A screenshot of participants from around the world taking part in Sterling College’s “Surviving the Future” course.

“Think globally, act locally.” Sometimes seen on bumper stickers and T-shirts, It is the old adage that asks us to take action in our own communities as we strive to make improvements for the well-being of society and the planet. The sentiment is being brought to life at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, where this private, rural college is bringing 240 participants together from around to learn within its new EcoGather online learning platform. Students gain strategies for tackling global problems in their own communities.

Jorne Langelaan is tuning into the new course, offered through the EcoGather platform, called “Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time.” He signs on to the webinar-based course from the Netherlands, where he founded and operates EcoClipper, an environmentally friendly cargo shipping company that uses sailboats to reduce carbon emissions from shipping. Three times a week he joins 150 other students taking the same course from around the world, where they hear lectures from global leaders, take part in question and answer sessions with those experts, and together tackle different topics in small group breakout conversations.

Langelaan heard about the course from London-based activist Shaun Chamberlin, who is also the author of the book “Transition Timeline.”

“Very soon after hearing about the course, the lockdowns in the Netherlands started happening,” says Langelaan by email from his home. “But I still wanted to stay involved in community.” He says enrolling in the class provided him a chance to continue meeting people who care for our future, even while countries around the world went into lockdown.

Closer to home, Bailey Ray is an alumnus of Green Mountain College, and works in Vermont on preventing sexual and domestic abuse. A fellow Green Mountain alum posted about the course on social media, and Ray signed up.

Ray says that surviving the stay home orders during the coronavirus pandemic has been a solitary experience – Ray lives alone with a dog – and so Sterling’s EcoGather course offered a way to feel connected to other people, while also taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from well-known experts who are addressing societal problems.

“We are in profoundly strange times,” says Ray by email. “The level of uncertainty we face day to day has challenged all of us to live outside of the familiar comforts of routine, and I have needed to find creative ways to be in community with others.” The course, says Ray, created a global community of people who understand “the precipice we are on” — people who recognize the opportunity inherent in moments of crisis.

“We simply cannot continue on in the way we have for the past century, and this course has created a space for a diverse group of folks to envision a future with the potential for beauty and sustainability,” says Ray.

Indeed, as Ray and Langelaan have both experienced, the EcoGather platform is designed to turn traditional “distance learning” into place-based, community-focused education that is dedicated to the regeneration of ecosystems, communities, and local economies.

A recent news release from Sterling College announced a $1.5 million grant received by the school to help roll out this new platform. EcoGather staff are being hired, and eight additional core courses are being planned for the first of this three-year initiative. Communities in Vermont, Bhutan, India, Puerto Rico and England will collaborate with EcoGather staff to co-create online educational courses and tools that can best serve their specific needs and audiences around the world as they confront the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, and an extractive globalized economy. By year three, EcoGather will host 24 core courses that will be gifted to and adapted by each of the partner communities.

Philip Ackerman-Leist, Sterling’s dean of professional education and co-leader of the new “Surviving the Future” course, says by phone, “We all have different visions of what we’re up against,” referring to the global challenges the course is meant to address. “Some call it a wall, others a hurdle, a cliff, an abyss,” he says. Our planet, he contends, has been pushed the threshold of certain ecological boundaries, and there is potential for massive disruption to planetary and societal systems.

The course, says Ackerman-Leist, is part grieving these disruptions, but also is part finding paths forward in a collaborative way, which students can then turn with to their own communities to make meaningful change. The students, he says, especially love the small group breakout sessions, where they tackle different topics together with small groups of people from around the world.

“They love it, they just go berserk. The energy at the end is incredible,” he says of the benefit of collaborating in this way, and is obviously uplifted by witnessing it. The students have even gone on to create their own online video call sessions and are self-organizing among the group as they make connections around shared interests and geography.

Importantly, learning in this way provides access to higher education in communities that don’t have these resources. EcoGather furthers the original intent behind higher education, “to advance the common local good,” noted Sterling College President Matthew Derr in the recent news release about the grant that Sterling College received to support the EcoGather program.

Not only might these students not have access to higher education, says Derr, but they are even less likely to have access to resources “designed to foster our relationship with the natural world and address the effects of climate change.”

The EcoGather program also presents an innovative way to keep higher education thriving, especially at a time when small rural colleges are struggling.

In Vermont, a recent proposal by the former chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges system called for closing Northern Vermont University, with campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, and Vermont Technical College in Randolph, due to budgetary shortfalls. Though the proposal was withdrawn due to community outcry, the monetary challenges remain and the pandemic is exacerbating them.

Just as the world confronts both the coronavirus pandemic and economic pandemonium, and the American educational system struggles to transition to meaningful online education, Sterling College is poised to confront all three challenges simultaneously with the EcoGather program.

Said Ackerman-Leist, “I’ve been blown away by the diverse backgrounds and demographics of the participants, as well as their passionate expressions of need not just for the course content but also for the sense of community they’ve begun to build, even in the initial weeks of the course.”

He added, “As an educator, one doesn’t always encounter such a deep or immediate sense of gratitude from participants in a course — much less in an online course with participants spread across 17 countries.”

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