An unsustainable spike is driving up the cost of higher education, particularly the United States where tuition and fees have risen more than 400 percent since the 1970s, far outstripping both inflation and the housing bubble. This discourages enrollment in the arts, humanities, environmental science and other subjects with lengthy or immeasurable financial payback.
Instead, students are persuaded into pursuing fad degrees and trade-school certifications and whatever else might pay back that enormous student loan in the shortest term. Some universities are trending towards monoversities and preventing brilliant minds from reaching their full potential. Others have fully embraced the financial caste system, turning themselves into exclusive four-year country clubs where learning is an afterthought.
The good news is that this education bubble triggered a renaissance in distance learning. People from the far corners of the world can go to school together without leaving their culture, family and friends behind.
So who wants to study environmentalism with me? Here are some of the offerings:
1. Khan Academy is a good starting point. Bengali-American Salman Khan initially used Yahoo doodle notes to tutor his cousin in mathematics. He eventually made his lectures public and formed this non-profit organization which includes lectures in diverse topics including ecology and sustainability:
- Thomas Malthus and population growth
- Land Productivity Limiting Human Population
- Energy Inputs for Tilling a Hectare of Land
2. Technology Entertainment Design (TED) talks were organized to spread great ideas around the world. Many TED talks are on environmental and sustainability topics such as:
- Wolfgang Kessling: How to air-condition outdoor spaces
- William McDonough: Cradle to cradle design
- Garth Lenz: The true cost of oil
- Rob Harmon: How the market can keep streams flowing
- Jane Goodall helps humans and animals live together
- Wade Davis: Dreams from endangered cultures
3. Coursera.org offers a wide range of full courses from multiple accredited US and UK universities including:
- Introduction to Sustainability an 8 week course beginning Aug 27th 2012. It will be taught by Dr. Jonathan Tomkin the Associate Director of the School of Earth, Society and Environment and a research Associate Professor in the department of Geology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The course textbook is freely available online here: http://www.earth.illinois.edu/sustain/sustainability_text.html
- Energy 101 Will be taught by Dr. Sam Shelton, the founding director of the Strategic Energy Institute at Georgia Tech. The next course session has not yet been announced.
4. Openlearn is a free offshoot of the UK’s venerable Openuniversity which has an entire course category for Environment, Development and International Studies. The courses available include:
- An introduction to sustainable energy (T206_2)
- Environment: Treading lightly on the Earth (U116_1)
- Global warming (E500_11)
- Health and environment (SK220_2)
- Earth’s physical resources: petroleum (S278_1)
- Managing coastal environments (U216_1)
5. The University of South Africa also offers degrees in Environmental Sciences.
6. The Nature Conservancy founded ConservationTraining, “an open, online learning resource that provides high-quality educational content on a broad set of conservation issues.” Their course catalog breaks these courses down into topic areas including climate, conservation management, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Protected Areas and water.
Distance learning is not yet widely available at universities such as Masdar and Tel Aviv University, but as the number of courses increases and the efficiency of online education improves so will the average level of knowledge about our world. And that could change everything.
Image of e-learning computer keyboard via Shutterstock.