From MOOC to genetic make-up – Putting circularity onto the educational agenda

Several of TU Delft’s MOOCs are born of the curiosity of our lecturers, from a desire to challenge themselves in a new format and to reach beyond the physical campus, to share their knowledge with thousands of learners worldwide. This journey can results in unexpected outcomes, such as publishing a book and helping to put circularity more firmly onto the faculty’s educational agenda. 

Such is the experience of Tillmann Klein, Professor of Building Product Innovation, faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment (A+BE). His initial MOOC Circular Economy for a Sustainable Built Environment - which introduces learners to the principles of circularity and their applications, was followed by an equally successful online course for practicing professionals - Circular Building Products for a Sustainable Built Environment, which integrates theory and real-life cases to help them design and develop new circular processes and products. A second course for professionals (ProfEd) is currently being developed by fellow lecturer Alexander Wandl, and two more are in the pipeline (see image below).

“What started off as a good opportunity to try our hands at a new format, has turned into the creation of an ecosystem of online courses and is helping to shape the faculty curriculum, promoting the circularity theme for inclusion in our faculty BSc and MSc programs”, explains Tillmann. 

“At A+BE, we have an ongoing cross-departmental initiative on the Circular Built Environment (CBE) and developing the MOOC helped us strengthen the team and further disseminate knowledge amongst fellow lecturers, while experimenting in a different teaching medium. Of course,” he recounts, “it was a lot of work that needed to be combined with other commitments, but it was great to have a team of enthusiastic colleagues. In fact, despite the challenges, creating the online courses was a successful group exercise and it helped to frame a lot of good content, content that now also forms the basis of a book I had long planned to publish”. There is a great load of existing theory on circularity, and the book provides people in industry with a more comprehensive view and a broader understanding of the subject, not limited to the technical perspective.

Filling the gap and contributing to the public debate

Creating the online courses forced Tillmann and his team to define and write out what circularity is about. “This is a theme that can be both undefined and heavily debated, particularly in Dutch society,” reflects Tillmann. “As a university we make a strong contribution. Industry may have technical initiatives, but it is we in academia who hold and can share the knowledge. For example, it can be relatively easy for companies to do something about technical aspects, as they may own the technology, product or material. 
“However, when it comes to other circularity aspects, such as business modelling, organisation, legal and financial issues, then it is a much more complex picture – and this is where we provide an overview and clarity through our holistic approach to the topic”, he explains.  
“Through our online courses, we have seen that learners are eager to get this more comprehensive view. There is a lot of growing interest for the theme, not only here in the Netherlands, where circularity tends to be part of the political agenda. In fact, we were somehow expecting to address the Dutch market and were surprised to see attendance by a much more international learner group. We had people from 110 different countries!

“The educational offering on the market is limited, there are some options, often in the form of workshops, but these are not enough. It may also prove difficult to address the industry needs for knowledge in circularity via the classical on-campus teaching model. Online ProfEd courses thus offer an interesting alternative”, says Tillmann.

Integrating circularity through intra-faculty connections

Some intra-faculty collaboration already exists, for example with Industrial Design Engineering (IDE) for the MOOCs Circular Economy: An introduction, and Engineering for a Circular Economy. And also with colleagues in the faculties of Technology, Policy & Management (TPM), and Civil Engineering & Geosciences (CEG). To advance these ties, a first circularity network meeting with all faculties will take place in February; they will discuss together what the aspirations are and what steps can be taken regarding the theme, both at faculty-level and university-wide. 

Although circularity basic principles are the same, each faculty approaches it differently and sees different types of impact. For example IDE may consider it from the perspective of product design, while CEG from the fundamentals of materials; TPM would consider management and politics, and A+BE look at scale – from the micro-level (materials, buildings) to the macro-level (cities and regions).

Increasing the connections and cooperation inter and intra faculty will further support the CBE hub activities and the development of a wider offering of education on circularity; this would comprise a whole variety of aspects, such as technology, management, economy, and design.

Meeting learner expectations

Tillmann says that one challenging aspect, besides learning to make videos and effectively coordinating team efforts, was contending with the initial uncertainty around learners’ expectations. “It was a balancing act between content and expectations: to give theoretical content that was just at the right level for a diverse group  ̶  not too high, nor too basic. And I am happy we managed to hit the sweet spot. Sure, producing the courses was challenging, but also very rewarding, especially when we saw the participants’ high level of engagement and the good pass results”. 

Powerful tools for visibility 

“We achieved more than our learning objectives”, remarks Tillmann. “Firstly, creating the courses paid off in visibility and made us known more widely and globally. Secondly, it enhances the offer to our own students, who take the MOOC as extra-curricular. It also gives us recognition at other institutions – there are professors in the USA that recommend the courses to their students – and it boosts our presence in industry. It stretched our own teaching skills and gave us additional learning resources. Developing online education was definitely a smart move!” 

Tillmann recognises that openness brings benefits. Since he started his open access journal about seven years ago, there has been a definitive shift in the academic world’s mind-set. “That way of sharing was then still relatively knew but nowadays, with not only scientists but people from different walks of life showing an interest in your topic, sharing one’s knowledge openly, online, is not only accepted but a powerful tool to create visibility and build connections”, he reflects. 

Considering as well how the ongoing corona crisis has compelled a quick shift to online teaching and learning, Tillmann believes that our university has a lot to win from offering this type of education. “We can expect the request for online education to increase; the online format is here to stay”, he states. 

Circularity part of genetic make-up

Going forward, the focus is on being able to integrate circularity into the BSc and MSc programs offering of the A+BE faculty.  For instance, the BSc would see circularity from the perspective of general context and basic knowledge about materials, and design principles; subsequently, MSc could see the theme included in higher level teaching such as assessment and complex design and research tasks.

More generally, circularity, much in the same way as sustainability, could come to be seen as a part of the genetic make-up of our TU Delft students. “It is certainly a topic of quickly growing societal interest, and as such should inform the way we look at things”, says Tillmann. “Different faculties approach it from different perspectives, and that is the beauty and value of it”, he concludes.

Want to know more about how the Extension School can support you?

See the intranet/employee portal pages. For the TU Delft’s online education portfolio, visit the website and read the Impact Report 2020.