Creating a sense of community and space for subjectification in an online course on sustainability education during times of physical distancing

Handmade painting by a student on “Empowerment –
a rising sensation that liberates you from ‘sinking’ into negativity” – using artistic forms of evaluation of learning, helped both subjectification and creating a sense of community in the course

This paper recently appeared in International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education. It explores students’ sense of community and belonging in an online course on environmental and sustainable education during times of physical distancing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using a case study approach, the results show that students perceived a sense of community that was collectively build during the four week program. Sense of community was linked to and facilitated by the learning environment and the educators’ and students’ role throughout the course. Prominent factors here are interaction and inclusion created with mutual effort by design, the educator and student.

This research arose after the course ELS-31806 Environmental Education and Learning for Sustainability[1] was converted as an ‘offline’ course into an online course due to COVID-19. The original content of the course enables students to systematically discuss important concerns in the development of an effective curriculum and/or operation for the environment and sustainable development using a range of instrumental and emancipatory approaches. But foremost ELS-31806 is a course that has always been, well appreciated and highly valued by participants for its highly experiential and hands-on approach.

However, due to COVID-19 this year’s course (2020) was changed into a less experiential on-line format mediated by Zoom for interaction and by Brightspace for course structure and organisation. This somewhat ad-hoc and sudden departure from the traditional successful format, lowered the instructors, and probably also, the students’ expectations about the course’ ability to create a vibrant learning community. Yet, contrary to pre-course expectations, ‘something’ (i.e. a sense) arose over the course of four weeks online education that both students and staff considered to be special or meaningful. These hunches got confirmed several weeks after by Wageningen UR’s student evaluation system PACE which revealed that the students highly valued the course.

We were intrigued by the question of how this online edition evoked similar, or nearly similar outcomes to its offline counterpart. After first checking whether our hunches were right about the course and what might explain the high evaluation marks, we centre in the paper’s  main question:

What are key characteristics of an online course that fosters subjectification (personal development and inner-sustainability in relation to others and the other) and creates a sense of community?

The paper was led by former MsC student Robbert Hesen and co-authored by myself and ELS Postdoc Rebekah Tauritz.


Hesen, R.Wals, A.E.J. and Tauritz, R.L. (2022), “Creating a sense of community and space for subjectification in an online course on sustainability education during times of physical distancing”, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 23 No. 8, pp. 85-104.

Triggered by these results we decided to investigate what might explain these results.

[1] A course within the Education and Learning Sciences (ELS) chair group at Wageningen University & Research (UR):

Reimagining Education: The International Science and Evidence Based Education (ISEE) Assessment

Recently a major review was published by the Mathma Ghandi Institute on the history, state and desired future of education in light of current global challenges. Hundreds of scholars contributed to the 10 chapters spanning almost 400 pages – see the ToC below.

While I am somewhat allergic to ‘evidence-based’ – mainly because of its pre-occupation with measurement, proof and the truth which typically marginalises meaning-making, inclusion of alternative ways of knowing and social emotional and embodied forms of learning – I did sign on to co-lead Chapter 8 on Curriculum and Pedagogy in a Changing World, along with Curriculum Guru William Pinar and emerging scholar and activist Thomas Macintyre.

We were supported by 16 authors from Asia, Latin America, North America, Africa and Europe. The resulting chapter, is not so much evidence-based but rather is evidence informed combined with the collective wisdom of all contributors.

Table of Contents of the full report

You can download our chapter 8 on Curriculum and Pedagogy here. The entire report can be found here.

Wals, A., Pinar, W., Macintyre, T., Chakraborty, A., Johnson-Mardones, D., Waghid, Y., Tusiime, M., Le Grange, L. LL, Razak, D.A., Accioly, I., Xu, Y., Humphrey, N., Iyengar, R., Chaves, M., Herring, E., Vickers, E.A., Santamaria, R.D.P., Korostelina, K.V. and Pherali, T. (2022) ‘Curriculum and pedagogy in a changing world’ in Vickers, E.A., Pugh, K. and Gupta, L. (eds.) Education and context in Reimagining education: The International Science and Evidence Based Education Assessment [Duraiappah, A.K., Atteveldt, N.M. van et al. (eds.)]. New Delhi: UNESCO MGIEP.

We Learned the Language of the Tree’ Ecovillages as Spaces of Place-Based Transformative Learning – new paper!

An impression of Tamera EcoVillage in Portugal, one of the cases that was part of the study

Here is the latest paper on a research project led by PhD Candidate Siri Pisters that appeared in the Journal of Transformative Education. Thie article explores learning processes that underpin ecovillages as place based ‘sustainability initiatives’. Through the theoretical lens of place- based transformative learning (PBTL), developed in earlier work led by Siri as well (Pisters et al., 20192020), empirical data from life-story interviews and photovoice sessions from three ecovillages is analysed and discussed. The results support, illustrate and deepen the meaning of the four dimensions of the theoretical framework: connection to place, compassionate connection, creativity and transgression (Figure 1, below). They show how the co-existence of ‘community’ and ‘disruption’ is essential in PBTL where community brings connection, cohesion and stability to a change process whereas disruption paves the way for disrupting old structures and experiment with new ones. This article shows how a change in inner consciousness is related to alternative practices and structures that re-define relationships with ourselves, other humans and the material, more-than-human world.

A Four dimensional model of place-based transformative learning (Source: Pisters et al., 2022)

The full paper can be downloaded here!


Pisters SR, Vihinen H, Figueiredo E, Wals AEJ. ‘We Learned the Language of the Tree’ Ecovillages as Spaces of Place-Based Transformative Learning. Journal of Transformative Education. March 2022. doi:10.1177/15413446211068550