Online teaching in courses related to climate risk, drought, water resources and sustainability

– By Anne Van Loon, Marthe Wens, Raed Hamed

Like many others around the world, we have been forced to move our teaching completely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the challenges, this has also been an opportunity for us to develop new teaching methods, try flipping the classroom, and explore the use of online databases and information. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, because we have been able to make use of a lot of excellent material that colleagues from around the world have shared (see at the end of this post). In this post, we also want to share our material, reflections and links for others to possibly benefit from or be inspired by.

Here, we share the material we used in several courses related to climate risk, drought, water resources and sustainability at VU Amsterdam. For each of these courses, we prepared material for students to engage with by themselves or in small groups. This material consisted of knowledge clips on theory, small assignments, and computer practicals. We then organised online discussion sessions that the students had to prepare for these sessions in advance. The discussion sessions were designed to:

  • allow for student questions (for example on drought definitions),
  • go through the results of the activities (for example showing the water footprint calculations of the whole class),
  • discuss important take-away messages from the material (for example pros and cons of drought indicators or drought risk reduction measures), and
  • solve computer problems (for example on Python packages to find the relation between drought impact and hazard data).

For these sessions we made use of Canvas discussion boards, Mentimeter quizzes, Zoom breakout rooms, text-based chat, Google Sheets and Slides, student presentations, etc. For this we benefited a lot from the tips and materials on online teaching provided by VU Amsterdam. Below, we share for a number of courses some of the material and links to online data and interactive websites, in a condensed form (so without the detailed assignments and questions) for easier readability.

MSc Hydrology – course Water Risks – sessions on Drought risk

We developed short (5-15 min) knowledge clips on various topics, including drought definitions, drought hazard indicators and data, drought in the Anthropocene, drought disaster risk, drought exposure, drought vulnerability, drought disaster risk reduction, economics of risk reduction. Each knowledge clip was complemented with a small assignment to find some information online. Here are some examples:

  1. Look at the current drought situation (Europe, USA, global)
  2. Find a drought event at any time, any place, for example from one of these databases:
  3. Watch this Youtube video “When the skies ran dry”
  4. Explore the WMO handbook of Drought Indicators & Indices (2016)
  5. Watch this short lecture on understanding drought risk
  6. Surf to the UNCCD drought toolbox Atlas and/ or IWMI Waterdata and look up the drought risk of a chosen country: is the drought risk mainly driven by hazard, exposure or vulnerability?
  7. Surf to DESINVENTAR website
    • Estimate the average annual amount of people affected by drought disasters in the 2000-2020 period for in your chosen country
    • Evaluate how do droughts compare to other disasters in this country?
  8. Watch this youtube video: Explained: world water crisis
  9. Look up drought impacts, for example in the Drought Catalogue or the Famine Early Warning System or go to PreventionWeb to find good information sources.
  10. Look up pros and cons of a drought risk reduction measure, f.e. using the WOCAT database or IWMI water data portal.

As explained above, these knowledge clips and practical assignments were then discussed in class to encourage the students to make the link between theory and practice.

MSc Global Environmental Change and Policy – course Climate Impacts & Policy – sessions on Drought and Impact Assessment

Most of the material used in this course was similar to that in the Water Risks course shown above, just tailored to the specific group of students. This is actually a nice advantage of online teaching / flipping the classroom. If you make the knowledge clips short and focused on a specific topic, you can easily reuse them for different courses, mixing and matching with different activities.

Besides the theoretical material, we had a strong practical component in this course. For this, we set up knowledge clips to support students in installing and running code notebooks on their personal computer. The practical sessions aimed at introducing students to scientific python applied to climate, drought and related impact assessments. We had dedicated sessions for technical support and opened discussion threads for students to post questions, comments and learn from each other.

Videos in addition to tutorial and step by step instructions were uploaded to the institute GitHub page.

BSc minor Sustainability – course Sustainability & Environmental Change – sessions on Water

We developed short (5-15 min) knowledge clips on various topics, including the water cycle, water use, water security, floods & droughts, water scarcity, climate change & water, human-water system. Each knowledge clip was complemented with a small assignment to find some information online. Again some examples:

  1. Watch the video on Water challenge 2030 and read about the Sustainable Development Goals: here and here
  2. Look at the Water Use information at Our World in Data (NOTE: this website is interactive, so you can play timelines, click on the maps or on the legend to highlight countries or categories, show data in different forms (chart, map, table), add countries to a comparison table > so play around with the options)
  3. Calculate your Water Footprint with three different tools:
  4. Look at the Aquaduct – Water Risk Atlas (click Water Risk Atlas). You can also look at the country profiles here.
  5. Watch these two TED talks by:
  6. Look through the interactive CarbonBrief Explainer on climate change 
  7. Have a look at IPCC reports on:
  8. Check these websites on climate change:
  9. Watch this video about “The Anthropocene”
  10. Watch this video about the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Again the knowledge clips and practical assignments were discussed in class.


We found that this setup worked very well and in general students were very engaged during the online sessions. Prerequisite is that they are well prepared and have watched all the knowledge clips and done all the activities. This means a change in mind-set from both students and teachers: teachers should allow for time before the lecture (no online meetings on Monday morning, meaning students have to prepare over the weekend if they have a too busy schedule the week before); and students should be aware of the added advantages of being prepared (no repetitions of basics during live session, so the session is only useful with background knowledge). Different approaches during one term (both live full classes and this flipped-classroom method of pre-class knowledge transfer and during-class application of that knowledge) are confusing for the students, as tasks may overlap (processing the online live class while having to prepare for the flipped-classroom session).  

An added advantage of our approach is that the students have more ownership of their time management, as the live QA sessions take max one hour, and the preparation (max 2h) can be done at any time. We could make sure to make the live sessions more student-centred than teacher centred: they present, ask, discuss the topics they have studied before. For example, when students explained the risk fingerprint of the country they choose, other students could discuss similarities or differences with the country they picked to investigate. As such, a variety of examples of hazard, exposure and vulnerability were discussed, from the students interest. Similarly, the students were asked to prepare pro and cons and a graph/picture of one adaptation measure; then instead of a teacher going over all possible measures for 45minutes, we had an interacting class where students could share their recently-acquired expertise and question each other.

In summary, we will definitely use the flipped-classroom setup with knowledge clips and small assignments again in coming years, but some improvements should still be made. Also, although the online discussion sessions worked quite well, it would be great to have a combination of online and face-to-face sessions especially for the student-centred discussions and peer learning.

We were inspired by blogs, databases, materials developed by others, including:

Other blogs and websites that might be interesting to explore when developing online hydrology teaching: