The COVID-19 pandemic and the global recession it has triggered are causing immense human suffering around the world. The pandemic has disrupted efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and threatens to reverse years of progress on poverty, hunger, health care and education.

Moreover, and at a very practical level, the pandemic has forced governments, organizations and industries in different sectors to move to a virtual setting and develop online initiatives to continue their work and operations while keeping their staff healthy and safe. As a result, the world of learning, particularly online learning, has gained increasing attention. The latest Udemy and Linkedin reports showed a surge in global online learning in response to the COVID-19. We also experienced an increase in registrations in our free moderated online courses at UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development in 2020 of more than 5,600 registrations. Learning practices now plays a critical role in managing and leading remote environments and in addressing uncertainties.

The past year also taught us that in a learning environment that has become increasingly digital, technologies should not be used as a mere support resource, but the choice for tech should be fully incorporated in the design and practices of delivering learning solutions. In our experience, we determine learning needs together with stakeholders and choose the right platforms and tools, which can range from self-paced courses, moderated and tutored training, training of trainers, coaching, open dialogues, peer exchange, virtual meetings, or a resource hub.

The use of appropriate technologies, expertise in instructional design and substantive knowledge on sustainable development have become inextricably linked. For example, gamification works better in topics related to circular economy where direct and immediate contributions from individuals and organizations are possible, but will not work in the same way in learning focusing on policy coherence. We, at the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development, continue to learn and explore what that means in practice. But a few lessons can already be highlighted:

1. Providing meaningful and accessible content beyond courses opens dialogue

Learning is much more than courses alone. Regular learning resources must be complemented with knowledge brokering that helps learners make sense of the abundance of information on sustainable development. The role of knowledge brokers in a knowledge marketplace is to bring people who are seeking answers closer to people and organizations who may have answers to those questions and bridge those gaps by translating information, research, and results into accessible and understandable language. In the context of sustainable development, and within our work at UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development, knowledge brokering means bringing professionals together from diverse backgrounds and sectors, and acting as facilitator, we bring those who produce knowledge such as researchers and practitioners to the policymakers, decision-makers, or people who are working within specific domains related to sustainable development. Our role is to create an ongoing dialogue and exchange among the different actors and stakeholders and act as an interface among policy, research, business, and society.

Customized (often bite-sized) formats provide support in systematizing and synthesizing information, knowledge, and expertise. In a senior executive, adult and professional learning environment, efforts must consistently go beyond a trainer-trainee relationship to reflect the ambition to co-create learning experiences. Establishing a strong cohort of practitioners from different sectors and disciplines to allow for the cross-pollination of knowledge is essential. Our experience in launching the UN Mastermind Groups exemplifies the need for creating open and safe conversations where peer learning can take place rather than creating a training package sustainable development leaders who need to make decisions at crucial times.

2. Fostering human connections online and offline increases public engagement

Like in the physical world, people search for meaningful human connections in an increasingly digital environment. And what we have successfully achieved is that virtual experiences can be leveraged to create opportunities for engagement and diversity, both online and offline. In our annual UN Summer Academy last year, more than 100 participants joined the UN 75 conversations by working together in groups to share research, practices, experiences to develop messages over the course of 3 days, which they shared with the world leaders in a video format. They worked in different time zones and geographical locations, and demonstrated that close collaboration can be achieved in a well facilitated learning environment.

Learning providers must assume a more significant role in creating meaningful communities of practice that foster genuine interactivity in multiple directions, such as peer-to-peer learning, building an ecosystem of experts, and broadening networks that support learning on sustainable development topics. As an example, in one of our moderated online courses on the Paris Agreement as a Development Agenda, we carefully selected the members of the cohort of 300-500 participants to ensure that the groups who have similar climate change and development challenges and contexts can learn from organizations, cities, and countries who may offer approaches. We encourage participants to create their safe spaces based on their preferred platform where they feel comfortable sharing with a group online, which further allows peer-to-peer learning and creating a network of peers and experts. Here is what the participants have to say on Linkedin.

Increased interactivity requires strategic planning and building interactions over time to keep the learners’ focus and help facilitators know where the learners are in the learning process. Engagement in a virtual setting can also involve physical activities such as asking learners to interact with objects in their surroundings, sending personalized motivational messages, or a small token for doing a good job.

3. Sharper learner analytics require better measurements

Learner analytics go beyond completion rates and satisfaction ratings, or asking whether the desired behavior change is taking place, how these changes add value to the organization and societies at large, and how can we promote learning how to learn and equip them with the capabilities to explore information for themselves. This demands increased knowledge and capabilities in artificial intelligence, data literacy and data analysis to equip leaders with a better overview of the gaps and needs of the learners and support them achieve their learning needs. At present, we are working together with the Master in International Development students at the IE School of Global and Public Affairs to analyze the impact of courses at the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development in fostering change in mindsets and behaviors.

4. Promoting digital etiquette establishes trust

Navigating the ‘new’ normal of being online and connected requires a higher level of empathy and understanding of the various circumstances your learners are experiencing beyond the learning environment. Although several netiquettes and digital guidelines can be found online, it is the role of the learning facilitators to help the group articulate and agree on the general virtual ‘house rules’ to follow during an online class. Proper digital etiquette focused on impact helps promote cordial engagement, a common understanding of what is expected from each learner, and it also fosters respectful language and exercise discretion. For example, we conduct retreats for UN Country Teams which we call UNCT Dream Teams and in complex and delicate conversations where there is a need to craft a collective leadership compact, establishing trust in a virtual environment, which involves agreement on digital etiquettes, is crucial. Our latest experience was with UNCT Tajikistan, which highly recommended the programme to UNCT colleagues across the globe.

5. Form follows function

Lastly, when it comes to making decisions about platforms, tools, technologies, and formats, it is critical to underline that “form follows function.” This requires a comprehensive understanding of the goals, objectives, target audience, learning needs, and learning outcomes to make informed decisions on the form that the learning solution will take, and this is as applicable to sustainable development learning. Our experience working with the UN Development Coordination Office in launching a series of initiatives to support Resident Coordinators and UN Country Teams, showed us that there is no one-size-fits-all learning solution and we always need to go back to the drawing board to understand specific learning needs and the technology that can deliver on those needs. People get easily distracted by shiny tools and platforms that come in glittery marketing packages. But it is ultimately about impact. We must establish first the goal and purpose of learning, and only then can we look at the available tools. Not the other way around. 

Lessons to take forward

The global pandemic has accelerated the use of digital tools, but it has also highlighted the challenge of the digital divide. To ensure that our recovery efforts are inclusive and sustainable, we at KCSD will continue to strive to make our learning solutions of good quality, widely available, accessible in different formats, and adaptable to specific circumstances and needs. Like other sustainable development efforts, learning for sustainable development should strive to leave no one behind!

The insights shared in this article were presented at speaking engagements by the authors in conferences and summits such as the OEB Global Conference 2020, Learnit Live 2021, and the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) 2021, and has tremendously benefitted from discussions with other leaders of learning and feedback from our participants and partners.  We would love to hear your comments. Please send us an email at sustainable-development@unssc.org.



The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.