Top marks for ecosystems course

The first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) to focus on the ecosystem approach and systems thinking, which ran for several months at the end of 2016, was a great success, according to UN Environment’s final evaluation report.

  • The MOOC attracted more than 3,117 registrants from around the world. In addition, 284 students registered for the Advanced Certificate.
  • More than 50% of the course traffic appears to be originating from the following continents: North America (23%), Africa (12%), Asia (10%), Europe (6%), and Oceania (2%).
  • 60% of the users were females and 40% males. In addition, 35% of users had an average age of 25-34.
  • 72% of the population who took this particular MOOC were employed either full-time, part-time, or self-employed.
  • Around 80% of the users had completed a high level of education (Bachelor, Masters, or Doctorate Degree).
  • The MOOC’s initial offering achieved skyrocket student satisfaction ratings, with more than 96% of survey respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing that this course was overall excellent, and more than 98% agreeing or strongly agreeing that they would recommend this course to others due to their increase in knowledge after having taken the course.
  • Most learners intend to use their newly acquired knowledge in their studies, workplace, and/or future career.

Entitled Wicked Problems, Dynamic solutions: The Ecosystem Approach and Systems Thinking, the course was disseminated through the Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability, UN Environment’s flagship programme on university engagement in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Course participants fully engaged with the course and had this to say:

“This MOOC stands out from the crowd, as it clearly delineates the importance of systems thinking and non-linearity in addressing today's problems… The value of combining a multi-dimensional and collaborative approach in analyzing wicked problems and implementing solutions cannot be overemphasized.” (An environmental teacher in Morocco).

“After finishing the first two modules, I am quite impressed on how this MOOC recognized the role of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities and incorporated all knowledge systems including indigenous and local knowledge in the formulation of this course. I am working in an organization working for the respect, protection and fulfillment of Indigenous Peoples' rights and development and I am very happy that somehow IPs capacity to manage their environment is being promoted here. (June, Philippines)

“It's a great and unique moment for all of us. I'm graduated in Business Management, with high interest in Climate Change Environmental Law and Policy. My focus has been in how we can influence people, community positively on a daily basis!? Improved practices connect to improved behaviors. Private sector is key, changing approaches, not for their products or services, but showing how passionate and ethical leaders can changes things for better. This is just the beginning, couldn't be happier and motivated in sharing, learning from each one of you. Thank you UNEP, Concordia University Montreal. Best Regards.” (Fabio Porto, Brazil)

Lake Tele, Congo © Johannes Refisch, UN Environment


Why a course on the ecosystem approach?

We live in a complex and dynamic world. Many problems we face today involve interdependent structures, multiple actors, and are at least partly the result of past actions. Such problems are extremely difficult to tackle and conventional solutions have very often led to unintended consequences.

A systems thinking approach focuses on systems as a whole: how the parts interrelate and how interconnections create emerging patterns. Systems thinking tools allow us to map and explore dynamic complexity. With a better understanding of systems, we can identify leverage points that lead to desired outcomes and avoid unintended consequences.

Environmental problems are often described as “wicked problems” to highlight their complexity and the difficulties they entail. Finding answers to current crises such as fisheries collapse, climate change, biodiversity loss, infectious diseases, and inequitable access to resources will be among the greatest challenges of our time. The ecosystem approach can help us identify potential solutions to a myriad of problems inspired in part by the complex dynamics of ecosystems themselves.

This and other courses developed by UN Environment support the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal Target 4.7, which focuses on education for sustainable development, and specifies:

“By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

For more information, please contact:

Jaime Webbe, Jaime Webbe [at]