Adams, formerly at Michigan Technological Universit; Brie Rust, Michigan Technological University; Meredith LaBeau, formerly at Michigan Technological University; Nawaf Bilasi, formerly at MichiganTechnological University; Amber Faktor, formerly at University of Northern British Columbia. References Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta. (2015). Alberta centre for sustainable rural communities. Accessed Feb. 8, 2015 from: Brandon University. (2015). Rural Development Institute. Accessed Feb. 8, 2015 from Cabaroglu, N., S. Basaran and J. Roberts. 2010. A comparison between the occurrence of pauses, repetitions and recasts under conditions of face-to-face and computer-mediated communication: A preliminary study. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology – TOJET 9(2):14-23.   Carter, D. 2009. Technical Evaluation Report 68: The Global Internet Pandemic. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 10(4). 8pp.   CMEC (2012.) Education for sustainable development in Canadian faculties of education. Toronto: CMEC.  Available online at Fresen, J.W. and J. Hendrikz.  2009. Designing to promote access, quality, and student support in an advanced certificate programme for rural teachers in South Africa. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 10(4). On-line.   Muhirwa, Jean-Marie. 2009. Teaching and learning against all odds: A video-based study of learner-to-instructor interaction in international distance education. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 10(4). On-line.  Ritzhaupt, A.D., M. Stewart, P. Smith and A.E. Barron. 2010. An investigation of distance education in North American research literature using co-word analysis. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 11(1):37-60.   Zhang, Z. and R.F. Kenny. 2010. Canada learning in an online distance education course: Experiences of three international students. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 11(1):17-36.   053-8 


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