High-level global climate change MOOC for GUPES

The United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP, has produced a 50-hour masters module climate change MOOC – massive open online course – that will be taught through the Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability, or GUPES, and is expected to reach a large global audience.

The plan to launch the new MOOC “Disasters, Ecosystems and Risk Reduction”, developed in collaboration with Cologne University of Applied Sciences and the Center for Natural Resources and Development in Germany, was announced on 23 June during the historic first session of the United Nations Environment Assembly held at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi.

“There is a high demand outside academia for training on environmental disasters and risks to ecosystems as a result of climate change,” Mahesh Pradhan, head of UNEP’s environmental education and training unit, told University World News.

He explained that the new course would be delivered through an innovative open online platform composed of two segments.

The leadership track will consist of environmental content for policy-makers and senior professionals who need to integrate environment and sustainability concerns into their planning and programming.

“The experts track will be for professionals and students who will need in-depth training and research in a raft of environmental issues ranging from vulnerability of ecosystems, adaptation and mitigation of climate change to integration of environmental concerns into teaching in higher education and community engagement,” said Pradhan.

According to Neville Ash, deputy director of UNEP’s environmental policy implementation division, the new course has as a starting point that in the last two decades more than 4.4 billion people globally have been affected by environmental disasters.

“During such a short period, over 1.3 million people have been killed and over US$2 trillion in economic losses have been realised,” Ash told delegates at the conference.

The global coverage of the MOOC is in line with the recommendations and ideals of the report of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – popularly known as the Rio+20 Summit – as well as the ongoing United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-2014.


Built on an earlier MOOC currently embedded in 30 universities that are members of GUPES, the new programme will also be available in 10 regional centres around the world that will provide tutorial support. According to Pradhan, the tutorial centres will be part of the GUPES system.

Students in 430 universities that are members of GUPES are being encouraged to do the course. “It is not enough understanding environment problems. The important issue is having tools to interpret data and determine appropriate information,” said Pradhan.

Professor Sylvia Heuchemer, vice-president of academic affairs at Cologne University of Applied Sciences, said the MOOC would have a virtual centre that would be active for 24 hours daily throughout the course. “Participants will be able to hold discussions and will have an opportunity to interact with real professionals,” said Heuchemer.

The UNEP-backed MOOC will have students’ progress evaluated through assignments. “Those who successfully complete the course will be given a certificate that will be globally recognised by universities, especially those within the GUPES system,” said Heuchemer.

The programme is receiving partial financial assistance from the Eye on Environmental Education Special Initiative and the Cologne-based Center for Natural Resources and Development, which coordinates German higher education institutions in areas of climate change, water management, biodiversity and renewable energy.

According to Dr Lars Ribbe, director of the Institute for Technology and Resource Management at the Center for Natural Resources and Development, the next step is to tailor UNEP’s MOOC to specific geographical regions.

Ribbe, one of the architects of the new MOOC, said there were plans for new partnerships with student bodies and regional knowledge-based hubs to promote environmental education at grass-roots levels.

“We are also looking into ways of promoting the utility of our environmental and sustainability studies MOOCs for professional development,” Ribbe told University World News.

Calling on government delegations attending the United Nations Environment Assembly to encourage universities in their countries to enlist as members of GUPES, Ash said there was an urgent need to mainstream environmental education with special focus on data access, curriculum innovation, capacity building and networking.


GUPES, a flagship project of UNEP, was launched in 2012 at Tongji University in Shanghai, the culmination of preparatory processes that had been going on in Nairobi since 2010.

The mandate of the partnership is mainly to provide a platform for universities interested in enhancing environment and sustainability issues to integrate hands-on approaches with teaching, learning and research aimed at averting environmental disasters.

By launching the MOOC, UNEP and its collaborators have enriched the platform with a learning resource that will help to increase awareness on environment and climate change disasters and hopefully produce more experts and policy-makers to deal effectively with threats.