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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Mouton December 6, 2022

Data-driven and research-based learning approaches to environmental education in university contexts: two case studies in Italy and Germany

  • Vanessa Marcella ORCID logo EMAIL logo and Yuliya Samofalova ORCID logo


This work is a contribution to the usefulness of climate-related authentic material for pedagogical purposes in Higher Education. The two case studies had the aim of raising environmental awareness of a sustainable future among university students, while encouraging them to explore language use and draw their own conclusions and considerations through different methodologies. Specifically, we highlight how posts from the social networking platform Instagram can help learners with different levels of language proficiency in Higher Education, approach specific topics using authentic language samples and visual data, and simultaneously develop new skills that may be integrated within their field of study. The case studies occurred in a distance learning context at the University of Calabria and Humboldt University of Berlin. They present two possible ways of increasing climate change awareness among university students while applying data-driven and research-based learning interdisciplinary approaches to climate change communication.

1 Introduction

Climate change has become one of the most important challenges in the 21st century. This issue, considered as influenced by anthropogenic processes, has become an increasingly prominent social problem (Born 2019; Halliday 2001; Pezzullo and Cox 2018). The platform society we live in provides citizens all over the world with access to information directly from the source. However, the greatest divergence about climate change lies in the multitude of contrasting messages we receive and in the different ways we interpret them (Hulme 2009). In this context, environmental education including sustainable development and climate change literacies has become an established goal for higher institutions in Europe (Molthan-Hill et al. 2019).

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change introduced seventeen sustainable development goals (IPCC 2018). Within the list of these goals, Target 13.3 seeks to “improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning” (UNESCO 2021: 8). In order to achieve these goals, researchers propose innovative interdisciplinary approaches to environmental education and its challenges. In fact, environmental education is a multifaceted and evolving notion. It was defined in the 1960s as education aiming at producing “a citizenry that is knowledgeable concerning the biophysical environment and its associated problems, aware of how to help solve these problems, and motivated to work toward their solution” (Stapp 1969: 32). Environmental education has evolved from a focus on natural science to social and political sciences (Johnson and Mappin 2005). Currently, it is seen in a broad context, including education for sustainable development (Jickling and Wals 2008) and climate change education (Anderson 2012), which both support a model of environmentally responsible citizens (Hungerford and Volk 1990).

In this paper, we present two case studies related to teaching languages and communication by applying data-driven and research-based learning approaches as two possible effective strategies to environmental education in a university context. The paper is divided into six sections. As illustrated above, the first one provides a general introduction to sustainable development and climate change literacies. Section 2 outlines a theoretical review of the strategies which can be efficiently applied to environmental education. Section 3 describes the case studies, their contexts, aims, and students’ work. Section 4 focuses on the findings from students’ feedback. Section 5 offers further discussions and suggestions. The final section provides the limitations of the case studies and proposes future implications within University programs and Language Centers.

2 Data-driven and research-based learning approaches as strategies to environmental education

Several education strategies have been proposed to foster environmental education at different levels. For instance, an outdoor interdisciplinary approach can be efficient for environmental and sustainability education in Higher Education institutions (Lugg 2007). Another study suggested a framework for environmental education strategies, including formal and nonformal education strategies in order to inform students, build their understanding of the subject, improve their skills and enable sustainable actions (Monroe et al. 2008). More recent research has proved that environmental and climate change literacy can be taught using integrated, cross-discipline curricula (Anderson 2012). To provide this integrated cross-discipline environment, such pedagogies of participation as data-driven learning (henceforth DDL) or research-based learning (hereafter RBL) can be used for environmental education in Higher Education programs.

The DDL approach is a language teaching strategy, which uses corpus data that cannot be found in a dictionary, grammar or course book as language-learning materials (Chambers 2010). As pointed out by Johns (2002: 108), using a DDL approach confronts students directly with the data which makes “the learner a linguistic researcher”. Indeed, as an inductive approach, it fosters the “ability to see patterning in the target language and to form generalizations” about how the language is used (Johns 1991: 2). As Gavioli and Aston (2001) argue, corpora may also be considered as resources from which learners can learn directly. We rely on the definition of corpus by McEnery et al. (2006: 5) as “a collection of machine-readable authentic texts”.

A lot of research on corpus-based teaching has been carried out, most of it focusing on teaching grammar. Johns (1991) highlighted three main steps within the inductive and exploratory approach characteristic of DDL: observation of concordance lines, classification of main features and generalization of rules. This approach was suggested for teaching and learning grammar; however, we believe it can be implemented in language learning in general.

The main principle of RBL is that students are actively engaged in conducting a research project while being guided by a teacher. However, the division of roles between teacher and student is minimized (Healey 2005). Students “(co-)shape, experience and reflect the process of a research project” (Huber 2009: 11). Concurrently research and learning processes enhance students’ knowledge and understanding of the subject (Lambert 2009). RBL comprises the following “substantial phases”: development of research questions and hypotheses, the choice and application of research methodologies, examination of the research data, presentation of the findings (Huber 2009).

Previous studies have proved that RBL can be an efficient form of education for natural sciences, such as geography (Walkington et al. 2011), physics (Liu and Li 2011), engineering (Blume et al. 2015), health (Sota and Peltzer 2017). Less research has been carried out on applying RBL strategies for social sciences. Kazura and Tuttle (2010) recommended employing RBL for psychology-related disciplines. Hence, RBL for studying other social sciences such as languages and communication deserves further investigation.

Briefly, RBL focuses on analyzing any type of data and conducting research in general, whereas a DDL approach is based on analyzing primarily written and spoken corpora in order to improve a student’s language skills. These pedagogical strategies do however have some characteristics in common. Firstly, they are both based on inductive learning by analyzing corpus data. This learning by doing technique draws on the fact that students learn best when they are directly involved in the learning process, are free to set their learning objectives, and directly acquire knowledge (Smith 1980). Secondly, students are actively and autonomously involved in a research process, from finding and collecting the data to analyzing them. Finally, in both approaches the teacher has the role of facilitator, who guides the research towards transformation. The advantage of both approaches lies in the fact that they can enable educators to overcome the challenges of environmental and climate change education as described by Pruneau et al. (2010).

3 Case studies

The motivation for comparing the case studies presented is related to the teachers’ academic backgrounds and affiliations. In the winter semester 2021–2022, both teachers conducted their research on climate change communication at the University of Louvain. Concurrently, they were teaching online classes of languages and communication at the University of Calabria and Humboldt University of Berlin (HU Berlin). As PhD candidates working on similar projects and involved in teaching related subjects, the authors decided to compare and interpret the outcomes of their case studies, which they planned and taught for the first time. Sections 3.1 and 3.2 set out the contexts of the two courses, their aims and students’ outcomes.

The first case study shows how environmental education was included in a core subject of English for Specific Purposes at the University of Calabria. The second case study presents an elective course focused on analyzing environmental communication at HU Berlin. Although the courses were taught in a distance learning mode, it was possible to make the topic tangible by analyzing current and actual data retrieved from Instagram, which is one of the most popular social networks (Statista Research Department 2022).

Instagram was also chosen for the multiple forms of communication it offers: texts, images, videos, which can be retrieved and analyzed with the help of computational tools. In addition, the narrative techniques and various types of visuals which are published on this social media can influence individuals’ attitudes to climate change (Niepold et al. 2008). They can also influence people’s emotions about the issue, such as increasing hope and decreasing fear and anger in some cases (Feldman and Hart 2018). It was therefore important to focus the research on the communication spread by organizations and individuals who actively post messages on climate change and sustainability on Instagram in order to include more audiences in the debate (Enke and Borchers 2019).

3.1 Case study 1 – Italy

3.1.1 Background of the study and University context

Students’ involvement, while attending an English for Specific Purposes course, might provide different insights into the process of examining climate-related topics. Indeed, within the nature of the degree course per se, topics such as corporate social responsibility and sustainable development should already be foregrounded in the curriculum. Specifically, this case study focuses on a DDL approach to language learning using authentic material in order to enable students to analyze real language. It describes how students carried out hands-on activities using a corpus created by themselves with reference to climate change and sustainable development.

This case study occurred in a distance learning context with a group of 18 first year Master’s students majoring in Data Science and Business Analytics at the University of Calabria. The students were expected to have at least a B1 level (Common European Framework of Reference, Council of Europe (2018), henceforth CEFR), achieved during their Bachelor’s degree course while attending courses of English for Basic Academic Skills provided by the University Language Center (CLA Unical).

The 42-hour course of English focused on the development of academic skills and aimed at expanding the students’ knowledge of the main elements of spoken and written discourse in English, with particular reference to the field of Statistics and Economics. They were also encouraged to develop critical and creative thinking as well as to improve reading and listening skills, oral production and interaction skills through group work and presentations on academic topics. By the end of the course, the students were expected to reach at least a B2 level of language competence. In order to reach this objective, they were encouraged to monitor their learning process referring to the CEFR grid (Council of Europe 2018) throughout the whole course with three self-assessment phases.

3.1.2 Aims of the course

From a pedagogical point of view, this course aimed at finding a common ground among (a) the students’ language learning objectives, (b) statistical analyses with corpus tools, (c) the social networking service Instagram, and (d) awareness-raising of crucial topics such as climate change, climate justice, and sustainable development. The choice of topics derives from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The ultimate goal was to challenge students directly with the data and make them become linguistic researchers and analysts-by adopting the DDL method. Specifically, the students were encouraged to investigate the communicative strategies of some companies by addressing their Instagram posts about climate change and sustainability. Hands-on activities allowed them to create their own corpus, analyze language use through the corpus analysis toolkit AntConc (3.5.8), and carry out a topic framing. As a final assignment, they were asked to work on a final project individually, submit a report about their project, and then discuss and present their findings at the oral exam.

3.1.3 Students’ research projects and results

Within the project, the suggested research questions were (1) How do companies address climate change and sustainability in their Instagram posts? (2) What are the communicative strategies adopted by the two selected companies? To address the research questions, students conducted research projects individually which included the following steps: becoming familiar with the topic, AntConc training, identification of national and international companies and manual collection of the data posted on Instagram, data adaptation and encoding, data analysis, and final presentation.

The first step of the research work was for the students to become acquainted with the topic through authentic and updated materials. In fact, many articles and videos used in class referred to current events related to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26). The topics were related to the reduction of emissions and of global temperature, the transition to clean energy and the investment in renewables, the protection of communities and natural habitats, youth involvement and empowerment. Simultaneously, students were trained to use AntConc and provided with the guidelines.

In order to create the corpus for each research project, instructions were provided on what the corpus should represent, from which source and within which time frame. Specifically, the students were asked to choose two Instagram accounts of national or international companies, select twenty-four posts related to climate change for each profile in a year and retrieve the written content of the posts manually. The texts were to be saved in plain text files and be traceable to the source, i.e. who wrote it and when. This allowed students to learn how to encode a corpus.

The main focus of the next step was on the analysis of concordances and collocations related to climate change and sustainability, thus the identification of word meaning and collocational use, while comparing and contrasting the results obtained between the two accounts. Indeed, research questions referred to the discovery of the most frequent patterns of language use in relation to climate change and sustainability, and to the identification of the companies’ sustainable strategies. In particular, students had to take into account word types and word tokens and the word frequency lists, and then discover patterns using the concordance tool in order to identify how words and phrases were used in the corpus. Through this software tool, they analyzed words that co-occurred most frequently with statistical significance. Finally, the framing analysis was meant to identify the most salient aspects of climate change within the posts. The frames of reference were based on the literature review of two major studies (Jang and Hart 2015; Painter et al. 2018), adapted by the students based on a preliminary content analysis of a sample from their corpora.

For their final projects, students analyzed and compared the posts of specific companies according to personal interest or curiosity in compliance with the suggested research questions. The chosen companies were Colgate Palmolive and Procter & Gamble, Lavazza and Illy caffé, Save the Duck and Timberland, Adidas and Id-eight, Samsung and Nokia, Unilever and Nestlé, 3Bee and Treedom, Coca-Cola PepsiCo, Danone and Nestlé, Amazon and Ecosia, Amour Vert and Mother of Pearl, Enelx and Engie.

As reported in the students’ research projects, the content of the posts was either a call to action or merely informative. The most frequent collocations detected in the posts, analyzed through the software and illustrated both in their reports and in their oral presentations, are reported in Table 1. According to the students’ reports, these collocations draw attention to how companies include awareness of ecological issues in their communication strategy for the promotion of their products, highlighting the eco-friendliness of materials and their sustainable manufacturing.

Table 1:

Most frequent collocations in students’ corpora.

Carbon neutrality, emissions
Circular economy
Climate change, challenge
Eco- friendly, innovation, conscious
Energy supply, mix, transition
Environmental footprint
Sustainable future, style, sale, sensibility, cultivation, work, goals
Zero carbon, waste

The submission of written reports and oral discussions of analyses, findings and conclusions promoted a productive use of new words and collocates, the acquisition of new concepts, and the development of critical thought about the topic. The students also showed they had improved their language competence achieving at least a B2 level.

During the first exam session, the students were asked to fill in a feedback form with their reflections and evaluations about the course, the tools and the topic. As a result, 12 students from the University of Calabria took part in the first exam session and participated in the feedback survey. The results of the survey are illustrated in Section 4.

3.2 Case study 2 – Germany

3.2.1 Background of the study and University context

The elective course taught at the HU Berlin was called CC-Instagram, i.e. Climate Communication Instagram. This course was a Q-Team project, organized between the European University Alliance Circle-U, including the HU Berlin, the University of Louvain and seven other European Universities. Q-Teams are aimed at providing RBL environments and opportunities for students to participate in current research projects that are not already represented or reflected in the curriculum.

As a part of Q-Teams, the CC-Instagram was an elective seminar adapted for Bachelor and Master students from various disciplines of Social Sciences and IT. The course comprised 16 weekly seminars, each lasting 90-minutes, and took place online. The seminars were taught in English, as all the group work, which was the students’ L2. In order to enroll, participants were required to have a minimum B2 level of English. By the end of the seminars, the students were expected to learn about environmental and climate change communication by carrying out an interdisciplinary research project.

In sum, the 8 Bachelor and 14 Master students who completed the course were from the following degree programs: Information Sciences (8), Geography (3), Art History (2), Global Change Geography (2), Sociology (2), American Studies (1), Biology (1), Cultural Studies (1), Innovation Management and Sustainability (1), Integrated Natural Resource Management (1). The course completion required 80% of attendance and active contribution to the research project.

3.2.2 Aims of the course

As a RBL seminar, the CC-Instagram course focused on students working autonomously, which led to learning about digital climate change communication by conducting a group research project. The main aims of the course were (a) developing the students’ competences within communication research on social media data, (b) improving their skills in visualizing quantitative and qualitative data, (c) encouraging them to work in teams, (d) raising awareness about climate change. Although language learning was not one of the main goals, the students had the opportunity to improve their reading, listening, writing, and oral production skills in English through different research activities.

The students of the CC-Instagram seminars were encouraged to conduct a research project in small groups focusing on analyzing communication spread by environmental opinion leaders or opinion leading organizations in order to identify the patterns and tendencies in climate change communication on Instagram. As a final assignment, the students were asked to provide reports of their group projects and to present the results in an oral form during the last seminar.

3.2.3 Students’ research projects and results

Within the CC-Instagram seminars, the following Research Questions were proposed to the students: (1) What are the patterns and tendencies concerning the most influential social media publications of opinion leaders on CC mitigation in Europe? (2) How are these multimodal publications interpreted by the audiences? To address these research questions, the students conducted research projects in small groups of two or three. Each project comprised the following steps: identifying the opinion leader for further analysis, addressing the research questions, data collection, data adaptation, data annotation, data analyses, data visualization, presentation of final results.

The seminars drew on an inductive mixed-method approach. Before conducting the project, the students were guided by theoretical discussions, which allowed them to understand new fields of study, as Media Studies, Ecolinguistics, Environmental Communication, and research designs. The groups were then asked to choose an influential, opinion leading Instagram account on climate change in Europe, after which they contextualized and adapted the main research questions of the course to the data they had chosen for their project. An introductory seminar on automatic data collection from Instagram helped them understand basic principles of data scraping and ethical principles of the research. The datasets for the projects were further collected by the students with the help of a computational tool Instaloader during one of the seminars.

The next steps included the creation of coding categories for visual content analysis as described by Rose (2016) and the coding of the publications followed by their detailed analysis. The most popular Instagram posts from climate change opinion leaders and their audiences’ responses were examined through the prism of multimodal discourse analysis (Kress 2012). Some groups also conducted a content analysis of the textual publications (Pramana et al. 2021) studying word frequencies and n-grams with the Sketch Engine tool. To visualize the results of quantitative and qualitative analyses, the groups used Excel and R. All the steps of the research work presented proceeded during the seminar with a small amount of additional work afterwards.

To resume the outcomes of the CC-Instagram course projects, the students chose the following Instagram accounts for their analyses: @nabu, @sea_shepherd_germany, @indigenousclimateaction, @vanessanakate, @luisaneubauer, @exdeutschland, @seaturtlebiologist, @350org. Most of the works focused on politicization of climate change discourse disseminated by environmental organizations. For example, the students’ works showed the high level of activity of German environmental opinion leaders in August 2021. In addition to this, almost all the groups focused on analyzing visual thematic frames as defined by O’Neill and Smith (2014) of climate change communication, such as impacts, causes, protests, solutions, science and technology, and weather. They discovered that the impacts and causes of climate change are the most frequent topics among opinion leaders on Instagram. Furthermore, two researches proved that anger is the most presented emotion in Instagram publications of opinion leaders. However, the most engaging content published by opinion leaders is memes about climate change.

The outputs of the research projects were presented during the final seminar in an academic conference format: 10 min for presentation followed by 5 min Question-Answer session. Preparing for the conference presentation and the conference itself promoted a development of critical thinking about the subject, as well as English speaking and writing skills. Finally, 22 students completed the course, and eight research projects were elaborated in groups of 2–4 people. After the final seminar, the students asked to complete a feedback form, the results of which are presented in the following section.

4 Outcomes of the case studies: students’ feedback and comments

At the end of the two courses, the students were asked to fill in a feedback form (Appendix 1 Project Feedback form). In total 15 students from HU Berlin and 12 from the University of Calabria completed the form anonymously. The questionnaire included a set of statements, which were evaluated according to the Likert scale – strongly agree, agree, undecided, disagree, strongly disagree (Batterton and Hale 2017) – with reference to the following topics: course evaluation, the user-friendliness of the software, the topic of climate change, and the social network Instagram. The purpose of the feedback was to carry out a comparative cross-case analysis.

As shown in Figure 1, with reference to the course evaluation section of the survey, it can be seen that most of the students from the HU Berlin and the University of Calabria enjoyed carrying out a research project, more precisely, 80% of the German and 91.7% of the Italian students. The second statement from Figure 1 relating to the improvement of the students’ level of English was only asked of the Italian students, who confirmed that their level of English had improved by the end of the course. More than two thirds of the German students confirmed the clarity of the guidelines provided throughout the course. On the other hand, all of the Italian students agreed on the clarity of the guidelines. The difference in answers between the German and Italian students can be explained by the context of the courses. In fact, the CC-Instagram class was made up of students with different academic backgrounds from different Departments, the course at the University of Calabria was addressed to students of the same degree course.

Figure 1: 
Students’ feedback on the course (in percentage).
Figure 1:

Students’ feedback on the course (in percentage).

As reported in Figure 2, the first statement of the second section refers to the user-friendliness of the software, i.e. Sketch Engine and AntConc. 58.3% of the Italian students strongly agreed, 25% agreed and 16.7% were undecided about the user-friendliness of AntConc. whereas slightly more than half of the German students agreed about the user-friendliness of Sketch Engine. In addition, all the Italian students agreed that the software added further knowledge to their studies (33.3% strongly agree, 66.7% agree). Since Sketch Engine was introduced to all the students of the CC-Instagram seminars, but used only in four out of eight projects, we can suggest that the guidelines or the practical use of the tool were not clearly described by the teacher. Finally, in both cases two thirds of the students agreed that the corpus approach could be used for other research related to statistical analysis.

Figure 2: 
Students’ feedback on the user-friendliness of the software (in percentage).
Figure 2:

Students’ feedback on the user-friendliness of the software (in percentage).

Figure 3 illustrates the results of the third section relating to the topic, i.e. climate change. All the German students agreed to a different extent on climate change as an important topic, which must be discussed. In the Italian context, 83.4% agreed, 8.3% were undecided and 8.3% disagreed. In an attempt to assess whether students were already engaged in environmental issues, they were asked how aware they were before the course. Only 13.3% of the German students were undecided about the statement, the others strongly agreed or agreed. On the other hand, 16.7% of the Italian students strongly agreed, 66.7% agreed, 8.3% were undecided, and 8.3% disagreed. In order to assess how the course might have sensitized them, the students were asked if they had become more aware of environmental problems by the end of the course. Only 20% of the German students strongly agreed and 33.3% agreed. For the same statement, all the Italian students agreed to a different extent with this statement. As for the last statement of the section, while 26.7% of the German students were undecided whether they had become more active and careful about climate change, only 8.3% of Italian students were undecided on this point.

Figure 3: 
Students’ feedback on climate change perception (in percentage).
Figure 3:

Students’ feedback on climate change perception (in percentage).

The last two statements shown in Figure 4 refer to the social network used to retrieve their data, i.e. Instagram. Both Italian and German students mostly agree on the fact that Instagram is an influential social network. The same is related to the usefulness of Instagram for disseminating information.

Figure 4: 
Students’ feedback on Instagram (in percentage).
Figure 4:

Students’ feedback on Instagram (in percentage).

Overall, most students from both universities enjoyed the courses and the project. They found the guidelines clear and might be willing to use this type of approach in the future. However, considering the numbers, the German students seemed to be more aware of environmental issues before the course, while Italian students showed a greater involvement after the course. These apparent differences might be explained by cultural and sociological differences between the two countries.

5 Discussion

The findings discussed in the previous sections, underline the importance of including DDL and RBL in university curricula and Language Centers. These teaching and learning approaches can contribute to students’ motivation to pursue future research, increase their language proficiency level and awareness about climate change.

Considering the students’ feedback on the courses, it is clear that they enjoyed the learning process by doing research work on environmental communication. Both approaches, DDL and RBL, can be seen as valid motivation drivers. Moreover, these approaches are also effective for learning a language. The ability to self-assess the language competences and reflections on research work included in the research process, as shown in case study 1, are fruitful ways with which to improve knowledge, understanding and ability to communicate in English.

The role of providing clear guidelines was highlighted in both case studies. Although DDL and RBL minimize the teacher’s role in the research process, it is still extremely important to support students with more detailed explanations. To do so, particular attention should be paid to the education level of participants in mixed groups of Bachelor and Master students. To guarantee enough supportive information for the course and ensure students are within the research process flow, we propose teachers evaluate students’ feedback frequently. The course syllabus should then be adapted before starting a new research step. Feedback evaluation can help to better understand students’ needs and improve the quality of the learning process and the implementation of different learning strategies.

As pointed out by Aston (1997: 62), working with small corpora “may provide training for a proper use of large ones, allowing a clearer understanding of what a corpus is and what is involved in using it”. In both case studies, applying software tools to corpus-based research was considered a useful competence for students’ future studies and research work. In light of this, we believe that even small corpus-based research projects can contribute significantly to students’ autonomy and develop their transversal skills. Consequently, DDL and RBL approaches to learning languages and communication should be considered in university curricula and educational programs in Language Centers.

As interdisciplinary approaches, DDL and RBL contribute significantly to climate change awareness. Using recent authentic materials about climate change and sustainability provides information about relevant issues and increases students’ understanding of the problem, its context, and suggestions of possible resolutions. One of the possible solutions includes adapting pro-environmental behavior on students’ individual level, as the majority of them confirmed they were more active and careful about climate change in future.

To understand more fully the reasons why students raised their awareness or were “undecided”, we recommend including some open questions in future seminars of this type. For instance, Why are you more/less aware about climate change after this course? What actions are you planning to do to mitigate climate change consequences? These questions may provide the interpretation of the differences between more awareness about climate change of the German students before the course and better involvement of the Italian students after it.

The results of students’ feedback on Instagram and its role for disseminating information, described in Section 4, confirm the popularity and influence of this social network and can be used as a starting point for developing another DDL or RBL seminar.

Other suggestions concerning the application of DDL and RBL approaches to learning languages and communications include involving other types of media data. Students can collect data for their research from online newspapers, official websites of environmental organizations, and other social networks such as Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube. Moreover, the choice of the media type may also relate to students’ interests and preferences.

6 Limitations and future implications

As defined by Dewey (2007: 59), education is “reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience”. The educational experience here is mostly conceived as how we perceive and understand the world and how we act in it. It also relates to the meaning we make and the solutions we discover (Ord 2012). Our intent was to describe two possible ways of promoting environmental education in university contexts making students become more informed and aware of a sustainable future. This can be challenging, particularly in the context of online education during the COVID-19 crisis, since staying at home and, therefore, disconnecting from nature can limit awareness of climate change related issues.

Both case studies led students to focus on the communicative functions of the posts retrieved from Instagram, on the meanings conveyed, and the strategies adopted by the meaning-makers. Bouman et al. (2021) emphasized that motivating individual climate action can be achieved by making people aware that others strongly value the environment and sustainable development. We attempted to encourage students to become observers and interpreters of a global issue which requires the engagement of all, especially younger generations, providing an opportunity to improve environmental behavior while adopting a more climate-friendly and sustainable lifestyle.

Due to the limitations of these case studies – only two groups in two countries were observed – it is not possible to draw general conclusions based on the outcomes presented. The results and conclusions should be seen more as exploratory than general. Nevertheless, we suggest that DDL and RBL learning approaches can be effectively applied as strategies to environmental education on different levels and within different disciplines. Conducting a small research project within the scope of DDL and RBL approaches can develop not only research or language skills, but also other transferable competences such as teamwork, communication, and use of computational tools.

To conclude, authentic materials acquired by students from social media can function as a motivation factor to learn languages from “real” contexts. It can also contribute to students’ interest in such topics as climate change, sustainability, or climate justice and, therefore, raise awareness about these problems. We believe Language Centers and Universities can transform and adapt the course programs presented in Bachelor’s or Master’s programs in order to introduce environmental education into their curricula more efficiently. From the teachers’ perspective, conducting DDL or RBL courses involving students with different backgrounds might provide useful insights to understand what environmental education is and how it can be distributed and fostered across universities to make it a foregrounded curriculum. Specifically, these two approaches are effective within Language and Communication Studies in promoting sustainable literacy, in line with UNESCO’s educational objectives.

Corresponding author: Vanessa Marcella, Università della Calabria, Rende, Italy, E-mail:

Appendix 1: Project Feedback form

Please select the relevant box that best represents your opinion about your exam project.

Questions Strongly agree Agree Undecided Disagree Strongly disagree
  1. I enjoyed carrying out this project.

  1. This project was useful to improve my English language learning.

  1. The guidelines were clear.

  1. The software was user-friendly.

  1. It has added further knowledge to my studies.

  1. I would like to use this methodology for other research related to statistical analysis.

  1. Climate change is an important topic that must be discussed.

  1. Before this course I was aware of environmental problems.

  1. Now I am more aware of environmental problems.

  1. I am going to be more active and careful about climate change.

  1. Instagram is an influential social network.

  1. Instagram helps to disseminate information.

  1. Further comments: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________Thank you for your time!


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Received: 2022-03-13
Accepted: 2022-08-20
Published Online: 2022-12-06
Published in Print: 2022-10-26

© 2022 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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