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An Overview Of Our Solution
Diffusion of innovation theory suggests that if a sufficient percent of innovators and early adopters engage in a new behavior, the behavior will spread on its own, bringing about societal change. To accomplish this, our free Massive Open Online Course, Act on Climate: Steps to Individual, Community, and Political Action, targets individuals who are passionate about climate change but are not sure what to do, and empowers them to engage in, and model, mitigation and adaptation behaviors. The course is unique in its focus on fostering climate actions, faculty-student co-design process, and application of interdisciplinary social science change theories and research. In its first year, over 1,800 learners from 44 countries reported that they engaged in over 4,500 actions in the areas of food, energy, transportation, and the built environment during the course.
- Population Impacted So far, 1,800 learners from 44 countries
- Continent: North America
As the old adage says: The first step is always the hardest. Passionate change agents worldwide are poised to address and respond to climate change but fail to take meaningful action. In the USA, 73% of registered voters believe global warming is happening, but only 13% have contacted a policymaker about the issue. In the EU, 92% of citizens think climate change is a serious problem, yet when they try to do something about it, they tend to engage in actions that are easy and not very effective (e.g., recycling). Forty-seven percent of Indians believe climate change is a major threat, but according to climate expert Mridula Ramesh, the country has focused on emissions reductions and not on adaptation. Our MOOC offers learners in-depth guidance for how to engage in effective science-based mitigation and adaptation behaviors, and provides interdisciplinary social science approaches for how they can bring about change in themselves, their communities, and political processes.
Describe the technical solution you wanted the target audience to adopt
The MOOC encourages learners to engage in up to 24 climate actions in the areas of food, energy, transportation, and the built environment (see photo for complete behavior list). Actions were selected by consulting with climate scientists and drawing on peer-reviewed articles. Examples include adjusting thermostats to reduce home energy consumption, researching and participating in community resource sharing opportunities to reduce local consumption, and submitting comments to a local transit authority to improve suitable public transportation. Over 1,800 learners from 44 countries have engaged in over 4,500 mitigation behaviors based on interacting with the course during its first year. Some of the most frequently adopted actions by learners include adding more vegetarian meals to their diets and assessing their energy usage to identify where they could reduce emissions. At the end of the course, learners complete a personalized climate action plan to maintain/expand behaviors.
Type of intervention
Describe your behavioral intervention
We attribute learners’ high number of actions to a range of course features including, but not limited to, the types of interventions recommended by RARE. Consistent with social marketing (McKenzie-Mohr 2011), we focus on fostering specific behaviors and use a variety of strategies to support behavior change (Osbaldiston & Schott 2012). For example, we ask learners to commit to actions through a pledge in the beginning course and develop goals for maintaining behaviors after the course. We also provide learners with a choice from among locally adaptable actions, stories of individuals who have engaged in these actions, detailed guidance for enacting behaviors, encouragement to practice the behaviors - including by partnering with family/friends, a discussion forum to share successes and obtain support from peers, opportunities to report/reflect on completed actions, and development of a personalized climate action plan. As illustrated by these examples, our course is grounded in behavior change research by social marketing (McKenzie-Mohr 2011), psychologists (Swim et al. 2011), and climate change communication/education experts (Moser & Dilling 2011, Anderson, 2013). In addition and in contrast to many existing efforts, we also illustrate how learners can bring about change through relevant research from sociology (Weber & Soderstrom 2011), anthropology (Hirsch et al. 2011), and political science (Hartz-Karp 2012).
As needed, please explain the type of intervention in more detail
Unlike the majority of “# of things you can do” lists, our course identifies behaviors that are effective in addressing climate change, describes their level of effectiveness, and offers step-by-step guidance for behaviors. Our course motivates individuals to engage in climate action including based on emotional appeals, provides them with action knowledge and skills, and reduces their barriers to action (e.g., lack of social support). To evaluate the course, we are monitoring learners’ self-reported behaviors, self-efficacy, and hope. In future, we will analyze the personalized climate action plans and to use course data to learn about spillover effects (Truelove et al. 2014) between climate actions.
Describe your implementation
There is a gap between individuals’ environmental knowledge or attitudes and their actions (Kollmuss & Agyeman 2002). Even those passionate about climate change are not aware of actions they can take to address climate change, or how to bring about needed societal changes (Context Analysis section). A review of existing MOOCs identified courses on climate science, a few on social science aspects, but none focused on behaviors. To address this gap, and consistent with diffusion of innovation theory, Dr. Zint and University of Michigan (UM) students co-created the MOOC Act on Climate: Steps to Individual, Community, and Political Action designed to target innovators and early adopters. The course was developed over a year, in collaboration with UM’s Office of Academic Innovation and Center for Research on Learning and Teaching to obtain the necessary digital expertise and resources. Faculty from across UM participated and share relevant climate science and social science expertise through student-led interviews. Students, with support from faculty and practitioners, developed supporting content including stories of action successes, step-by-step guidance for engaging in recommended actions, guiding questions to inspire discussion, assessment quizzes, etc. Being featured by Coursera’s Social Impact Campaign, selected as one of the top five UM Campus of the Future projects, and having the World Bank and others promote the course is evidence of its early success. The main reason we believe learners rank the course highly (4.9/5.0 stars) and act in response to it is due to its “by students for students” design model which sought to turn undergraduate/graduate/PhD students from consumers to producers of content. We believe this model has a lot of premise, including for social marketing campaigns (MacRae & Stockport 2008) although it requires power sharing, trust, and time to develop needed expertise.
Act on Climate was developed in collaboration with UM’s Office of Academic Innovation (AI) and Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT). AI provided digital education expertise and the multi-media resources for developing the on-line course. CRLT added valuable knowledge in the learning sciences. Dr. Zint, additional natural and social science faculty from across the UM and other universities, provided critical content expertise, along with UM alumni working to promote climate change mitigation/adaption behaviors through non-profit organizations, corporations, government agencies. Coursera offered to host the MOOC after selecting it for its Social Impact Campaign. UM leaders and alumni as well as organizations like the National Council for Science and the Environment, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, and the World Bank have helped to promote it.
The course encourages learners to act with others in their networks and communities (geographic or other). As part of the step-by-step guidance, we identify different types of organizations learners can work with to bring about change. We encourage them to partner with allies in their communities who understand and can respond to local needs and opportunities. For example, during the first week of the course, learners are prompted to research and contact their representatives. During the food unit, learners are encouraged to purchase a community supported agriculture share.
Who adopted the desired behaviors and to what degree?
At the end of each thematic unit, MOOC learners self-report on actions they have taken related to the week’s theme. So far, over 1,800 learners have taken actions to decrease GHG in the area of food-1,365 actions, energy-908 actions, transportion-707 actions, and built environment-789 actions. An example of a popular action by MOOC learners is reducing food miles by trying a fruit or vegetable that is native and seasonal to their region (148 participants took this action). In addition, 939 learners also completed “preparatory” actions such as filling-out a pledge card, inviting friends to participate in the course, etc. and since we improved the submission process, an increasing number of learners are completing the personalized Climate Actions Plan, committing to future actions.
Although self-reports are not as accurate as observations, a number of studies have found them to be valid and reliable indicators of actual environmental behaviors (Steg and Vlek, 2009).
How did you impact natural resource use and greenhouse gas emissions?
To date, MOOC’s learners have reduced their GHG emissions by a very minimum of 7,000 lbs. This estimate is extremely conservative because it is based on one time, quantifiable actions. We generated this estimate by drawing on Wolske (2011), a UM Phd student who used EPA and other organizations’ data to calculate GHG savings for individuals’ actions. For example, the 215 learners who added vegetarian meals to their diet saved at least 22 lbs by switching from one beef meal (total 4,730 lbs), and 91 who re-programmed their thermostat, saved 2 lbs if they dropped it by one degree for only one winter day (total 182 lbs). Importantly, it is not possible to translate savings for many actions like 21 learners organizing a meeting to start a divestment campaign, 53 participating in a resource sharing program, or 126 completing an inventory to discover what actions could best reduce their impact.
We offset our MOOC’s emission by purchasing carbon credits from the Third Millennium Alliance.
What were some of the resulting co-benefits?
The greatest co-benefit of the Act on Climate course is its contribution to social movement building. By interacting with fellow learners from across the US and the world, course participants feel like they are part of a global community dedicated to bring about change. One of the reasons why individuals do not act on climate change is because they are not aware of others who are doing so as well (Gifford 2011). The social support learners obtain through the MOOC should motivate them to engage in actions while completing the course as well as remain committed to climate action over time.
The course also introduces learners to the concept of climate and environmental justice. The hope is that by applying a justice lens to their climate actions, learners will promote greater equity and inclusion in their communities, cities, and countries.
UM’s SEAS, AI, and CRLT supported the MOOC’s co-design. AI also launched the MOOC on Coursera.org. UM’s Office of the President payed for advertising, online subscriptions (e.g., an interactive Zeemap for learners to tag their location) and carbon offsets, to allow us to “walk the talk” on climate action. At this time, the course is, and will be, self-sustaining. Learners can enroll for free or pay a USD$49 fee for a certificate of completion. Any income generated by the MOOC after covering AI’s production expenses will fund a Digital Sustainability Education Student Fellowship. We would like to enhance the MOOC over time based in part on learner feedback, and will pursue funding for this purpose in future.
Return on investment
It would be very challenging to estimate the MOOC’s cost because faculty/students provided matching labor and UM recorded/edited its professional videos. Overall, we are confident that MOOCs are highly cost effective because while they require a high initial investment, they can subsequently reach millions of learners. Similarly, co-design with target audiences requires more time and thus, more up-front cost. In the long term, however, such processes will result in interventions that better meet audience needs and based on creating greater ownership, will be more effective in bringing about change. Given the many actions our learners have in engaged in so far, we are confident that our MOOCs benefits will far outweigh its costs.
How could we successfully replicate this solution elsewhere?
Replication can include creating more MOOCs, co-design of interventions, and use of additional social science theories to improve interventions. Many MOOCs on climate science exist but few address social change. MOOCs can reach millions of learners and result in action. Co-design can enhance social marketing (MacRae & Stockport 2008) and other interventions. The MOOC’s behavior strategies can enhance those recommended by RARE. If selected, we would be excited to collaborate on how best to replicate/share our experiences. We would also like to incorporate interviews and additional success stories about past/current Solution Search awardees because they can serve as inspiring role models. Lastly we would like to develop formal partnerships with organizations like RARE, Patagonia, and the World Bank willing to encourage employees to complete the course. We can achieve the above with the $25,000 award because we can leverage UM student and faculty support and multi-media resources.