There is an overwhelming consensus that education (from primary through tertiary, including research) is a vital component of sustainability strategy. Skills such as envisioning (being able to imagine a better future), critical thinking and reflection (learning to question our belief systems and assumptions), systems thinking (recognizing that the whole is more than the sum of its parts), building partnerships (promoting dialog and negotiation), and participation (building capacity for self reliance and self organization) are considered essential in achieving a sustainable future. But the high quality education required to impart such skills cannot be adequately provided through traditional approaches such as classroom instruction. The human resources are simply not available, particularly in least developed countries. There is an urgent need to explore new, innovative approaches to increasing access to education, increasing quality of education, and providing more flexible learning that is better tailored to local needs, all areas in which ICT has great potential. But if it is used to merely emulate the classroom environment online, ICT’s potential transformative role will not be realized. UNU-IIST is developing and deploying learning environments that go beyond the standard “delivery” model of education by leveraging the new possibilities that ICT provides.
With the amendment of the UNU charter by the General Assembly in December 2009, UNU received the mandate to launch its own postgraduate degree programmes. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to pull together the resources and expertise distributed throughout UNU’s fourteen institutes and programmes. The opportunity is to explore new open and distributed models of education that ICT can enable in the same way it has done so in the software industry and a myriad of service industries. UNU-IIST is leading the development and implementation UNU’s strategy in technology-enhanced learning, teaching, and research.
Using techniques such as intelligent tutoring and virtual reality, UNU-IIST is developing intelligent medical training systems that provide students with important skills such as collaborative problem solving and critical thinking. Not only do these systems provide highly interactive and engaging environments, but the information they gather concerning student problem solving behavior can be used to provide assessment at a level of detail that is not possible in traditional environments.
Commons-based peer-production is a model in which the creative energy of large numbers of individuals is remotely coordinated into large projects mostly without traditional hierarchical organization. Typical peer-production models are Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) projects. FLOSS projects can be seen as collaborative learning environments in which knowledge is built through social constructivism.
UNU-IIST is designing a framework in which students will be able to participate in selected FLOSS projects both as learners, by exploiting the FLOSS community as an e-Learning environment, and as researchers, by analyzing the FLOSS phenomenon in terms of its learning capabilities.
Recognizing that research-based education is essential in development, UNU-IIST has launched programs that will give countries the tools they need to assess and target their own research capacity, making the most of scarce resources. Among the key projects is the Global Research Benchmarking System that will provide objective data and analyses to help universities to strengthen the quality and impact of their research in traditional disciplines and in Sustainable Development.