Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Technology-Enhanced Learning and Education for Sustainable Development

  • Joy Kcenia O’NeilEmail author
  • Belinda J. RudingerEmail author
Living reference work entry

Later version available View entry history

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_368-1



UNESCO, the United Nations agency for education, states that Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) “aims at developing competencies that empower individuals to reflect on their own actions, taking into account their current and future social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts, from a local and a global perspective” (UNESCO 2017). The term technology-enhanced learning (TEL), synonymous with e-learning, has come to reflect the wide range of possibilities of using technology as both a mode of instruction as well as a means to improve or transform learning that is sustainable. The juxtaposition of these two terms invites consideration of the role of technology in the reimagining of education for sustainable development. This entry will take a deeper look at what is known about both technology-enhanced learning and education for sustainable development, as well as describing both the work that has already been done jointly between these two fields and the challenges inherent in such work related to sustainability. As stated in the forward of UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goals – Learning Objectives document:

Education is both a goal in itself and a means for attaining all the other SDGs. It is not only an integral part of sustainable development, but also a key enabler for it. That is why education represents an essential strategy in the pursuit of the SDGs. (UNESCO 2017)

An oft-repeated warning on the topic of technology is the ease with which it can slide into the driver’s seat in a variety of scenarios. W. Brian Arthur states that technology has a way of engendering its own creation or evolution, and this can be seen in many instances (Arthur 2009). This alluring ability of technology to put itself first exists at all levels of planning and application in an organization. Often the existence of a new piece of technology inspires people and organizations to seek out means for its use; implementation decisions are frequently technology-led rather than being focused on clearly defined educational goals (Goodman 2001; Kirkwood 2014).

The concept of Education for Sustainable Development allows our society to begin the necessary process of recognizing technology-enhanced learning as a tool and using its power to advance sustainability aims. In his book, Ecological literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World, seminal author of ecological literacy David Orr predicts that “economic and technological choices will, in the main, reflect the distribution of power in society” (Orr 1991, p. 66). Complementary to Orr’s thinking, leading sustainability expert Stephen Sterling states that “ideas of ‘the knowledge society’, ‘the information economy’ and ‘the information society’ hide questions about sorts of knowledge, controlled by who, for whom, and for what purposes” (Sterling 2001, The Modern-Post Modern Transition, para. 2). The intertwining of the concepts of technology-enhanced learning and education for sustainable development proposes a possible answer to David Orr’s question, “What kind of technology, at what scale, and for what purposes” (Orr 1991, p. 37)?

Technology-Enhanced Learning: “The How”


While any technology based attempt at education could potentially be labeled TEL, true technology-enhanced learning involves consideration of the learning process and tasks before technology when designing learning environments. In today’s world, life is spent in a stream of competing stimuli; attention is a scarcity. According to Goodman, the ultimate question of design within information systems is what information should be selected, as opposed to simply distributing more information (Goodman 2001). Adrian Kirkwood argues against allowing “technological determinism” to dictate terms and reasserts that educators, particularly in higher education, must resist this pull and instead make informed choices about when and how to employ the use of technology in order to enhance learning (Kirkwood 2014). Just as a book can be used for different purposes, such as reference, entertainment, and persuasion, Kirkwood argues that technology artifacts such as blogs, wikis, and more can also be used for different purposes (2014).

Dimensions of Enhancement

Particularly because the phrase technology-enhanced learning can be used so broadly, it is important to consider exactly what the parameters of enhancement are and to what extent they can be defined. In a literature review of many such iterations within the field of higher education, Adrian Kirkwood and Linda Price sought to define both the types of enhancement and how its effects can be measured. They identified the following three types of enhancement:
  1. 1.

    Efficiency: existing processes carried out in a more cost-effective, time-effective, sustainable, or scalable manner

  2. 2.

    Enhancement: improving existing processes and the outcomes

  3. 3.

    Transformation: radical, positive change in existing processes or introducing new processes (Kirkwood and Price 2014)

However, these enhancements do not arise without the necessary groundwork being laid to make intelligent use of the possibilities technology provides. Kirkwood and Price also identified the following ways that studies in their literature review had measured the performance levels of technology-enhanced learning. These categories of measurements include:
  1. 1.

    Operational improvements (such as greater flexibility or more accessible resources)

  2. 2.

    Quantitative changes in learning (exemplars include increased engagement and improved scores)

  3. 3.

    Qualitative changes (such as reflection, deep engagement, and richer understanding) (Kirkwood and Price 2014).


When compared to the parameters of TEL (efficiency, enhancement, and transformation), these quantitative changes are adequate for determining an increase in efficiency, and the operational improvements can be interpreted to measure enhancement, while qualitative changes are indicative of the transformative level of change.


Gregory and Lodge identify several potential barriers to the use of technology-enhanced learning in higher education (2015). Initially, they point to the lack of clarity in the definition of technology-enhanced learning and how it has expanded to include learning management systems, distance education, blended learning, online learning, and more. They argue that this confusion, paired with the rapid growth of technology used to support learning, has resulted in a lack of understanding overall, with standards of application that vary by situation and context. Furthermore, Gregory and Lodge posit that while other authors have identified barriers such as time, culture, readiness, and training, there has been a failure to account for what they consider to be a hidden, “silent” barrier – academic workload allocation. They point to the fact that changing toward use of technology often involves a greater allocation of workload initially, and if universities fail to recognize this need, it will continue to hinder the ability of faculty and staff to implement these programs. This concern links back to the potential pitfall of allowing technology to dictate terms rather than identifying how technology can “enhance” learning and what is required for implementation. Gregory and Lodge state that infusing technology-enhanced learning into higher education “should be a transformative process, not merely a cut and paste from traditional models” (Gregory and Lodge 2015, p. 225).

Barriers to effective technology-enhanced learning are not only at the level of the perspective of the university and its professors but also at the student perspective. Kennedy et al. argued that the assumption that all young adults are technologically savvy and competent must also be examined, which is critical to designing adequate technology-enhanced learning (Kennedy et al. 2008). While today’s young adults may have grown up using technology for recreation, they may still lack skills for its critical use in the context of higher education; these prerequisite skills cannot be taken for granted.


An additional issue to consider in the use of technology-enhanced learning toward education for sustainable development from the student point of view is development with an eye toward ensuring access. This can include access for people with disabilities, through the use of universal design for learning (UDL) in instructional design. Stuart Peter Dinsmore named several complementary features of UDL and TEL:
  1. 1.

    Have the concept of flexibility at their core

  2. 2.

    Rely on a technology-rich environment with groups of networked learners

  3. 3.

    Encourage self-paced learning through the provision of Internet-based materials

  4. 4.

    Rely on a high level of explicit communication with students partly facilitated by ICT

  5. 5.

    Both are focused on the creation of lifelong or expert learners (2014).



Technology-enhanced learning ultimately begins when leaders create a vision and strategy for the role of technology within their learning environments and institution, followed by a description of how and what they want people to learn using technology. The decision of which technologies can meet these ends is considered only after these initial considerations have been met. These decisions involve consideration of UDL, how to account for the additional workload in higher education, and determining whether the goal is efficiency, enhancement, or transformation of learning. Ultimately, organizations responsible for creating and carrying out technology-enhanced learning must ask themselves several questions, such as:
  1. 1.

    In what contexts is learning available with technology?

  2. 2.

    Is technology-enhanced learning making a difference?

  3. 3.

    If so, what kind of a difference? Qualitative, quantitative, or transformative?


Education for Sustainable Development: The “Why”

Sustainable Development Goals

Technology-enhanced learning is best derived by planned goals based on learning processes, tasks, and environments. Fortunately, UNESCO has clearly defined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the modest ambition of transforming the world. These SDGs provide a clearly laid out roadmap for the task at hand; what remains is the determination of how best to deploy the use of technology to serve this end.

Sustainable Development Goal #4 is Quality Education (UNESCO 2017). This goal encompasses the importance of lifelong learning, a free and quality education for all, education as the key to sustainability and peace, and education as empowerment. UNESCO has identified a series of key competencies related to all SDGs, which include system thinking, anticipatory competency, normative competency, strategic competency, collaboration, critical thinking, self-awareness, and integrated problem-solving.

Sustainability Literacy

A case study of education for sustainable development using technology-enhanced learning was shared by Azeiteiro et al. (2014). He and his colleagues used an institute of higher education dedicated primarily to distance-based education in Portugal to examine the attitudes of students learning sustainability literacy principles. Qualitative research confirmed a high level of satisfaction with the experience, indicating that technology-enhanced learning done well has the potential to serve the field of education for sustainable development.


Another dimension of consideration involves people in developing nations. A literature review of technology-enhanced learning in developing nations revealed issues regarding access to and ability to use devices, internet access, and adequate infrastructure (Gulati 2008). Gulati noted that even when infrastructure is built up for developing countries, it may only serve to further widen the gap—the opposite of the intent of education for sustainable development. Along this same vein, implementers must be aware that using technology-enhanced learning toward education for sustainable development has the potential to further entrench existing inequities regarding not only knowledge access in the present but also regarding who is enabled and empowered to add to digital content in the future.

Responsible Use

In considering the use of technology-enhanced learning toward education for sustainable development, an additional concern is materials and responsible use. In the Handbook for Sustainability Literacy, Clifford wrote that “technology is becoming obsolete at an increasing rate: mobile phones are typically replaced by users after 18 months, whereas it takes over 1000 years for a mobile phone to decompose naturally” (Clifford 2009, p. 147). It would be short-sighted to consider the use of technology toward education for sustainable development without planning for responsible use of materials and equipment.

Using Technology-Enhanced Learning to Achieve Education for Sustainable Development

Mobile Solutions

UNESCO has produced a toolkit for using information and communication technology toward for the purpose of education, called the ICT-in-Education Toolkit (Unesco ICT-in-Education Toolkit n.d.). It provides concrete steps toward developing a plan, designing a program, and monitoring its effectiveness and impact. Another potential option includes the seamless learning framework of distributed cognition described by Looi et al. in a study examining the effectiveness of mobile technology in sustainable learning.

By organizing and sharing information across design experiments in diverse settings, a collaboration of researchers can more rapidly and systematically explore the design space. For instance, the same-grade classrooms across different countries can implement mobile learning devices for all subject areas, allowing a broad examination of solutions and challenges. By collaborating across the globe, researchers could take advantage of different student device preferences, exchange curriculum ideas, understand cultural differences, and better address issues of scale. (Looi et al. 2010, pp. 166–167)


Another example of using technology-enhanced learning for education for sustainable development comes from a framework for using e-learning to support student sustainability literacy (SSL) proposed by Susannah Diamond and Brian Irwin. They identified four pillars of successful SSL:
  1. 1.

    Conceptual awareness of sustainability issues in the real world

  2. 2.

    Personal identity and values aligned with achieving sustainability

  3. 3.

    Competence in skills which can contribute to achieving sustainability

  4. 4.

    Confidence in an ability to contribute to achieving sustainability (Diamond and Irwin 2013).


The authors conducted a literature review and used this framework to analyze the effectiveness of the use of technology to support student sustainability literacy. They found multiple examples of the use of technology for skill development, conceptual development, identity development, and confidence development but noted an imbalance toward transmissive types of instruction verses student-centric or constructivist methods (Diamond and Irwin 2013). They recommended that e-learning be extended further beyond basic skill and concept instruction in order to develop the identity and confidence necessary to empower students to take action.

Regarding this need for empowering young people to take action, Chin and Jacobbsen asserted, “learning is pivotal in connecting global development goals to local realities” (Chin and Jacobbson 2015). They described a program that combines ICT and sustainability literacy called TheGoals.org, which emerged from a distance education program on ESD for high school age population. This platform allows people from all over the world to connect via both a website and smartphone application to learn more about the 17 SDGs and share how they are addressing them. Courses on each SDG are offered, and registrants can enroll for free as students or coaches. The cost incurred per participant is estimated at less than $5.00 per person, and the application is optimized to run on a range of smartphones, including those that are less expensive.


Scott Warren and Jenny Wakefield undertook an effort to reach young adults engaged in coursework in higher education (2016). They examined the role of affect in online discussions, seeking to avoid the typical transmissive, acquisition-based nature of education and foster students’ ability to engage emotionally and constructively with real problems through “emancipatory discourse” (Warren and Wakefield 2016). Their online course taught the use of several technology-enhanced tools for the purpose of learning about and discussing two of the eight United Nations Millennial Goals: environmental sustainability and combating HIV/AIDS. The authors captured three emergent themes throughout the course:
  1. 1.

    Affect, Emotions, and Awareness Expressions

  2. 2.

    Acceptance (with and without calls to action)

  3. 3.

    Agreement and Questioning

Warren and Wakefield concluded:

Technology can support multiple forms of emancipation for learners through its ability to connect those over long distances and an associated free sharing of knowledge in online settings…through learning about the UNMD goals and related world problems, our students’ social awareness of themselves in a world with multifaceted, often stressful societal needs, issues, and power relationships increased and resulted in expression of emotions that contributed to their personal growth. (2016, p. 64)

This study is a prime example of ways in which technology-enhanced tools can be used to further education for sustainable development.

Social Integration

A final example of integrating technology-enhanced learning and education for sustainable development comes from the STELLAR Network of Excellence, (Sustaining Technology-enhanced learning at a LARge scale), a project of the European Union to promote interdisciplinary research from higher education institutions. At a series of conferences and meetings, this network created a list of Grand Challenge Problems to direct future research and collaboration. These 30 TEL Grand Challenge Problems were defined as, “fundamental socio-technical problems whose solution will lead to breakthroughs that improve learning and educational systems and bring long-term benefits to society” (Fischer et al. 2014, Chap. 1, Section 1.1, para. 1). According to STELLAR:

Learning is intimately connected with social interaction between people and as the continual construction of knowledge. New digital tools connect learners with other learners and teachers, trainers, experts or more knowledgeable others, helping them to communicate in effective ways, both to share and build knowledge. A wide variety of information and communication technologies (ICTs) connect people including web-based applications such as open and closed forums, personal or shared blogs, chat rooms, instant messaging and video conferences, tagging and collaborative text editing systems. (Fischer et al. 2014, Chapter 2, Section 2.1, para. 1)

STELLAR’s work followed three themes: connecting learners, orchestrating learners, and contextualizing learning (Fischer et al. 2014). For each of the 30 problems, the series of questions included:
  1. 1.

    What problems of the European education system are addressed, and what are the long- term benefits for society?

  2. 2.

    What are the main activities to address this Grand Challenge Problem?

  3. 3.

    What is the timeframe for the Grand Challenge Problem?

  4. 4.

    What are measurable progress and success indicators?

  5. 5.

    How can funding be attracted?

  6. 6.

    What are connected research questions? (Fischer et al. 2014.

Examples of the problems include:
  • GCP4: Supporting an Open Culture of Design for TEL

  • GCP6: Emotion-Adaptive TEL

  • GCP13: Learning Reading at Home

The GCPs, like the SDGs, provide a solid framework for furthering collaboration and research, as well as an example for other organizations or countries seeking development or adaptation of these or similar problems regarding their own education systems.

Emerging Theories

While there are numerous connections to technology-enhanced learning, several emerging theories include the areas of new media, media ecology, and diffractive technospaces. In The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy, Chap. 16, New Media Literacy, John Blewitt writes, “it is necessary to establish a new civil contract between the image, the text, the sound and the senses, determined by the political and pragmatic project of living and learning in our uncertain and risky world” (Blewitt 2009, p. 112). Because our current society is “highly mediated,” Blewitt noted that there is little line between consumers and producers of media and that it provides a tool for potential transformation (2009). Media ecology extends the idea of new media and interaction, the concept of mediation, and the emerging, ongoing entanglement between people and media. According to Christine Nystrom, media ecology can be considered an examination of communication systems as though they were environments (Nystrom 1973). Federica Timeto defined technospaces as “the sociotechnical environments in which humans and machines relate and intersect” (Timeto 2015, p. 1). She asserted that:

The relational…linkage between spaces and representations…pays attention to the ecosystemic interconnections of contemporary technospace…In an ecosystemic framework, in which systems are characterized by relational openness and intensive multiplicity rather than self-sufficiency…representational practices find themselves entangled in local contaminations, haunted by the pleasure of connection as well as by the always possible danger of disconnection.” (Timeto 2015, p. 159, 161)

She argues that in many ways, mediation is what happens at the conjunction of relations and that there is no clear demarcation between two sides or binaries.


The expansive field of technology-enhanced learning represents an excellent array of tools that can be employed in a variety of areas of education, for multiple purposes. Grounding technology-enhanced learning solidly in the co-concept of education for sustainable development lends it a greater purpose and a wider impact. When designing education using TEL, educators face consideration of dimensions of enhancement, barriers, access, and decisions. The field of ESD can be better understood by reviewing UNESCO’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, sustainability literacy, access, and responsible use. Areas of TEL within education for sustainable development include mobile use, technology as empowerment, consideration of affect within technology, and emancipation through technology, social interaction, and emerging areas (such as media ecology and technospaces). While technology-enhanced learning can be employed in unlimited directions, harnessing its power within the context of education for sustainable development provides answers for both why and how technology can serve a strong role within sustainability.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Professional EducationUniversity of WisconsinStevens PointUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Judy Rogers
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Architecture and Design,Program Manager, Master of Disaster Design and DevelopmentRMIT UniversityMelbourneAustralia