Prof. Levent Kurnaz of Boğaziçi University on using Prof. Jeff Sachs’s online SDSNedu course, ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’

February 29, 2016

Last semester, Jeffrey Sachs’s online educational course, ‘The Age of Sustainable Development,’ was roadtested by students at Boğaziçi University. SDSNedu, the online education initiative of theSustainable Development Solutions Network, has been developing a suite of courses designed by the world’s leading experts on sustainable development. Seven courses are now available, all offered free of charge to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

We asked Professor Levent Kurnaz, Director of the Center for Climate Change and Policy Studies, who introduced ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’ into his course, about his experience using the online materials.

1. Why were interested in using Professor Sach’s online materials, and how you integrated them into your course. 

For the past year, I was the co-chair of the SDSN Turkey network, hence I got the chance to meet Professor Sachs quite a few times. As someone truly interested in sustainability, I have followed Professor Sachs' lectures on Coursera even before they appeared on SDSNedu. When I wanted to teach a course on sustainability there were two basic ways forward: Either design a course yourself or take a well-established course as a guide. Jeff basically provides us with more than just a guideline for a course, he teaches the class lectures as well on top of writing the book for the course. So the whole package was ready to be implemented.  The course was titled STS 488 The Age of Sustainability and was given in the Physics Department to undergraduate students majoring in various fields including engineering, physics and science education. Our course structure was to watch the course videos prepared by SDSNedu, then read the corresponding chapter of the book. After this, we had a discussion hour face to face with the students where they could ask clarification questions about the subject. Finally, for each chapter we had an online quiz. We finished the course in 13 weeks.

2. In what ways did the ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’ advance your teaching of the course?

For the Physics Department, teaching sustainability is not considered as one of my core duties, i.e., I have to teach my two regular courses and on top of those I taught sustainability. But a subject like sustainability needs extensive preparation because it covers so many diverse areas. But as Jeff has done all of that for us, preparing the rest of the course was easier for me. However, more importantly, Jeff is one of the leading experts on sustainability in the world. As a student it is much more advantageous to listen to one of the experts on the issue, and much better, to listen to the whole course taught by one of the leading experts. Therefore I am grateful to Jeff and SDSNedu team. The only disadvantage is that we needed to teach the course on our university schedule, and this requirement forced the students to have their discussions with me rather than with Jeff himself online. But that is a small price to pay for such a great course.

3. How did students respond? What aspects of the course made the greatest impression on them?

Students encountered such an experience for the first time and I believe that it was quite successful. They could watch the "lectures" whenever they wanted to, which gave them more freedom over their time. But more importantly, Jeff covered all of the aspects of sustainability, and that was much better than we could have done ourselves. During the term, Jeff was in our university once and he spent some time with the students of the class which was really great for all of the students.

4. Were there any difficulties combining your syllabus with the online content?

I basically followed Jeff's syllabus and therefore did not have any difficulties. The main problem was with the exams and the quizzes. They were prepared with an idea of self-learning in mind and with students in different parts of the world. When you have students in one room, you cannot use the same exam structure, but that is in the nature of such a combination. The online content provides us with lectures and the professor responsible for the course provides all the rest. This seems like a fair arrangement to me.

5. What did you find to be the most effective aspects of the online course?

As I have mentioned above, two very important aspects are that you have a very well organized course, and that course is taught by one of the main experts of the subject. I believe this kind of courses (using online materials but taught locally) is going to be included in the future of education.

6. What recommendations would you have for other scholars who would like to use SDSNedu material?

As all of these materials are well structured, you can either do as I have done, namely, take the whole course and use it as the basis of the course, or you can take parts of the online material. Either way, they are of great help. One word of caution may be about the Internet connections, wherever the connections are slow, the lectures may be downloaded first and then watched together in class. For my course I have used Moodle where I have given all the links to video lectures, reading materials and quizzes. If the timing is not exactly right, instructors should have their own online systems to direct the students to the materials.

In the future adding local content might be a reasonable idea to pursue, however, at the moment, during the 13 weeks we can barely cover the course materials let alone make some additions.

I would be happy to speak with any instructors in Turkey or elsewhere to coach them through how they can use SDSNedu materials in their course.

And maybe one request from the SDSNedu team: This mode of education may be very desirable in the future and it does not take a whole lot of time to prepare an "instructors' package" for the course where you give all the links to us in one file. It takes a very long time to copy and paste all of the links to materials and lectures.

7. What suggestions do you have for rolling out SDSNedu to other universities in Turkey?

We can certainly try to use SDSNedu to other universities in Turkey, however, language is always a major barrier. A translation and a voice-over would be a reasonable solution if the courses are to be rolled out in Turkey.