Reflections from the most recent offering of the Earth Charter online youth course with the largest cohort yet!

Written by Amanda Bennett, Youth Programme Coordinator

This year we took on one of the biggest challenges for the Leadership, Sustainability and Ethics (LSE) course to date: offering a facilitated online course to over 300 participants! The LSE is not a regular massive online course, it is a transformative learning experience where participants are accompanied by peer facilitators, each other, and members of the Earth Charter Education Center faculty. In the past, our cohorts ranged between 30 to 70 participants; therefore, we had to quickly and significantly adapt to this new scenario.

The reason why this cohort counted on the participation of so many young people is because many students at Liaoning University in P. R. China heard about this opportunity and were excited to sign up. There were also participants joining from other regions of the world, which made it possible to fulfill one of the unique aspects of the LSE course, that participants can interact with youth from different contexts and engage in a rich cultural exchange. At first, I was nervous about interacting with such a large group, because scaling up is not just about making sure the technology works, it is also about ensuring that the course remains participatory, and I wanted to be able to get to know all the participants. However, in preparation for the course, I had to keep the goal of connectedness in mind without feeling overwhelmed about not being able to interact with participants the way we always have. For this course, making connections did not mean having 300 individual interactions between myself and all the course participants, it meant uniting the group to work towards our learning objectives together, and offering the tools and the space for participants to also achieve their personal goals.  

In addition, to continue to ensure interaction and collaboration with a much larger group, we created smaller learning communities, which allowed participants to get to know each other better through weekly online discussion forums and during the live Zoom meetings. We divided the group into 9 groups, consisting of the Manatees, Whales, Dolphins, Koalas, Condors, Sharks, Hummingbirds, Elephants and Bears. We had a facilitator for each of these groups who took the lead on actively engaging with a learning community throughout the course in the discussion forums, and during the interactive activities, as well as giving feedback to participants. 

Usually, the co-facilitation team consists of three to five members, so putting together and working with a larger team was a new challenge because the dynamic changed, but as the course coordinator, I felt wholly supported by the co-facilitators. The nine peer-facilitators who accompanied participants on this learning experience are Earth Charter Young Leaders from various countries, including France, Ghana, Ethiopia, United States, Costa Rica, China, Japan and Nigeria. Co-facilitators read all the messages posted by participants in their learning communities for each forum, which ensured that every contribution to the discussions were read by someone, and all questions that were raised throughout the course were answered. The co-facilitators had once been participants in the LSE course, so they were familiar with the experience and could suggest ideas for adaptation as well moved along. As course alumni, I was also happy to have support from the co-facilitators because this meant that they could give real examples of how they had carried out their final workshops themselves and how they continue to implement their learnings beyond the course.  

“Our environmental, economic, political, social, and spiritual challenges are interconnected, and together we can forge inclusive solutions.” The Earth Charter 

Participants in the course came from a variety of backgrounds, not only culturally speaking, but also regarding their academic and personal interests. Because of this richness, the discussion forums and weekly assignments were instrumental in allowing participants to share their reflections after exploring through the weekly materials, to learn from each other’s lived experiences. Some examples of the activities from the course include posting examples of actions that contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals on Mapting, drawing systems diagrams about interconnected issues and solutions, and expressing themselves through art.  

One of my favorite parts of the course is seeing participants express themselves creatively through their art and social media posts, which allow us to catch a glimpse of their surroundings and how they see their environment through a lens of sustainability. Thanks to the technology available to us now, we can express ourselves with color, music and sound and connect with each other even from thousands of miles away. For example, I like to share images of how vibrant nature can be in Costa Rica and I hope participants are able to get a sense of the appreciation and connection I have to the different ecosystems that make up my home. I also appreciate that we get to see some of the opportunities and benefits some participants have thanks to their local and national policies for well-being, and how those can be replicated in other parts of the world. We can also relate to ethical dilemmas that also arise in our communities or in our social relationships.  

Although ten weeks might sound like a long time, it is always amazing to me how fast time passes throughout this experience. At the end of the first seven weeks, participants work together to design and implement workshops for audiences of their choosing, so that they can be multipliers of this learning either locally or even internationally, if they host their workshop online. By the time each participant takes the role of a facilitator in his or her final workshop, they can reflect on how transformative this experience has been for them, and how much of a leadership role they would like to take in their spheres of influence.  

Another challenge that we encounter every time we offer the LSE course is that some participants are too shy to contribute, maybe it is because they feel too young and intimidated by their lack of work experience or technical expertise on a sustainability topic, while others may feel too old to be part of a youth course, which at first they might see as too shallow because the material offered does not dive deeply into one specific topic, such as climate change or biodiversity loss. However, what we want participants to quickly realize, and many do, is that everyone in the course has something to contribute to the conversation and exchange of ideas. And if the participants do not realize this while participating in the discussion forums or live meetings, it is something that becomes clear the moment they begin their workshop and find themselves in charge of leading a conversation with their audience. I know how intimidating it can be to reach out to people outside of the course and ask them to join a workshop during their free time, so it is always nice to hear and read about how well the workshops go! 

Earth Charter International will continue offering this course as our commitment to “Provide all, especially children and youth, with educational opportunities that empower them to contribute actively to sustainable development” (Principle 14a of the Earth Charter) and in contribution to various other global efforts to support young people’s access to quality education and global citizenship. I truly enjoy facilitating this course because there is always something new to learn as we go through the sessions, and even though I will not be able to meet everyone in person one day, it is so meaningful to me to receive heartfelt invitations to visit their cities and it is always incredibly motivating to continue hearing from the young leaders who took the course and how they have created positive change in their environments. I cannot wait to see how alumni from this cohort continue to turn conscience into action! 

Here is what some participants shared about their experience:  

“I discovered that I love being a facilitator trainer because it allowed me to listen to and value a variety of perspectives, and I even decided to hold this type of workshop, specifically based on the sixteen Earth Charter principles, at least once a month, if possible, twice a month in the future.” -Mahlet Girma, Ethiopia 

“Workshops provide a valuable opportunity for participants to share their knowledge and expertise with others, leading to a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. By facilitating discussion and collaboration among participants, workshops can help to broaden perspectives and inspire new ideas.” – Li Jialei 

“…We each played to our strengths and tried our best to get the job done. As an old Chinese saying goes, “When everyone adds wood, the fire burns high.” I find that by working as a team and learning from people from different places, we can not only accomplish tasks efficiently, but also promote progress together. I cherish this group activity and the whole Earth Charter course. If there is another opportunity, I am looking forward to further study!” – Guanchen Lin