Action Learning in Strategies for Sustainability Management

Students learn about sustainable development and risk management through action learning – applying concepts to real world organizations and discussing ideas with peers.

Goals:

  • To help students cultivate the skills necessary to develop a risk management and sustainability program in an organization at the community level in a way that continually improves the organization's ability to meet its objectives over the long term in an uncertain world. These skills include (but are not limited to) knowing how:
    • To implement, monitor, and measure the effectiveness of programs through research, quantitative analysis, discussion, feedback, and reflection  
    • To monitor the external operating environment of an organization (‘sense making’)
    • To engage internal and external stakeholders
    • To use risk assessment to understand and prioritize opportunities and threats to an organization
    • To teach and inspire students to apply what they have learned to develop real-life solutions for the organizations they are associated with
    • To connect students with diverse peers to practice collaborating and giving and receiving feedback on projects

Class: ENVR E105: Strategies for Sustainability Management

Introduction/Background: This course teaches students about sustainable development at the local level through action learning. There are no lectures in this course; students are guided through readings and recordings from the instructor, but the bulk of their learning occurs through discussion with their peers. Each week, students learn about a concept and practice in risk management and sustainability. Students apply these concepts to analyze and develop a plan of action for an “avatar” organization. Students work with cohorts of their peers to give, receive, and act on feedback on their work.

Procedure

Set-Up

  • Each student chose an organization and the community within which the organization was located as their “avatar”. Graduate students could choose any community, while  undergraduate and non-recredit students selected from virtual organizaitons located by the instructor in Cambridge, MA.
  • Students were assigned to a cohort team of approximately 25 students.  Diverse cohorts of students from around the world helped participants develop friends, contacts, and collaboration skills.
  • A discussion board was configured each week for the students to discuss how they would apply the structural element of sustainability they learned about that week to their organization.  The discussion boards were monitored and facilitated by a teaching fellow. 
  • A final discussion board was established at the end of the week so that the group could discuss 'what worked' and 'what didn't work’.  This discussion board was used for the discussion in the live class on Monday evenings.

Individual Work – Preparing for Discussion

  • During this course, students had to apply the structural component of risk management and sustainability to their avatar organization by using an assigned method each week.  This action learning format followed the gold standard methods developed by Reg Revans (citation below).
  • Each week, the students learned about a different structural component of risk management and sutainability. They also learned about a best practice method about how organizations could practice using that element, based on national and international standards.
  • For instance, students might learn about the structural component of “external context” – the conditions and factors surrounding an organization that affect its choices, opportunities, and threats. A method that an organization might use to think about its external context is a “PESTLE” (political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental) analysis. Students might then apply a PESTLE analysis to their chosen avatar organization.
  • Students were provided with readings on each new structural component each week. The instructor created a chapter on the new topic each week, describing it in the context of a local case (e.g. during the first week, a faith organization in Cambridge).  The instructor also created an audio-visual presentation recorded on the program “Camtasia” that provided students with advice from the instructor about how to practice each element.

Using the Discussion Boards

  • Once the student read the material and examined the method for applying the material to their organization, they would respond to instructions on how to implement the method posted on each cohort discussion board each week, discuss their experience using the method, and ask questions. Overall, students would present their ideas, receive feedback from others, reflect on the feedback, and then commit to a proposed course of action for their avatar orgaization in light of the week’s discussion.
  • Studentsalso  provided support and advice to other members of their cohort in response to their posts and shared references they had found to support their work.
  • Students were expected to support all of their arguments with references that they located through their own personal research, cited in APA style. Since all of the avatar organizations were located in communities around the world, the students had to find the contextual material from those communities as this contetxt would affect the ability of the organization to be sustainable.  Additionally, students would examine how other similar organizations may have used the sustainability practices being discussed.
  • At the end of the week, the students from the three cohort groups would share their experience with the entire class on a discussion board posted on Sunday noon and retrieved by the Instructor on Monday noon.  The students would share their reflections on the topic and often ask for additional information from the Instructor. 
  • Students received a grade based on the number of postings that were made during the week and the extent to which these postings demonstrate refection on the topic and a contribution to the overall conversation.  Their participation in the discussions each week represented 30% of their grade.
  • This weekly discussion board was used by the instructor to create topics for discussion in the live classroom on Monday evenings. 

Weekly Live Classroom Meetings

  • Each week on Monday evenings, the class had a live discussion of the week’stopic. Some students were able to attend the discussion in person, but many students attended online or viewed the discussion later if it was not convenient for them.  
  • The discussion was supported with a live chat function (Blackboard Collaborate) and a live feed of the classroom which was converted to streaming video for the use of students that were in time zones that made live viewing difficult. These students were represented by posting their concerns or comments within 24 hours of the presentation and being able to see them discussed on the streaming video.
  • In the discussion, students actively discussed the week’s activity and how they were able to apply the sustainability practice to their organization. Students would discuss the effectiveness of the practice as well as any challenges.  They also reflected on differences in approaches that may have arisen between cohorts
  • Some of the students were working in this field and provided examples on how they put these exercises to work in their jobs.  The instructor also shared his experience in applying these structural components in his 40 years of consulting experience. 

Other Course Exercises

  • The students were also required to take a mid-term and final exercise where they had to apply what they learned to an avatar different from what they had used before (a small hotel that was part of a large international hotel chain located in the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA).  They had nine days to complete the exercise and submit it for a grade. 
  • Each exercise was prepared using a rubric and they received a grade on each element of the rubric.  Clarity of the presentation and the use of cited references to support their approach were part of the grade.  Each exercise represented 20% if their grade. 
  • The Graduate credit level students were required to submit a 'Semester Paper' that outlined how they applied the course materials to their avatar organization.  Students used the reflection developed from the cohort team discussions and the feedback received during the weekly live discussions to improve the content of their semester paper.
  • This paper represented 30% of their grade.  Each paper was graded to a rubric that was used to provide feedback to the students on how well they could support their work.     The focus of the grade was not the potential outcome of their work. Rather, they were graded on demonstrating the skill that they developed during the semester in being able to apply the content to an organization in a way that would help it meet its explicitly stated objectives over the long term in an uncertain world.

Materials:

  • Online discussion board
  • Readings & MP4 presentations on course website
  • The sample syllabus, information on how to develop a case, and information from the first week’s material are attached.

Revans, R. (2011). "ABC of Action Learning." Burlington, VT: Gower Publishing Ltd

Comments from the Instructor:

  • Pojasek emphasizes that instructors will need to do their research in order to effectively lead an action learning course: “The instructor must become familiar with the concept of action learning and "competency-based training”. It is also important to have a topic that is strongly supported in the literature.”
  •  It also will be more time-consuming and intellectually demanding than a lecture format, “The use of this activity is lot more intense and consumes more time for the students and the teaching staff...The instructor must want to learn more than the sum total of all of the students each semester.”
  • Additionally, some students may be initially resistant to this style of learning, as it is unfamiliar to them. In the attached “Response to Class Discussion Board” from week 1, Pojasek responds to some of students’ initial concerns. He finds that over time, students become used to the format and find it incredibly valuable.
  • For instance, students go on to “to use the methods in the organizations that they belong to or in their consulting practices.. the students are learning about organizational development, risk management, systems thinking, sustainability theory, decision making and a host of other academic fields that support this work.  It supports the concept of life-long learning when they can see how the material can be applied to their life and their work. ”
  • Additionally, “Students create bonds with each other because of the interactions and the instructor can receive emails for years after the class exclaiming how they have progressed with the application of their learning based on the skills developed in the course.”
pojasek_case_development_guide.pdf94 KB
pojasek_context_presentation_slides.pdf242 KB
pojasek_e105_syllabus.pdf95 KB
pojasek_foundation_chapter.pdf126 KB
pojasek_response_to_class_discussion_board_week_1.pdf110 KB
pojasek_video_slides_taking_the_course.pdf554 KB