Taking a tour of sustainability from your bedroom!

In 2020, the Sustainability Team at the University of Melbourne (UoM) created a virtual sustainability tour to keep the community engaged during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Until the move to a virtual campus in early 2020, the University held sustainability and biodiversity tours which were extremely popular. They allowed participants to connect with the beautiful campus grounds and feel connected to their institution. Thus, although omitted from campus, with the new tour staff and students were not excluded from exploring sustainable initiatives, services, and infrastructure on the Parkville campus remotely. Users can currently navigate thirteen stops across the online map, with experts explaining each stop through an embedded video.

The tour educates staff, students, prospective students and the general public about sustainability on campus whilst increasing engagement at no extra cost or resourcing. It raises awareness on initiatives such as solar panels on roofs, green-star building designs, food-waste practices and the UoM bike co-op. The tour showcases the University as a living lab with best practice sustainability projects and with over 5400 total views, this tour has been a vehicle for connecting individuals to campus from the comfort of their own homes.

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>  The initiative

In 2020, the UoM along with the rest of the world faced an unprecedented challenge, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing the University to transition to a virtual campus. As Victoria was presented with a longer lockdown than other states, the University was closed to most staff and students for over a year. As campus activities transitioned online, new demands for a way for staff and students to keep connected to campus became real. In particular, sustainability while a big priority for many staff and students normally, became less of a priority and the UoM Sustainability Team faced challenges in keeping the community connected, engaged and motivated.  

Prior to COVID-19 the Sustainability Team had run bi-weekly Sustainability and Biodiversity Tours during term time for many years, and they were incredibly popular. They not only allowed individuals to connect with like-minded people but also to the natural environment and allowed people to experience the campus as a living lab. Attending tours was also a Green Impact toolkit action. However, with COVID-19 and the closing of the Parkville campus the tours stopped. This caused many people to feel disconnected, esp. the longer the lock down lasted (Melbournians experienced strict stage-4 lock down for 4 months).

To address this challenge, the Sustainability Team developed a Virtual Sustainability Tour, via an online platform, which users can explore sustainable initiatives, services, and infrastructure on the Parkville campus remotely. The tour took approx. 3 months to develop, film initial content and was launched in September 2020. The team used its in-house communications and sustainability officers to develop the content and platform respectively. At its launch users could navigate 13 stops across the online map, through embedded videos. We were able to create this tool relatively quickly based on the demand for a Virtual Sustainability Tour and it was a game-changer for all online events and presentations as it allowed not only domestic students and staff but also international students to view the campus and support initiatives. The virtual tour also allows individuals to browse at their leisure whilst being able to see more stops than time would allow with an on-campus tour. Furthermore, users can now view things they wouldn’t have been able to see from the ground for example the many solar panels on building roofs. The online map provides an opportunity to showcase a broad range of sustainability activities from around the University to new audiences, including international and interstate students, organisations, alumni, prospective students, and industry partners. The stops are diverse and include sustainable operations, research, student-led programs, and broader community engagement initiatives. The platform has since evolved into a valuable teaching and learning resource and is being used in the newly developed Joining Melbourne Module. There are also plans to expand the tour to other campuses, to ensure a whole of University approach and filming has already began at the Werribee campus in June 2020.

UoM officially launched the Virtual Sustainability Tour on the 4th of September 2020, just in time for Open Day (6th September 2020) to provide an engagement tool for prospective new students. It was also used as the centre piece activity in Kids Teaching Kids conference (KTK), in November 2020. Normally the Sustainability Team run campus tours for hundreds of students at this conference, however with the virtual tour they didn’t miss out on finding out what was going  on at UoM. Since then, the team have continued to grow the tour with the inclusion of more stops and the aim to expand to other campuses whilst still providing an opportunity to raise awareness of sustainability at the University remotely.

>  Environmental and social benefits

The Virtual Sustainability Tour provided many benefits that relate to operational outcomes, environmental, social and financial outcomes and sector wide benefits. With 5,435 views over 10 months since its launch in September 2020, the virtual tour has educated staff, students, prospective students and the general public about sustainability at the UoM Parkville campus, whilst increasing campus engagement at no extra cost or additional resourcing. The tour now takes itself! This means that the time it took to produce will compensate for the staff time to run the tours. It also allows for a greater diversity and extended reach of participants. The virtual sustainability tour raises awareness of university sustainability initiatives and infrastructures such as solar panels on roofs, green-star building designs, food waste practices (food waste processor, and the Choose to Reuse program) and the bike co-op. It also allows the ‘expert’ behind the initiative to be showcased and given recognition for their work. It also demonstrates how people can get involved directly with sustainability and learn about things they may not have otherwise known about, for example, using the community garden, the Choose to Reuse Plate Program at Union House, getting involved in Green Impact, using free water stations and providing practical tips all in one tour. 

The virtual tour is also a vehicle for cross-promoting other sustainability and UoM initiatives for example the Billebellary’s Walk which showcases indigenous knowledge and biodiversity on campus, the Green Impact program at the University and student-run activities such as the Community Garden and the UMSU Bike Collective. It is also educating staff and students about all areas of sustainability, holistically, from waste, energy, biodiversity, engagement and teaching & learning. The virtual sustainability tour is in an easily adaptive format, allowing updates and the editing of content quickly and cheaply as things change and as we create new content. As it is an online format, it also allows us to track which videos are performing well, and therefore what kind of initiatives our staff and students value which gives us a unique and highly valued form of feedback. 

Furthermore, the benefits to the sector include being able to easily share our initiatives in an engaging and concise format and showcasing prospective students that the University is committed to sustainability and that they will be coming to a university that is focused on tackling this global issue. Lastly the tour has some social benefits. While an online format can never replace the value of face-to-face interaction and the ability to exist in nature and savour the outdoor environment, it does allow very busy and remote individuals (and not just due to COVID-19 but due to living in a different state or continent) the ability to save time and explore places that they might never have been able to visit in real time.

>  Leadership and engagement

The tour is a great one-stop-shop for the University’s key sustainability programs. It serves as an easily accessible and engaging introduction to how the University is using its campuses as a ‘living lab’ to improve sustainable operations. Its easily updated, shareable format has seen the video content watched by primary school students, the United Nation Association of Australia (UNAA) partner organisations, and of course UoM staff and students. It has allowed the University to extend its reach when it comes to showcasing the breadth and depth of initiatives across our campuses. It has also now been extended to our regional campuses. The tour has also been used as a tool to help raise awareness of operational sustainability both university-wide and externally through organisational partners. Internally the tour has been promoted through the Campus Tours web page, through learning modules such as the Joining Melbourne Module, and tour videos have been used to showcase sustainability initiatives in order to prompt student and staff feedback during the community consultation phase of the University’s next Sustainability Plan 2021-2025. It has been showcased to students during 2021 orientation and many sustainability presentations since its launch.

>  Wider societal impact

The virtual sustainability tour has had a wider societal impact than originally realised. It has provided value to individual staff and students wanting to tour our campuses, as well as other departments through complimentary initiatives and outcomes and also allows those separated by distance to find out about sustainability at the university in an interactive and visually attractive format. They can also peruse at their leisure and at their own pace.  The tour has been used by organisations that are external to the university such as the KtK conference where over 60 schools come together and have an opportunity to learn about sustainability at UoM and strive for real environmental change in their schools and communities.  Externally, the tour has been showcased at Open Day 2020 with over 100 views, provided as a learning resource for the KtK conference, as an engagement tool in ACTS Green Campus Day and has been promoted through communications from University research institutes.

Top 3 learnings
  • Online videos are easily viewed and shared by both domestic and international students, allowing a connection to campus even while at home.

  • Videos can be produced cheaply using University equipment and editing programs with support from just one experienced videographer.

  • Uploading videos to YouTube allows content to be efficiently cross promoted for different campaigns, by internal and external organisations and across different platforms to reach the widest possible audience for the video production efforts.