Reflections from the SDG Academy on providing free online education in sustainable development

Authors: Jay Neuner and Jessica Scott

Let’s begin with a quick thought exercise: How often do you communicate with someone in a language that is not your mother language (defined as the first language you learned at home) or theirs? Every hour, with work colleagues in different offices? Daily, as someone living in a country that is not your country of origin? Once a week, learning in a globally-accessible online classroom? Twice a year, vacationing outside of your country of residence?

The potential to engage with someone from another country or culture – and often with a different mother language from one’s own – is likely higher now than at any time in history through the advancement of technology. And this has enabled the multilingual communication necessary for sustainable development. Through language we make meaning of and interpret our lives – the classic study of semiotics. Differing meanings and interpretations, when combined with increasing possibilities for global discussion and collaboration across languages (and associated cultures and countries), empower diverse actors across locales, positions of power, and walks of life to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Diverse languages lead to diverse ideas, diverse ideas to diverse solutions, and diverse solutions to achievement of the goals despite geographical boundaries, ideological boundaries, the restrictions of outdated policies, and the ramifications of past practices.

A significant step in advancing sustainable development is education, and particularly education on a global scale; it prompts discussion and collaboration and ensures exposure to varying viewpoints, all significant to evolving behavior and catalyzing change for sustainability.

Yet multilingual accessibility remains a significant hurdle when it comes to global education in sustainable development. As a provider of online educational materials about sustainable development (consisting of videos, downloadable readings, and online platform-based assessments), the SDG Academy – the Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s (SDSN) online education initiative – experiences this hurdle daily as we attempt to reach and engage a truly global audience. For online education in sustainable development – indeed, all online education – to reach its full potential as a global public good, it must embrace multilingualism.

With the technological advances and cross-cultural exchanges we now take for granted, why is multilingualism in online education still so difficult to achieve?


Sustainable development is inherently complex; the global platform of the SDGs spans 17 goals, each with a collection of associated experts who share neither a common language to learn across disciplines, nor a common mother tongue to teach across communities.

To make content on sustainable development accessible, two types of translation are required. First, we require an interdisciplinary framework – a shared language – to translate across the many disciplines involved in achieving a sustainable future. There is promise in the term “resilience” as a border term, serving the sustainable development goals with this translational capacity.

The second type of translation is more concrete: Content must be accessible across different languages, with each piece of content requiring an expert not only in translation but also subject matter. There also may be culture-specific “translations” that must be accounted for in visual representation, not just spoken or written words – an important but often intractable challenge of multilingualism and multiculturalism.

Primary sources – original research or documentation or reports – are also the priority for many subject matter experts. The “leading voices” on certain issues may have produced these sources – the preeminent texts on an issue – only in their mother language. This content would also need to be wholly translated or replacement primary sources in other languages would need to be identified.

There is also the issue of language extinction. Local languages and related knowledge are challenged by the passing of older generations, colonization, and other cultural and geographical shifts; this is exacerbated by the dominance of a select few languages, largely Western, in both information technology architecture and global content creation. This is an additional challenge for sustainable development and education.


Videos, readings in the dozens of pages, platforms (from user interface to orientation, e.g. left-to-right versus right-to-left), live video sessions with faculty, or chat support from course staff – these pieces constitute the entire puzzle of a massive open online course. To enable accurate, multilingual engagement, translation (in words, culture, and norms of accessibility) must occur across each. The cost for each element – from filming content in multiple languages, to identifying translators across languages for the content itself, to sourcing a platform that can support multilingual and multicultural technology constraints – can skyrocket for a 10-week course. We need better and more accurate computer-based translation capabilities to take on this task. Even better: partners in this task with existing resources who also believe in this global public good. There is promising work coming out of the European Union to support the former effort, with Emma and TraMOOC as two examples.


With 6,909-plus languages spoken worldwide, content providers may never have the capacity to translate each piece of content in its most up-to-date form into every language. Scale is most often accomplished by identifying most-spoken languages or most in-demand languages for specific subject matter. While this may ensure breadth of global coverage, the highest impact or oft-forgotten cultures and languages may still be barred access.

Education, no matter the topic, is a “skeleton key” for accessibility and opportunity. It provides differing viewpoints and information that can be used to expand our understanding of issues we may not be familiar with or have experienced ourselves. These are, in fact, some of the tenets of sustainable development – openness to emerging ideas and information about sustaining people, planet, and prosperity, as well as changing how we operate to prevent those things from being harmed. While we’re not there yet, the SDG Academy is wholly committed to making online education accessible to all. We look forward to working with the sustainable development community – and all those interested in supporting this cause – to make it happen.

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