What can Open Universities do for Sustainable Development?

By: Prof Dr Ahmad Izanee Awang, President/Vice-Chancellor, Open University Malaysia
Prof Dr Ahmad Izanee Awang

At the Delta University International Engineering Conference on Research and Innovation held in Egypt last 26-27 November 2022, I had the opportunity to represent Open University Malaysia (OUM) and talk about a topic that will likely become increasingly significant over the next few years: open and distance learning (ODL) and sustainable development. 

As open universities, I believe ODL’s link to sustainable development is something we need to consciously and seriously address. We need to demonstrate our commitment to this global movement to tackle growing issues in economic development, social equity and justice, and environmental protection, and ensure a worthwhile future for all. 

Against the backdrop of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there have been many forward-thinking universities making great strides to contribute to a greener future. One example is the University of Manchester, the first university in the world recognised as a carbon-literate organisation currently aiming to become 100% carbon-neutral by 2038. 

But what about open universities? 

With Covid-19 opening the way to making online learning the go-to solution for all study needs during pandemic-related lockdowns, I believe that, as the global leaders in the online approach, open universities have an excellent opportunity to support the SDGs and aspire to greater goals while still emphasising academic and operational targets. 

Specifically, I believe we can use our online capabilities to uphold environmental sustainability as one of the core goals of the SDGs. 

At OUM, we believe that online learning – comprising such features as online classes and exams, virtual discussion spaces and support services, as well as paperless assignments and digital learning materials – could be deployed as part of a comprehensive effort to slash emissions and energy consumption, cut down on commuting and transport, as well as reduce drain on natural resources. 

In short, online learning could be maximised as an environmentally friendly approach in day-to-day operations, and teaching and learning. 

In addition, faculty members and subject-matter experts could play a more substantial role by leveraging their respective academic knowledge to contribute to environmental crisis management. Those specialising in occupational safety and health, facility management, and project management have wide-ranging capacities to contribute to more meaningful research in environmental and risk management, including introducing eco-friendly best practices in both academic and non-academic settings. 

Academics in other areas of expertise, such as early childhood education, counselling, and psychology, could help in improving public awareness on eco-friendly and sustainable living approaches. To achieve this, we will need to harness all potential communication channels: as open universities, online and social media would prove expedient, as are regional and international organisations like the Asian Association of Open Universities. 

For OUM specifically, there is also a chance to harness Malaysia’s tropical climate to introduce green solutions at our 35 learning centres nationwide. With the country’s year-round sunshine and rainfall, solar panels could be installed as an alternative energy source at some of our most sunny locations, or rainwater harvesting systems in areas that experience high precipitation. 

IT systems management is perhaps the most crucial: we should try to switch to hardware that best combine durability, longevity, and low-energy use, as well as employ strategies to reduce e-waste. Old devices need not be rendered useless; they could be recycled and redeployed for use by university staff and learners, or donated to needy persons and organisations. 

Finally, we need to intensify relevant e-investments, particularly cloud computing solutions to reduce dependency on bulky and energy-consuming servers, and minimise greenhouse gas emissions. 

As educational institutions, our operational goals, academic outcomes and learner achievements should always be prioritised. However, the challenge that now lies before us involves making the effort to contribute beyond the routine and conventional: it is within the context of environmental sustainability that I would like to reiterate open universities have the opportunity to do so. 

For OUM, we acknowledge that our own efforts are just emerging, and that these are still early days, but we look forward to becoming an open university that emphasises sustainability across all aspects of university operations.