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Education for sustainable development through research-based learning in an online environment

Oliver Ahel (University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany)
Moritz Schirmer (University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 8 July 2022

Issue publication date: 5 January 2023




The society faces growing global challenges in terms of sustainable development. A key factor in preparing society for these challenges is education for sustainable development (ESD). This study aims to discuss how the combination of research-based learning (RBL) and digitalization can be used for successful ESD in higher education. The paper introduces the conceptual development of technical and didactical implications for an online learning format, which combines the opportunities of RBL and digitalization to facilitate the distribution of ESD. Furthermore, corresponding evaluation results are presented.


A framework, based on key dimensions described by the relevant literature, was applied for the empirical approach to evaluate students’ learning experiences. On this basis, the differences in the students’ learning experiences between the RBL-format and conventional digital learning format (self-directed studies, learning videos and electronic examination) were measured.


The performed two-sample t-test indicates statistical significant differences in all dimensions. On average, students (N = 226) using the RBL-based format report higher ratings for each examined dimension than students who experienced a conventional format. In summary, this indicates an overall corresponding tendency in students’ learning experience between the examined learning formats.


The presented examination offers empirically based insights on how a digital format can combine RBL and ESD to enhance students’ learning experiences. Moreover, theoretical contributions are provided regarding the future development of digital learning formats to further integrate ESD in higher education.



Research funding: The research on which this study is based was carried out in the context of the Student Crowd Research (SCoRe) project. The SCoRe project is based at the University of Bremen and is fully funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The project runs from November 2018 to April 2022 and aims to explore ways of applying the potential of digitalization to the transmission of ESD.


Ahel, O. and Schirmer, M. (2023), "Education for sustainable development through research-based learning in an online environment", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 24 No. 1, pp. 118-140.



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