4.1. Survey Results
The results of the survey indicated that the basic elements of sustainable development education (inter- and trans-disciplinarity, internationality, complex systems, and digitalization) were not necessarily those elements that were considered the most important ones by the students for their academic education.
shows the results of the importance ratings done by bachelor’s and master’s students on five-level Likert scales (1 = very important, 5 = not important at all). Among bachelor’s students, factors like the expertise of teachers, future-oriented contents, preparation for a professional career, the didactic skills of teachers, and the quality of provided learning materials received very high importance ratings between 1.2 and 1.5 on a five-level Likert scale. The situation was similar with master’s students; they however rated the importance of learning materials slightly lower than bachelor’s students (1.72 vs. 1.42, p
= 0.003) and the importance of content depth and specialization options slightly higher than bachelor’s students (1.38 vs. 1.72, p
= 0.004). Inter- and trans-disciplinarity were considered important, but relatively less important than other factors (mean 2.1 on the five-level scale). The language of instruction seemed not to matter much, as the respondents neither considered teaching in English or in German (the native language of most students) as particularly important. Options for remote studying were not considered a factor of major importance, but appeared more important to bachelor’s students than to master’s students (2.20 vs. 2.79, p
Interestingly, the importance of internationality received mixed ratings. While both bachelor’s and master’s students stated a fairly high importance of international topics in their study program, having international teachers was only considered of medium importance. Sharing the classroom with international students was considered relatively unimportant by bachelor’s students, and also not very important by master’s students. In fact, these two items—international students and international teachers—received the lowest importance rankings among all factors.
The different types of competencies that may be acquired through a study program all received fairly high importance ratings. The most important competency clearly was content knowledge; for bachelor’s students, method competencies came in second, and for master’s students, digital competencies were the second-most important one. Social competencies ranked lowest among the different types (but still received a fairly high rating); the differences here however were relatively small and did not allow for deriving major implications. When comparing bachelor’s and master’s level, it turned out that social competencies were considered more important by master’s students (1.72 vs. 2.01, p = 0.039).
There were no major differences regarding the importance of different course formats for bachelor’s students; all surveyed formats received similar importance ratings from them (mean ranging from 1.95 for interactive courses to 2.32 for online courses). Master’s students are clearly distinguished here; for them, interactive courses were most important (mean 1.74), while lectures (2.72) and online courses (3.11) received relatively low importance ratings. The latter two importance ratings exhibited significant differences between bachelor’s and master’s students (lectures 2.20 vs. 2.72, p = 0.009; online courses 2.32 vs. 3.11, p = 0.000).
While bachelor’s programs at the University of Graz are predominantly taught in the national language of German and mainly attract local students and students with German as their native language, the master’s programs related to sustainable development are predominantly taught in English and also attract international degree-seeking and exchange students. Especially in the international joint master’s programs, which are entirely taught in English, there is a high share of international students. We therefore also compared the answers of master’s students in local programs (n = 38) with the answers of master’s students in international programs (n = 15). In only five of the 27 survey items we found significant differences between these two groups; however, due to the small number of respondents, these differences only illustrate a tendency and shall be interpreted with care: flexibility with regards to course selection and specialization options was more important to students in international programs (1.20 vs. 1.63, p = 0.028); lectures as a course format were more important to students in the international programs (1.80 vs. 3.08, p = 0.000); with regards to language, teaching in English was obviously more important to the international students than to the local students (1.40 vs. 2.50, p = 0.001), and this preference reversed for teaching in German (4.07 vs. 2.92, p = 0.007); here, it can be observed that teaching in German was not seen as important in general, not even by the master’s students in local programs. One interesting observation, especially when considering the “internationalization at home” strategies promoted at the European level and implemented by HEIS, is how students perceived international classrooms. While the international classroom experience, with a high share of international students in class, was very important to the students in international programs, this seemed not to be the case for students in local programs (1.60 vs. 3.39, p = 0.000). The international and local students in the sustainable development programs shared several courses with each other, and therefore, both experienced an international classroom. However, the perception of how important such an experience is differed significantly.
The findings from open format questions in the survey underline the quantitative results. The respondents at the bachelor’s and master’s level predominantly rose one major theme, which was a strong desire for practice orientation in the courses and for preparation for the job market. Bachelor’s students who planned to continue with a master’s program stated that they “did not yet feel ready for the job market”. While some respondents criticized that the covered contents were too broad and sometimes lacked specialization options, others appreciated the broad opportunities regarding a future career and the relevance of the topics in the program.
Comments regarding international students in the classroom were mixed. Students in the joint master’s program appreciated the international setting, the interaction with students of different cultural backgrounds, and the mobility options within their programs. Mixing international students and local students definitely has benefits; it however also comes with challenges. One big challenge is the different backgrounds and different levels of pre-knowledge. While local master’s students went through several courses in complex systems sciences, international students sometimes lack this previous knowledge; this is a challenge for teachers who need to make sure that all participants can follow and understand the inputs, but also a challenge for student groups, when, e.g., in single cases, the more knowledgeable students feel that those with less pre-knowledge are free-riding in group assignments.
4.2. Insights from Access Statistics of Online Material
Moreover, detailed access statistics on the open access online learning materials indicated which topics in the branch of complex systems sciences were the most popular ones. Note that, due to the open access to these materials, these statistics do not necessarily reflect the interests and learning assignments of students in Graz, as a large part of textbook users seemed not to be attending a study program in Graz.
With an opt-out option, we implemented the analytics software Matomo (matomo.org, formerly known as piwik) in order to provide information about several aspects of the use and acceptance of the e-textbook. These statistics revealed for instance that, despite its rather specialized contents, the e-textbook had been visited by citizens from all over the world, apart from a few countries in Africa.
Since the e-textbook is used to support teaching at the University of Graz, the by far largest share of users accessed the textbook from Austria. Apart from the two foci points in Graz and the capital Vienna, users were spread over the entire country. The largest user groups from outside Austria came from other Western European countries (16.1%) and Northern America (15.8%); 6.1% of users accessed the textbook from Asia. Users from Middle and South America, Russia, Turkey, and Australia were a minority among the users (Table 2
). The e-textbook covers a variety of topics; Table 3
lists the 15 most frequently-accessed topics.