Donald J. Patterson

A Report from an Online Course on Global Disruption and Information Technology

A Report from an Online Course on Global Disruption and Information Technology

“A Report from an Online Course on Global Disruption and Information Technology” accepted for publication in LIMITS 2016

Bill Tomlinson, Bonnie Nardi and I piloted an online undergraduate course with UC Irvine centered on the idea of “Global Disruption and Information Technology.”  We wanted to give students a framework to think about climate change, peak oil, and sustainability with an eye toward making progress as a society in fixing these problems.  As technologists we wanted to do this by leveraging technology.  This is tricky though because these problems aren’t going to be solved with “an app”.  It’s even tricky to formulate them as “problems” which necessarily have “solutions”  when they perhaps are better framed as “predicaments” (h/t Six Silberman).  Although it would be great if software could pull us through these challenges, it’s likely only going to be an important part of the fix.

We published this paper about our experience after teaching it twice and almost a third time.  It’s as much about online teaching as it is about sustainability (the two are related, of course) and we are planning on presenting it at the LIMITS 2016 workshop at UCI.


“Computing Within Limits” represents a new paradigm in thinking about computing. To help communicate this new perspective to a broader audience, we created, taught, and are continuing to teach a multi-campus online course through the University of California (UC) titled “Global Disruption and Information Technology.” This article presents a report on our experiences designing this course and delivering the first two offerings to several hundred UC undergraduates. We discuss the history and motivation for the course; specific details of the course content; the technological platforms used in delivering the course; the student population; and the student experience taking the course. We hope that this paper, detailing our efforts at “teaching LIMITS,” will help others interested in offering similar courses take advantage of our experiences and help more students become engaged with this critical set of issues.

ICS 5 Final Project Focii

Student Final Project Focii

Other courses like it

We aren’t alone in teaching this material. Pargman and Eriksson have taught a similar graduate level course at KTH and research groups are starting to form in Brussels around the same topic as well.  Of course the transition town movement has been studying and working on resiliency from a grass roots perspective around the world.  The transition town movement is great because it is so positive and seeks to encourage the development of community to face challenges together (and have as much fun as possible in doing it).

ICS 5 Enrollment Growth

Enrollment Growth

Successful, but Online is Hard

The course has been successful, garnering the 2015 Celebration of Teaching Instructional Technology Innovation Award and experiencing strong enrollment growth.   Actually teaching courses online is still a real challenge and no one seems to feel like it is a solved problem yet.   There are a lot of hopes coming from a new enthusiasm around VR and virtual worlds that they might support a successful reinvigoration of online learning.  We’ll see!

(permanentlocal copy)

C.V.: WR-12

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