Distance and presence in interdisciplinary online learning. A challenge-based learning course on sustainable cities of the future

Julia Kasch*, V.A.J.M. Schutjens, M.C. Bootsma, F.W. Van Dam, A.F. Kirkels, M.K. van der Molen, A. Rimac, K.T. Rebel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Addressing complex sustainability issues in higher education requires the combination and integration of various disciplines, perspectives and approaches. Challenge-Based Learning (CBL) can support interdisciplinary collaboration on sustainability issues. It requires students to actively explore, discuss, reflect on and integrate information and methods from various disciplines. Online learning could enhance interdisciplinary collaboration since it is associated with greater geographical and educational flexibility and accessibility. Applying an active learning approach such as CBL in an online setting is believed to support interdisciplinary learning and collaboration. We present a case study that took place in a 10-week online interdisciplinary, inter-university undergraduate course on sustainability education. Our research is based on well-known online learning theories “Transactional distance” and “Community of Inquiry” (CoI). The aim of this study was to investigate how transactional distance, presence and (online) interdisciplinary learning are perceived by students. 23 undergraduate students from three universities were enrolled in the course. Quantitative survey data (N = 13) and qualitative data from student reflection papers and interviews (N = 15) were collected. Students perceived low levels of transactional distance and high levels of presence. Unexpectedly, a small increase in perceived distance between students was measured which could be explained by reported limitations of the course design. Students valued the open, interactive and creative character of the course and the online format was not perceived as hindering. Students reflected on interdisciplinary competences that they developed during the course. This study is a first step towards future national as well as international interdisciplinary, inter-university educational collaboration on sustainability issues.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2185261
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of integrative Environmental Sciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Mar 2023


  • Challenge-based learning (CBL)
  • online interdisciplinary learning
  • presence
  • student-perceptions
  • sustainability challenges
  • transactional distance


Dive into the research topics of 'Distance and presence in interdisciplinary online learning. A challenge-based learning course on sustainable cities of the future'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this