With the same criticality and thoughtfulness that characterizes the rest of his work, Neil Selwyn recently gave a talk for our friends at the U of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research in Digital Education titled “Studying digital education in times of climate crisis: what can we do?” It’s a great talk, and worth watching and reflecting upon.

At the beginning of the talk, Neil makes this comment:

This is a really unfamiliar topic for me to be thinking about and talking about…But I’ve been working since 1995 on various critical lines of digital technology in education and never thought about sustainability, really. I’ve basically spent 27 years pointing out why things don’t work. But, coming over to Australia 10 years ago has given me just a real personal visceral wake-up call to climate crisis and I’ve quickly become super mindful of the need to get my own work, and also my own area of work, edtech, up to speed with issues relating to sustainability, climate breakdown, possible eco-compromised futures to come and all the rest of it. So, the fundamental challenge that I’m currently wrestling with and the challenge which I’m now gonna burden you with, I think is terrifyingly simple. Do we actually need digital education? Is digital education a realistic part of a livable future or even just a survivable planet? And if we think it is, in what form and what do we do about it?

These are important questions, and I expect that more and more researchers in our field will explore facets of them. I would like to add another one that doesn’t quite have to do with edtech, but I think deserves the attention of researchers and designers in our field: How do we help people understand and respond to issues of sustainability and climate catastrophe before they become personal?

Like Neil, i didn’t grapple with climate change in any concerted and scholarly way until recently. I don’t think we’re unique in this regard. The broader literature that I’ve been engaging with over the past two years relating to COVID-19 misinformation includes models that suggest that people negotiate and respond to perceived risks to their health based on their perception of susceptibility to an illness or disease; belief in severity of risk; belief that taking action would reduce severity or susceptibility and therefore have benefits, etc, etc. In other words: How could we help people understand that climate change will impact them (or their children, nieces, nephews, etc?) in significant ways (i.e. susceptibility, severity) and that the benefits of responding to climate change outweigh the costs of not doing so? Importantly, how do we do that before the issue becomes personal*?

To be certain, this is an interdisciplinary question: colleagues in climate science, public policy, and educational psychology are likely dealing with aspects of this already, and partnerships can be mutually beneficial. It would be good to engage with this soon, while climate change still feels like somewhere else, somewhere a little bit distant, because by the time it becomes personal for most of us, it may be too late.

* There’s a debate focusing on the worth/value of individual vs. systemic responses here that I’m going to ignore for this post. Suffice to say it’s an issue worth thinking about.