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Frontiers in Sustainability


Introduction: SDG 4.7 mandates university contributions to the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through their education provisions. Hence, universities increasingly assess their curricular alignment to the SDGs. A common approach to the assessment is to identify keywords associated with specific SDGs and to analyze for their presence in the curriculum. An inherent challenge is associating the identified keywords as used in the diverse set of curricular contexts to relevant sustainability indicators; hence, the urgent need for more systematic assessment as SDG implementation passes its mid-cycle.

Method: In this study, a more nuanced technique was evaluated with notable capabilities for: (i) computing the importance of keywords based on the term frequency-inverse document frequency (TF-IDF) method; (ii) extending this computation to the importance of courses to each SDG and; (iii) correlating such importance to a statistical categorization based on the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) criteria. Application of the technique to analyze 5,773 modules in a university’s curriculum portfolio facilitated categorization of the modules/courses to be “sustainability-focused” or “sustainability-inclusive.” With the strategic objective of systematically assessing the sustainability content of taught curricula, it is critical to evaluate the precision and accuracy of the computed results, in order to attribute text with the appropriate SDGs and level of sustainability embeddedness. This paper evaluates this technique, comparing its results against a manual and labor-intensive interpretation of expert informed assessment of sustainability embeddedness on a random sample of 306 modules/courses.

Results and discussion: Except for SDGs 1 and 17, the technique exhibited a reasonable degree of accuracy in predicting module/course alignment to SDGs and in categorizing them using AASHE criteria. Whilst limited to curricular contexts from a single university, this study indicates that the technique can support curricular transformation by stimulating enhancement and reframing of module/course contexts through the lens of the SDGs



This research was funded under the Student Transformative Learning Record Project (Transform-EDU) of the Higher Education Authority of Ireland (HEA) Ireland, under the Innovation and Transformation Programme 2018. It was also supported by MaREI, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Research Centre for Energy, Climate, and Marine (Grant No: 12/RC/2302_P2) and the European University of Technology (EUt+), a European University Alliance under the Erasmus programme (Grant No: 101004088).