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Lights, Camera, Reflection: an innovative online sustainability programme called the Rise Academy

​Mâir Bull

Curriculum and Rise

Manchester Metropolitan University

Studying for a PGCert in Higher Education

In summer 2021, myself and Academy Lead, C-J Foster, ran a pilot pre-entry programme called the Rise Academy, part of Manchester Metropolitan University’s award-winning co-curricular programme, Rise. The Rise Academy’s aim was for students to explore sustainability whilst developing employability skills in preparation for university and future careers. The Rise Academy took place over nine weeks online, predominately synchronously, and on a voluntary basis for offer-place holders. They were joined by current Man Met students who received in-depth, bespoke training to be group mentors.

The Rise Academy ran in collaboration with Hubbub, a pioneering sustainability charity who use design-led strategies to encourage behavioural changes so that “we are all environmentalists”. Hubbub’s “nudges” use creativity, innovation and playful design to raise awareness and encourage people to change habits. We used Hubbub’s campaign ideas known as “challenges” to structure the programme and focus on three key areas of sustainability: fashion, food and nature.

Initially, the programme focused on informing, with a curated set of sessions that offered expert speakers the opportunity to demonstrate the key issues and activities happening in their fields. Following this, students were in groups with mentors and had several weeks to create their own response to the challenge: “creatively inspire (or nudge!) people to take sustainable action and live-in ways which benefit them and the environment”. Participants of the programme were mostly 17 to 19 years old, plus a handful of mature students, all about to start their undergraduate degrees. During the next few weeks, students used session and independent time to develop ideas on their chosen sustainability theme. In addition, they prepared a presentation ready for the closing ceremony with guest judges and awards.

As we all know, working online has its difficulties and the use of cameras became a particularly salient issue, with many students reporting the discomfort of working in a group with those who rarely turned on their cameras, even in unrecorded breakout rooms. This issue challenged us to consider engagement and accessibility, researching the range of reasons why students may avoid using cameras (from lacking in confidence to digital poverty, and to privacy and mental health difficulties, to name but a few) and encouraged us to think divergently – to find multiple solutions to encourage participation in different forms. For example, we used collaborative documents such as Jamboard, quizzes and games, voting tools, the chat function and emojis. As a result, the mood and atmosphere became more relaxed and progressed with a lighter, more informal tone through the weeks.

Example of a Jamboard. Image courtesy of author

Students’ creativity and innovation, working solely online in groups with people they had never met, astounded us. They created a wide range of innovative and dynamic responses, from a “flexitarian” cookbook, encouraging a more in-season, local and plant-based approach, to TikTok fashion upcycling tutorials and Instagram magazines. In addition, the judges celebrated the entrepreneurial ideas of the teams that presented school packs on bees and growing vegetables, as well as artist-decorated bins on nature walks.

Left: Extract from a group’s fashion project, here a student demonstrates how to upcycle a suit jacket, filmed and edited using TikTok. Right: Image from a group’s presentation showing their cookbook idea. Both images courtesy of author.

Despite all these creative and successful challenge responses, there was an additional outcome that surprised us all, and that was the power of community and belonging that was created. We therefore felt that we should host an on-campus meet later in the academic year. However, Bayne et al (2020:15) state that we should not long for or compare the digital to the physical classroom. They call this “campus envy” and, instead, we should emphasise that “we are the campus”. In other words, we are the community, not the place. In the Rise Academy, we decided to embrace this and emphasise that community is the relationships we create, and that digital education instead opens new and different ways of understanding and practicing teaching (Bayne et al. 2020:16).

I underestimated the power of the online community (Cho et al, 2017), pleased to hear one group had arranged to meet in-person. As we reflect on the success of the programme and plan for future iterations, the centrality of building a community and the impact it has on engagement will be even more of a priority in our co-design. The opportunity to offer a blended approach enables further experiential learning and community development, but with the acknowledgment that online programmes still have the power to create a solid infrastructure of belonging and, in our case, one that eased the transition to university and resulted in students signing up to become the next round of mentors.


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