The future of learning sustainability in business

a connectivism theory approach

  • Olga Dziubaniuk Åbo Akademi University
  • Maria Ivanova-Gongne Åbo Akademi University
  • Monica Nyholm Åbo Akademi University
Keywords: sustainable education, learning theory, connectivism, sustainable development, international business


Technology has already become an inevitable part of the learning process at the higher education institutions (HEI). However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic situation has increased the utilization of digital technologies even more, by making teachers to switch to the online or hybrid modes of teaching, but at the same time facilitating students` learning. At the same time pedagogic developments in international business studies (Kardes, 2020; Aggarwal & Wu, 2020) take place. Especially courses dedicated to sustainable development in business (Bagur-Femenías et al., 2020; Montiel et al., 2020) are introduced. The integration of digital technologies into the learning process may require a revision of the conventional learning theories applied to the curriculum design. Student learning of sustainability in business is frequently grounded on theories of e.g., constructivism (Dziubaniuk & Nyholm, 2020), social learning theory (Keen et al., 2005), transformative learning (Seatter & Ceulemans, 2017) or other pedagogical frameworks such as experiential learning (Anastasiadis, 2020), active learning (Claro & Esteves, 2021), design thinking (Manna et al., 2022), etc. However, the digital age demands new approaches to the facilitation of students` learning, including new ontological and epistemological approaches to the organizing of the learning environment with the help of communication technologies. Connectivism learning theory can be a suitable alternative in cases where students develop knowledge by means of forming social networks with the help of technology (Siemens, 2004). Connectivism is a theoretical framework for understanding learning where the learners “make connections between ideas located throughout their personal learning networks, which are composed of numerous information resources and technologies” (Dunaway, 2011, p.676). According to connectivism, knowledge is developed when a learner makes mental connections between concepts, ideas, opinions that can be accessed via Internet-enabling technologies, which makes information technologies an inevitable part of learning facilitation (ibid). The key principles of connectivism stress that learning is based on: diversity of opinions; connected sources of information; evaluation of the most relevant information and ability to find connections between opinions, facts, ideas, etc.; technologies enable learning; maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continuous learning; up-to-date knowledge and its critical assessment should encourage learners to demand more information; and decision-making is a learning process in itself (Siemens, 2007; Dunaway, 2011; Goldie 2016).

The utilization of digital technologies for organization of the learning environment have become “a new normal” in universities, many online teaching facilitation methods may still be used in the future to bridge online and offline learning. Additionally, students frequently access the most relevant and current information via Internet, which makes them connected to technologies in their leaning process. Therefore, new approaches to learning facilitation also concern courses in international business with a focus on sustainable development, and the theory of connectivism can be useful for the design of the learning environment. A limited number of articles address connectivism in relation to learning sustainability in business studies (Karlusch et al., 2018; Abad-Segura, et al., 2020). Thus, this study aims to explore how the principles of connectivism can be implemented for designing a digital learning environment for courses in sustainable business in the context of HEI. This study contributes to the literature on student learning, by considering connectivity theory for learning sustainable business in an online environment, which has so far been rarely addressed by pedagogy scholars.

This qualitative research is based on empirical data collected in form of open-ended written course feedback by students attending the course Sustainable business at Åbo Akademi University (Finland) during 2020 and 2021. During these years, the course had to switch its pedagogic mode from in-class to online teaching. All interaction and knowledge transfer between the course instructors and the students occurred via Zoom, the course web page, and emails. The course reading package was available from the university e-library. Individual learning also took place via Internet searches for the most relevant and current information. At the end of the course, students had to provide feedback and answer the following questions: 1. What are the most important things that you have learned and how do they link to your previous knowledge and experience? 2. How can you benefit in the future from the things you have learned during the course? 3. When and how can you put into practice the things you have learned? The amount of collected course evaluation feedback is 71 (year 2020) and 95 (year 2021), which makes 166 feedbacks in total. These textual artefacts were analyzed via content analysis (Duriau et al., 2007) with the help of NVivo textual data analysis tool, which aids in arranging and analyzing large amount of textual data (Dean & Sharp, 2006).

The research results indicate that connectivism theory can be a useful framework in developing online or hybrid learning environment in a HEI. Particularly, this concerns courses dedicated to sustainability in business, where it is important to use up-to-date information such as business cases, governmental regulations, and international policies. According to the feedback analysis, students have developed their knowledge and understanding of sustainable development by connecting concepts such as the formal meaning of sustainability (as stated in Brundtland report, 1987), sustainability initiatives by the companies and their effects on stakeholders, circular economy models, corporate social responsibility and reporting, misleading marketing, ethical business conduct, etc. Students also connected the learned concepts about sustainability to their major studies, their future careers, and their daily life.

Beside online interactive lectures and reading of assigned literature, learning also took place via group work and writing individual assignments. Group work, as a form of connective learning, has supported the students' learning from each other. Additionally, working in groups virtually also facilitated informal interaction between the students, which enhanced their learning especially if the group consisted of international students representing different cultures and, therefore, different insights into sustainability in their countries. The individual work during the course was based on writing assignments that required online information searches and analysis. These assignments demanded critical thinking in order to recognize relevant knowledge in the sea of available information on the Internet. Critical thinking, as one of the key principles of connectivism, is also necessary in order to analyze misleading marketing approaches (or greenwashing) and unethical behavior of international companies. In addition to knowledge of sustainability in business, students obtained skills of making video presentations, pitching business ideas online, organizing virtual communication for their project work, and making online presentations. According to the students' course feedback, they were also motivated to continue learning by watching recommended documentaries about e.g., sustainable textile recycling, or listening to podcasts on sustainable development topics. 


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4.3 The Future of Nordic Business Education