Helena Sjöberg wants to study the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the cultural life of Gothenburg.

New focus in two days

In mid-March, the Government of Sweden recommended that universities and university colleges should switch to distance education, and just like the other higher education institutions the University of Gothenburg quickly changed its teaching methods. However, in the case study course in sustainable development, they went one step further – changing the entire course to be about Covid-19.

Every year, the university of Gothenburg offers a course focusing on sustainability in which students study the opportunities and challenges at local and regional levels of working towards a sustainable society. The course is usually run in groups, but the switch to distance education forced a rethink. Andreas Skriver Hansen, researcher and teacher at the Department of Economy and Society, is the course coordinator:
“We found out that we would have to switch to distance education about a week and a half before the course was to start. We considered cancelling the course, but instead we started thinking about what we could do to keep it interesting for the students.”

That is when the idea of changing its focus was born. Everyone was talking about the novel coronavirus and its effects anyway, so why not let the students study that? Forty-eight hours later, the course content had been entirely rewritten and the students had been given a new course outline. They would now work alone rather in groups, and study the local and regional effects and consequences of government agencies’ strategies to reduce the spread of Covid-19, with a focus on sustainable development. These could be about ecological factors, but also economic or social factors.

“We weren’t sure whether the students would stay on in the course because the content wasn’t what they had initially signed up for, but everyone seems to be extremely engaged right now. I’m happy that we found a good way of continuing the course given the current situation,” says Andreas Skriver Hansen.

the students taking the course have various backgrounds in terms of subject area, and many of them come from other countries. But they all share an interest in sustainable development.

Helena Sjöberg’s background is in cultural geography, and she is studying the Master’s programme in geography.
“I chose the course because it seemed interesting to do a case study and work in groups on a sustainability challenge. Then it all changed, of course,” she says.

Despite it being a solo project and not the group work she had anticipated, she is happy with the course. She thinks that the course coordinator responded excellently to the circumstances, and the fact that the course is now highly topical made it even more interesting. As a cultural geographer, she is particularly interested in urban planning and residents’ relationships with a place. In her project, she wants to study the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the cultural life of Gothenburg.

“Cultural life is an essential part of the vitality of a city. I have decided to focus on the small music venues that are so closely associated with Gothenburg’s identity. Will they survive?”

tsai-wei tang, who is originally from Taiwan but has lived and studied in Sweden since August last year, has decided to focus her project on Swedish consumer behaviour during the Covid-19 crisis.

“People worldwide have started hoarding food, and I want to find out what type of food they are prioritising and which products they are no longer buying. Last, but not least, I also want to find out whether they switch to support locally produced food due to shortages of other foods, or whether they are shopping locally for other reasons. As this situation is unprecedented and we don’t know how long it will last, it would be interesting to find out what methods we can develop to ensure food supply and promote sustainable agriculture in Sweden.”

leah herrera is another of the students in the course who is not from Sweden but doesn’t count herself as an international student because she has been a permanent resident of Sweden with her family for a year. She says that she has a strong interest in sustainability and the circular economy and decided to take the course as she wants to add to her science studies and broaden her perspective.
“While studying my master’s I have felt a shift from wanting to know how our planet earth works, to how we should live on our planet.”

In her project, she has decided to study how Polestar, a Swedish electric car company, is managing the crisis from its factory in Chengdu, China, in comparison with its head office in Torslanda.
“I want to show a strong social and economic sustainability focus and an in-depth look at human resources, management and employee perspectives”.

the reason she decided to study a company is partly that she believes it is important to bridge the gap between academia and the economic world.
“This is a way for me to make academia useful to the corporate world and for me to understand more about industry – it’s an exchange”.

The case study course in sustainable development has always been a fairly unconventional course, with the results of the students’ projects adding value for the government agencies and companies involved. That is the idea this year too.
“The students are to work as if they were preparing a consultancy report, functioning like professional consultants. It is also good training for their Master’s thesis to be able to manage having so much time at their disposal and choosing the right focus, materials and methods,” says Andreas Skriver Hansen.

How is it going with distance education?
Helena Sjöberg thinks it has worked better than expected. Both lectures and supervision sessions are held via Zoom, as were the interviews she conducted with representatives from the business community.
“It’s a pain not being able to actually come to the University campus. The environments are often inspiring, and you meet with your classmates. But it works to study from home, even if it is a bit more difficult to maintain discipline,” says Helena Sjöberg.

Tsai-wei Tang thinks that the advantage of distance education is that being able to organise your time differently. The challenge is holding discussions with others online without some remaining silent.
“It’s hard to talk to people without looking them in the eye!”

for leah herrera, the challenge has been that there is no natural end to the working day and she has nowhere to go for a change of scene.
“I’ve already lost motivations  for just going for a walk. This is still ok- ish because I need to put in lots of effort with study anyway. ”

The course is running during the spring semester and the results will be reported in connection with the examination on 5 June.

Sustainable development: A case study

why? The course is an interdisciplinary course in environmental science, and the aim is for the students to gain a greater understanding of sustainable development as a complex phenomenon.

who takes it? The course is provided at second-cycle level and is included in the Master’s programme in environmental science and the Master’s programme in geography. But it can also form part of other Master’s programmes. It is also available as a freestanding course.

 how? The course is a collaboration between the Department of Earth Sciences, the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, the Department of Economy and Society and the Gothenburg Research Institute (GRI).