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Sparking Sustainability

Photo: Roshan Adam

Project Holders: Caroline Mitchell and Alex Lockwood - Praxis Community Media Research Group
Institution: Media Department, University of Sunderland

Theme: Education for Sustainable Development

The project has sought to increase student engagement with Sustainable Development through teaching and learning activities that explore the possibilities available in the practice of ‘communicating sustainability'.

Students from radio and journalism departments at Sunderland University will gain critical knowledge and practical skills in producing 'sustainable' content and practising 'sustainable' processes that will amplify the project's reach through the university's partnerships with local and community media, in particular radio station Spark FM and the Sunderland Echo, integrating experiences of student life and the lives of people of Sunderland and the North East of England.

The project will support us to develop problem-based learning curricula to 'spark' student engagement and self-determined understandings of sustainability in personal, local and universal contexts. While articles, radio programming and online/transmedia narratives are measurable outputs, the focus remains on how the stakeholders involved—students, staff and local communities—can develop competencies for living more sustainably beyond the lifespan of the project.

We see this as the pre-cursor to a programme of engagement with sustainability among broadcast and journalism departments across the UK.



As Sacha Kagan (2008, p.15) stated: ‘The word ‘sustainability’ has become very fashionable in the first decade of the 21st century, and its widespread use has led to all kinds of definitions and interpretations, some of which are missing most of the substance of the concept.’ Our aim in this project was to explore a richer concept of sustainability as a ‘cultural change process [that] requires the advancement of learners’ skills and competencies’ (ibid.). Such an advancement of skills and learning through education is not only a means for achieving a far-off goal of sustainable development, but is an inherently sustainable practice in itself.

This project explored such practices in relation to the production of media content: stories and packages for consumption; and also the practices through which that content is produced. The media are fully integrated into the rituals and practice everyday life (Moores, 2000) to the extent that, according to Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass (1996) ‘media equates real life’: we perceive story and narrative presented in the media as real places and real people. Yet as integral as television, radio, press and new media technologies are to people’s lives, the rapid and unique changes affecting the global broadcast, print and digital media industries have posed questions of the sector’s sustainability (see Deuze, 2008). The related question for media educators is how to teach sustainability (and sustainably) in media departments and journalism schools in light of such changes? This is all the more pertinent as while social, economic and cultural practices have been central to the conversation, the salient concept of sustainability remains on the periphery of communications debates.

The relative exclusion of ‘sustainability’ knowledge from conversations on the future of media comes despite the importance of the media in contributing to widespread understanding and commitment to sustainable development processes. The critical tendency, as Blewitt (2006) suggests, is to view the media industries ‘as a major cause of many social and political ills, ranging from child obesity to international terrorism’ (p.160) rather than a site for the transformation of culture. We took the opportunity to re-evaluate instead, with our students, a sense of sustainable practice for our industries. We drew on ambitions identified in the UN’s Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) 2005-2014 programme, which recognizes that: ‘Journalists and media organizations have an important role to play in reporting on issues and in helping raise public awareness of the various dimensions and requirements of sustainable development’ (UNESCO, 2005, p.25). The UN Decade lists eight areas of sustainability including cultural diversity and gender equality; this broad scope was central to our thinking as we engaged problem-based pedagogies to ‘spark’ student engagement and self-determined understandings of sustainability in personal, local and universal contexts.

There was also the possibility for students to actively participate in alternative community-led media which, combined with their media studies, offer them a critique of, and an alternative view to, the mainstream media. At the Spark FM community radio station based at the University of Sunderland, with appropriate training and community development processes, participants were able to explore and experience how community media projects themselves need to achieve long-term sustainability (see Jallov, 2005; Girard 2006 for case studies). What better way to do so than by teaching sustainable communications practice to media students, using sustainable methods of media production and development that might even, at the same time, prepare them for the jobs market?

Contact information
Caroline Mitchell

Alex Lockwood


Download the full report


Listing and main photo: Roshan Adam
Alex Lockwood (far left) with our student winners Lee Sevenoaks (BA Radio), Michael Finnigan (MA Magazine), Sarah Webster (MA Magazine), Paul Bramley (BA Journalism), and Caroline Mitchell (far right)