What has this pandemic done to your organization?

January 27, 2021, by Michael Gillenwater

The last year has imposed on communities everywhere a forced and rushed experiment in working under quarantine conditions and conducting online learning at scale. Like you, those of us at the GHG Management Institute (GHGMI) have had our lives impacted by the pandemic, and we have had to adapt. Yet in key ways, GHGMI was pre-adapted to this change. And we hope, despite the understandable desire with the new year to return to “normal”, that other organizations realize that some changes related to more flexible and lower emission modes of working are retained and advanced.

GHGMI was founded 13 years ago as a bit of an experiment. We intentionally designed it as a high-tech virtual organization—by that we meant it to be an organized entity that does not exist in any one central location, but instead exists and operates through the utilization of the internet. Our goal was to be an example of a low carbon footprint organization for the future, utilizing information technology tools to globally scale the impact of our programs while minimizing GHG emissions. Our staff and faculty work from home offices around the globe. We do not have owned or leased facilities or vehicles. Instead, we have invested heavily in our people and information technology infrastructure, rather than brick and mortar (and continue to do so). We have also operated with an aggressive policy that all non-essential travel, especially air travel, is to be avoided. You may wonder why you rarely have seen us at conferences or other events. This is not by accident. We are not against all travel but insist that it be necessary travel.

A core focus for GHGMI, from the beginning, has been technically and pedagogically rigorous online e-learning. In the early years of GHGMI, we were regularly asked whether our classes would be offered in someone’s city. As a sign of changing times, it is now satisfying to see that e-learning is far more understood and accepted.

Another of GHGMI’s original design features, which other organizations are beginning to recognize, is our focus on finding the best experts in the world to be our faculty and staff, regardless of their location. We give these experts autonomy and flexibility to do their best work.

In sum, given that part of our mission is to build a new global GHG management professional community, from our founding to the present, we believe that a good way to explore what works is to try it out on ourselves.

While there has been some enlightenment, we do sadly report that too frequently we still are asked to defend the integration of e-learning and other online capacity building approaches to some grantmakers and partners. And while we agree that some of the past hype around online learning was excessive (e.g., do you remember MOOCs), we believe that for professional adult learners, the  following rationale for e-learning continues to apply:

As we have recently seen with school children around the world, in-person learning and tutoring are important, especially for developing minds. But, we would argue, while capacity building and training for adult professionals do meaningfully benefit from in-person interaction, we must consider the financial and environmental costs of past ways of doing things. And we should not assume that one must sacrifice educational quality to reach more people and avoid travel. Scholarly reviews of learning effectiveness point to e-learning as not only being on par with classroom-based learning, but one of the most widely accepted studies on the matter concluded that e-learning was, in fact, more effective than face-to-face instruction:

“The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” – Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, U.S. Department of Education, 2009

Studies have found that superior outcomes for students engaging in e-learning were explained by students tending to spend more time on online courses than the face-to-face equivalent course. And learners spent even more time, and did better, in blended courses, combining face-to-face and e-learning.

Our primary learning strategy at GHGMI has always been just such a blend of e-learning with experienced instructors and in-person workshops to practice and reinforce skills. Such a blended approach can both increase the depth and rigor of instruction, improve student engagement and flexibility, and lower the delivery cost for all parties. We are proud that partners like the UNFCCC secretariat have embraced thinking to scale the impact of their limited capacity building budget.

We have also worked hard to educate our partners not to expect that good e-learning can be developed quickly or cheaply. Having developed both in-person and e-learning courses, we know that developing a good e-learning course takes more time and resources. This additional upfront investment, though, dramatically improves instructional quality and allows the course to scale, lowering the average cost per learner.

GHGMI’s broader vision has been the creation of a new global professional community that has the competency to address the greatest environmental and social challenge of our time. This means our training must be accessible to professionals from diverse geographies and that is why we provide instruction in multiple languages. Our training must be capable of reaching individuals with busy schedules, dealing with pandemic lockdowns, and prefer to learn at their own pace. This approach also allows for building network connections across diverse stages of professional employment (e.g. from department heads, mid-career, on down to those still in grad school).

If we want to exponentially grow the number of GHG management technical professionals around the world, how else can you imagine accomplishing this feat? The pandemic has only reinforced our e-learning approach to climate change education.

Lastly, you may have noticed that we charge for our online courses (although we provide scholarships to many), while some other online courses are offered for free. We think this is an important difference. First, all our courses include active instructors who engage learners, as well as staff that provides technical and registration support. It is also important for learners to be motivated to join the community of GHG professionals. We want people who are invested in their learning and become the experts and champions of the profession. Ultimately, members of this profession must be viewed by society, business, and governments as earning their credentials rigorously and credibly.

We hope GHGMI serves as a model for what an organization can be if it takes the need to reduce its emissions seriously and is willing to innovate and experiment. We are eager to hear your thoughts on how, with your experience of pandemic-induced changes, the ways you work may have changed to be lower GHG and higher impact. Please question our model and share your thoughts on how you think organizations in the future should be structured to meet the challenge of climate change.

[1] Thanks to increasing internet access, which as of 2020 extends to 4.66 billion people globally (~60%). Ref: https://www.statista.com/statistics/617136/digital-population-worldwide/

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