Dear Members of the SDSN,

Welcome to the fourth edition of the SDSN Members’ Bulletin, which includes a spotlight on online education.

  • SDSN Blog: – Training Sustainable Development Practitioners
  • This Month’s Spotlight: Massive Open Online Education and its Applications for Sustainable Development
    • A Brief History
    • What is a MOOC?
    • The Opportunity for SDSN and its Members
  • Recent SDSN Updates
  • News from SDSN Members
  • SDSN in the Media
  • Upcoming Events

We hope you will find this Bulletin of interest.

Please share with us any information you would like to see included in the next edition, which will focus on an update on SDSN’s post-2015 and climate work.

With best wishes,

GST signature



Guido Schmidt-Traub
Executive Director


SDSN Blog: – Training Sustainable Development Practitioners

Sustainable development for all will be the central challenge of our time and how we rise to meet it will define our future. Can the world combine economic, social, and environmental sustainability – all underpinned by good governance?

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will require unprecedented problem-solving at local, national, regional, and global scales. Since the challenges the world faces are deeply interwoven, sustainable development practitioners require training that covers a range of disciplines and focuses on practical problem solving.

Modern information and communication technologies make it possible for large cohorts of students to learn the same material in parallel in different parts of the world. The online education revolution has shown us that students, when motivated, can learn at a fraction of the cost of traditional education, can learn at their pace, in remote locations and can create a common global student body that can teach each other.

Technology is also a boon for academic institutions that do not have the resources to provide cutting-edge teaching to their students. In many parts of the developing world, universities are partnering with organizations from different countries to source information and materials that they would not otherwise have access to. This is also helping build capacity and improve the quality of teaching and research in those institutions at a far quicker pace than would have otherwise been possible.

In this context SDSN is bringing together its formidable network of global academic and scientific expertise in an exciting program to create an unprecedented educational opportunity for students and practitioners of sustainable development around the world. The new program, “” is a flagship priority of the SDSN and aims to create the largest ever cohort of students of sustainable development. will bring together global experts in the fields of climate change, education, health, sustainable agriculture, energy, water, ecosystems management, sustainable cities, social inclusion and good governance to create a compendium of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that encapsulate the best available knowledge and expertise on each of these areas with the goal of running a full program by 2015 when the new SDGs are announced (for more on MOOCs, please see the “This Month’s Spotlight” section). Finally, it will aim to partner with SDSN member universities around the world to use the courses as core curriculum in blended learning programs across the world.

The first course, titled “The Age of Sustainable Development” and taught by Prof. Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University, was launched in January 2014, on Coursera. Taught to a diverse field of over 49,000 enrolled participants, the fourteen-week course provides an overview of sustainable development. Thousands of students engaged daily with one another on the topics presented in the course, and several universities used the course content as a “virtual textbook”, supplementing the curriculum of existing programs. “The Age of Sustainable Development” MOOC will be offered again in the fall of 2014, and is open for pre-registration on our website. Several universities around the world will be teaching the course for credit, and all students who successfully complete the course will get a free copy of Professor Sachs’ new e-book, entitled The Age of Sustainable Development.

Building on the success and lessons learned from Professor Sachs’ course, plans to launch half a dozen courses over the next twelve months. Additional courses will be developed thereafter. The compendium of courses will be hosted on the SDSN website, serving as the go-to resource for content and education on sustainable development.

The success of this initiative depends on the involvement of SDSN member institutions. We are keen to work with education institutions to offer these courses as part of their existing curriculum with localized, in-person extensions and activities. is a new and evolving initiative. We are still learning what works and what doesn’t work in the online education space, so we welcome your thoughts, feedback, questions, and contributions to help improve We will be reaching out with additional information on the upcoming courses in the coming weeks and months.

For more information, please write to Megan Cassidy, Education Manager ( or Chandrika Bahadur, Director of Education Initiatives (

This Month’s Spotlight: Massive Open Online Education and its Applications for Sustainable Development 

The world of higher education is being reshaped by the advent of online learning and in particular by the proliferation of MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses. Behind the buzzwords and hyped jargon saturating the online education space, massive open online learning – the result of rapid improvements in high-quality visual media and innovation in the way that people engage with one another virtually – presents a unique opportunity for educators. This month’s spotlight presents a brief history of this phenomenon and highlights some of the opportunities and challenges it presents for development practitioners.

A Brief History

Open online learning has its roots in distance learning, which has more than a century of history dating back to correspondence courses and distance courses offered via radio. The objective of these efforts was to reach students who, for one reason or another, were constrained from participating in traditional education or vocational training programs. Distance learning provided the initial fuel to the push for open education, which has expanded massively in the past half century, and is now seeing a new impetus as education and telecommunications technologies have exponentially increased in sophistication and functionality, lowering many of the barriers to uptake. Over the same period and in many countries, higher education has come under pressure for rising costs and lower returns. In the United States, the cost of a college education has increased twelve-fold in the past three decades, four times faster than the increase in the consumer price index, while almost half of students enrolled in two- and four-year programs fail to earn a degree within six years.

This confluence of factors has paved the way for Massive Open Online Courses or “MOOCs”. Online courses have been in existence for several decades, pioneered by MIT’s OpenCourseWare that has been posting course materials for students across the world to download and use. The MOOC movement was launched in earnest in 2011 by several professors and entrepreneurs in the field of computer science. Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, professors at Stanford University and founders of the for-profit MOOC platform, Coursera, launched their first course in computer science, building on the sophistication of back-end analytics and in-line objective assessment tools that they had been developing in their research. Several other online education providers quickly followed suit, including edX, a non-profit provider launched by Harvard and MIT.

What is a MOOC?

A MOOC is a completely internet-based course available to an unlimited number of students who can enroll provided they have an Internet connection, often free of charge. It is a time-bound course, where students interact with the professor and each other for a limited period (typically 9-14 weeks) and go through a structured syllabus, guided by the professor and teaching assistants. MOOCs have gained popularity over the past few years with both students and educators, as they can allow students to experience learning across a wide range of disciplines free of charge from some of the world’s most prestigious institutions. They also offer a significant degree of flexibility – teaching and learning in an online environment removes many of the time and space constraints faced in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, accommodating a diverse student group. While the structure of MOOCs varies widely from course to course, there are several characteristics that distinguish MOOCs from more traditional education programs:

  • All of the content is delivered online
  • Content is loaded according to a pre-defined schedule and there are some opportunities for live interaction with the professor
  • There is no limit on the number of students that can enroll, often resulting in tens of thousands of students
  • The pedagogical and assessment tools employed are innovative and designed explicitly for the scale and online nature of the course
  • The format of most MOOCs allows students to support and learn from each other.

The greatest disadvantage of MOOCs is the disconnect between students and teachers – both physical and temporal – which often results in high drop-out rates during the course. Yet, the promise of MOOCs lies in their ability to enable large cohorts of students to learn together as a global community and in allowing professors to reach thousands of students in a relatively short amount of time.

The Opportunity for SDSN and its Members

A core mandate of the SDSN is to leverage the expertise and best practices from among the academic and scientific communities to share knowledge on sustainable development and to prepare a cadre of practitioners to address the challenges of the post-2015 world. Given this mandate, massive open online education presents an undeniable attraction, particularly as mobile technologies proliferate in even the most remote and constrained corners of the planet. There are three broad ways in which the global academic and scientific community can harness the power of online education:

First, by compiling and creating the best quality instructional materials on various aspects of sustainable development, sourced from around the world, in one place. This will be invaluable in referencing and improving the content of sustainable development training and programs around the world.

Second, by thinking of innovative ways in which universities can use these courses and materials. The courses can improve the actual teaching experience in their classrooms by accessing cutting edge lectures from experts and harnessing the power of multimedia technologies.

Third, by creating a global network of faculty and students who can not only learn, but also add to this body of knowledge through practical projects, their own local experiences, and sharing of good practices.

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network is keen to bring together all of these three benefits into its new flagship offering that will launch in Fall 2014. SDSN will keep you informed on how you can be part of an exciting global conversation on sustainable development. Stay tuned!

Recent SDSN Updates

SDSN Leadership Council Meeting in Beijing

On May 15-16, 2014, the SDSN Leadership Council convened in Beijing at the invitation of Tsinghua University. The meeting focused on the SDSN contribution to the post-2015 processes and the preparations of the 2015 climate conference in Paris, building the national and regional networks, and expanding the online education initiatives. Presentations from the meeting are available here. Side events of the Leadership Council Meeting included the Beijing Health Forum, Redefining the Role of Business for Sustainable Development, Pathways to Sustainable Agriculture in China, Sustainable Urbanization in China, Good Governance of Extractive and Land Resources, and The Challenges of Social Inclusion.

Updates on Draft Indicators Report

Revised working draft released – SDSN has released a revised working draft of the report “Indicators for Sustainable Development Goals”, which can be viewed here. Additionally, synthesis and full database of all comments received from the 6-week public consultation can be found here. These indicators have been incorporated into our new, detailed pages on SDSN’s proposed goals and targets.

UN side event – The April 4, 2014 side-event during a meeting of the Open Working Group was well attended. Member states and stakeholders provided comments on the draft report Indicators for Sustainable Development Goals. 

Evaluating OWG’s 17 focus areas – SDSN has released a document mapping its potential and illustrative indicators to the 16 focus areas of the OWG. The document demonstrates that the SDSN indicator framework matches the OWG focus areas well. It will be updated periodically as indicator framework is strengthened and the OWG focus areas evolve.

Changes to the Goals and Targets proposed by the SDSN – A new document on our website summarizes the modifications made to the goals and targets proposed by the SDSN since our initial report in June 2013.

SDSN Side Event for Open Working Group Side: Examining the Evidence Base for the 16 OWG Focus Areas

On May 5, 2014, SDSN, in partnership with the Governments of Bhutan, Colombia, Denmark, Rwanda, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland, hosted a side event at the Open Working Group (OWG) to discuss the evidence base for the 16 focus areas. The presentations and supplementary notes are available here.

Laurence Tubiana Nominated as France’s Special Representative for COP21

The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has nominated Laurence Tubiana, Co-Chair of the SDSN Leadership Council, as Special Representative for the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP-21). The announcement (in French) is available here.

2nd Annual International Conference on Sustainable Development Practice

The Global Association of Master’s in Development Practice Programs (MDP), in collaboration with the SDSN, will hold the 2nd Annual International Conference on Sustainable Development Practice (ICSDP) on September 17-18, 2014, at Columbia University in New York City. Registration for the conference is now open! For questions please write to

News from Regional and National SDSNs

SDSN China – At the invitation of Chen Jining, President of Tsinghua University, a second meeting was held during the Leadership Council Meeting to prepare the launch of the China SDSN scheduled for November 2014 and to review lessons from National and Regional SDSNs in other parts of the world. Senior representatives from universities and research institutions joined the meeting: the China Academy of Social Sciences, Development Research Council, Beijing Normal, Nankai, Peking, Shandong, Tongji, Tsinghua, and the Columbia Global Centers | East Asia. The China Business Council on Sustainable Development also participated. 

Caribbean SDSN launch On May 7-8, 2014, the SDSN Caribbean was launched at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona Campus in Kingston, Jamaica, under the auspices of Prime Minster Portia Simpson-Miller. UWI Vice Chancellor E. Nigel Harris, Jeffrey D. Sachs, and UN Resident Coordinator Arun Kashyap also participated in the launch, which saw 14 presentations of possible solutions initiatives. The launch was covered in Jamaica Observer.

SDSN Australia/Pacific – On May 19-21, 2014, SDSN Australia/Pacific and the Monash Sustainability Institute organized a Workshop on Sustainable Development Goals; the SDSN Youth Solutions Launch Event; a keynote address by Jeffrey D. Sachs on “Australia in the Age of Sustainable Development”; and the launch of “How Australia can thrive in a low carbon world: Pathways to prosperity in 2050”. Learn more about the Australia Deep Decarbonization Pathway here. During his visit, Sachs was interviewed by The Business, AM, and The Age.

SDSN Germany – The network has announced the first members of its Leadership Council, which will be chaired by Dirk Messner, head of the German Development Institute, and Klaus Töpfer, head of IASS.

MED Solutions – The Regional SDSN for the Mediterranean has recently released its first newsletter, which can be viewed here. 

Amazonia SDSN launch – The SDSN for the Amazon region was launched on March 18, 2014 in Manaus, Brazil. The network is hosted by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS) and will coordinate a regional network of research centers, universities, NGOs, and businesses to identify and implement sustainable development solutions. A report of the launch proceeding highlights can be viewed here. For more information about the Amazonia SDSN, visit

SDSN Assembly launched – On April 24, 2014, the SDSN Assembly, comprising all member institutions of the SDSN, was launched. On the call, Jeffrey Sachs gave an update on the SDSN’s work on the post-2015 agenda, thematic groups, national and regional networks, solutions initiatives, and education initiatives. His presentation was followed by a question and answer session where participants asked about the SDSN’s work with various UN processes, proposals for new solutions initiatives, and the creation of new online education materials.

SDSN in the Media

Winnie Byanyima – Overcoming Inequality and Climate Change Key to Ending Poverty – June 17, 2014

SDSN – Call for clearer road map as 17 proposed SDGs released – June 9, 2014

Jeffrey Sachs in Project Syndicate – Our Last Chance for a Safe Planet – May 28, 2014

Bineta Diop in CNN – Building peace in Africa? Give power to women – May 19, 2014

Paul Polman in McKinsey Quarterly – Business, society, and the future of capitalism (video interview) – May 16, 2014

Andrew Steer in Huffington Post – 3 Tales of Hope for a Low-Carbon Future – May 13, 2014

Frances Beinecke in Switchboard – Climate Change Hits the Grocery Store and Dinner Plate – May 8, 2014

Winnie Byanyima in Oxfam – Growth in Africa undermined by rapidly increasing inequality – May 7, 2014

Jeffrey Sachs in The New York Times – At the U.N., a Free-for-All on Setting Global Goals – May 6, 2014

Sultan Al Jaber in Gulf News – Governments urged to aspire towards sustainability – May 5, 2014

Paul Polman in Business Times – A quite revolution – May 3, 2014

Jeffrey Sachs (signatory) – Statement of the Joint PAS/PASS Workshop on Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility – May 2, 2014

Christiana Figueres in Thomas Reuters Foundation – Adaptation will fail without emissions cuts, funding insufficient – April 30, 2014

Paul Polman in Guardian Sustainable Business – Challenging the corporate status quo – April 24, 2014

Jeffrey Sachs on Bloomberg TV (video) – Why We Need a Wealth Tax – April 23, 2014

Rajendra Pachauri in World Bank News – IPCC Chair: Delaying Climate Action Raises the Risks and Costs – April 21, 2014

Amina J. Mohammed in The Broker – A new global partnership for a people-centred and planet-sensitive post-2015 agenda – April 8, 2014

Peter Bakker in The Huffington Post – The Battle for Sustainable Development Will Be Won or Lost in Cities – April 7, 2014

News from SDSN Members

  • On April 28-30, 2014, the SDSN participated in a workshop on the “Post-2015 Data Test: Unpacking the Data Revolution at the Country Level” in Nairobi, Kenya, a joint project of the Center for Policy Dialogue, the North-South Institute, and Southern Voice examining how the SDG agenda can be measured at the country level.
  • TERI University has partnered with the Coca-Cola Foundation to create a department of regional water studies. Learn more about the initiative here.
  • Congratulations to Zulfiqar Bhutta, who received the “Ihsan Dogramaci Family Health Foundation Prize” at the World Health Assembly on May 22, 2014, for his work on child and newborn survival health.
  • The Global Environment Facility (GEF) has received a record $4.43 billion in funding pledges from 30 donor countries to support developing countries’ efforts over the next four years to prevent global environmental degradation. Read the full press release here.
  • The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) published its Urban Infrastructure Initiative (UII) report, a major 3 year global project produced by a multi-sector, multi-company group. The report, which examines the engagement opportunities between cities and businesses, can be viewed here.
  • Institute of Strategy and Policy on Natural Resources and Environment (ISPONRE), in collaboration with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Bank, developed the operational framework for Vietnam’s new ecosystem-based adaptation for climate change. Learn more about the project here.
  • The German Advisory Council on Global Change has recently published a Policy Paper on “Human Progress within Planetary Guard Rails: A Contribution to the SDG Debate.” Read the paper here.

Upcoming Events

  • June 23-24 – Expert workshop on SDG indicators and data collection with United Nations Statistical Commission | New York, USA
  • June 27 – Turkish SDSN Launch Event | Istanbul, Turkey
  • July 6 – South Asia SDSN Launch Event | New Delhi, India
  • July 8 – Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) press conference | New York, USA
  • August 25-30 – 5th Annual Ibadan Sustainable Development Summit (ISDS) | Ibadan, Nigeria
  • September 17-18 – 2nd International Conference on Sustainable Development Practice organized with MDP Consortium | New York, USA
  • September 19-20 – Leadership Council meeting | New York, USA
  • October 22-24 – Sustainability Science Congress 2014 | Copenhagen, Denmark
  • November 4-11 – APEC meetings | Beijing, China