Global Online Course Taught by Jeffrey Sachs to Focus on 'The Age of Sustainable Development'

Free 14-Week Class Will Begin on Jan. 21


Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs will launch a free, global, online course this month, called “The Age of Sustainable Development.” The course aims to spread to an international audience a broader understanding of the need for economic development that is socially inclusive and also protects the environment.

The course will be part of a more general education program of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), an initiative launched by the UN secretary-general to mobilize scientific and technical expertise from academia, civil society and the private sector to support problem-solving for sustainable development. Sachs directs the SDSN.

The 14-week, university-level course begins on Jan. 21 and will run through the spring. It is being offered through Coursera, a company that works with universities to make free courses available online. (Those interested in joining the course can register here.) The course is open to anyone interested in the field of sustainable development, including students and development professionals working in government, corporations and non-profit organizations. 

“As a method of helping to save the world, sustainable development encourages a holistic approach to human well-being, one that includes economic progress, strong social bonds, and environmental sustainability,” Sachs said in an oped piece published on the website Project Syndicate. “The challenges are becoming more urgent as the large and rapidly growing world economy causes massive environmental destruction, and as new technologies demand new skills. Young people without the appropriate training and skills are likely to find few opportunities for decent jobs and incomes.”

The course is designed as an advanced undergraduate-level introduction to the most challenging question facing our generation: how the world economy can evolve in ways that are socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. The course discusses the complex interplay between the economy and our planet's physical environment, as well as the consequences of human activities on the planet's environment. It discusses the history of economic development, patterns of growth, poverty in its different forms, basic elements of human development including health and education, and the links with food systems, climate change, and managing our ecosystems. 

“Jeff’s online course developed for an expansive international audience will be a valuable guidepost in Columbia’s ongoing efforts in online, distance and digital learning,” said University President Lee C. Bollinger. “While the role of such online courses in higher education continues to evolve based on the experience of faculty and students both on and off-campus, this is one of the ways that Columbia—and our Earth Institute—can advance our core mission of educating a new generation of leaders from around the world to address society’s most urgent problems.”

“We're delighted at the chance to work with Columbia University to bring some of its important content online and make it available to all,” said Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera. “Jeffrey Sachs is one of the foremost experts in sustainable development and the fight against poverty, an advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and, now, a professor to Coursera students across the globe looking to understand and study some of the most important issues facing our world today.”

Thousands of individual students from around the world have signed up for the course, and many universities are offering entire courses of their own based on “The Age of Sustainable Development.”

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network grew out of a drive by the world’s governments to establish a new set of Sustainable Development Goals to steer the course of economic development beyond the year 2015. Those goals would follow upon the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, established in 2000 to fight poverty, hunger and disease, expand primary education and encourage gender equality in the world’s poorest nations. The Sustainable Development Goals are expected to continue the effort to eliminate extreme poverty, and to address challenges in energy, food, water, climate, jobs and urbanization.

One of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s key objectives is to reach students all over the world by developing and disseminating online curriculum materials, such as the new course Sachs is teaching.

With new information technologies, Sachs said, “courses can now incorporate a lot more information – data, videos and even live chats with experts halfway around the world. More and more people worldwide can access free, high-quality educational materials that previously were available only to a lucky few. This is especially important today, because the challenges of sustainable development will require knowledgeable and educated citizens everywhere.”

Jeffrey Sachs will conduct an “Ask me anything” session on Reddit today at noon.