Can online education be an effective tool for the vegan movement?

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» Can online education be an effective tool for the vegan movement?

Research network member and founder, Matthew Cole, discusses free teaching resources about veganism and anti-speciesism that he’s produced for Open Learn, the Open University’s online public platform for higher educational resources.

Veganism is rapidly gaining traction as a social movement, supported by an expanding base of research evidence about its advantages for human and non-human  animals alike and the planet that we all share. As veganism gets more prominent in the public imagination though, there are always risks that it gets misrepresented and misunderstood. This is where online educational resources can play a key role.

Creating a veganism interactive

Through my work as an academic at The Open University, I’m privileged to be able to produce educational resources for Open Learn. Open Learn hosts hundreds of free online courses, interactive resources and videos which invite visitors to "get inspired and learn something new today”. So, capitalising on the surge in public interest in veganism, Open Learn is an ideal educational platform for building on that growing awareness. With this in mind, I developed a veganism interactive, which guides learners through a consideration of speciesism as a social problem, and veganism as a solution to that social problem.

What is speciesism?

The interactive defines speciesism as “a social structure that positions human beings as superior to other animals” and further explains that “social structure refers to both social institutions and organisations (such as the media, or the education system) as well as patterns of widely held beliefs and related behaviours. Speciesist beliefs – often unknowingly held – are what make it seem normal for humans to use other animals for roles that may be harmful for them.” Learners are then guided to an animated video, voiced by the greatly missed Benjamin Zephaniah, which explains how speciesism works in more depth. The animation is partly based on extensive sociological research conducted with Dr Kate Stewart since the late 2000s, and especially in our 2014 book, Our Children and Other Animals. One of the themes of the book is how children are generally raised and educated to accept speciesism as ‘normal’, and therefore veganism as ‘abnormal’. In other words, the book seeks to explain how it is that we all grow up in a speciesist society, whether we (or our parents) like it or not!

Why focus on speciesism?

Why start with this definition of speciesism instead of veganism itself? This approach was deliberately chosen for three main reasons . Firstly, previous research I’d conducted with my colleague Dr Karen Morgan had identified that media coverage of veganism tended to separate it out from the ethical problems of using other animals. In other words, the media were coy about confronting the harms done to other animals and the ways that veganism seeks to highlight and protest against those. Instead, media coverage of veganism tended to focus on vegans ourselves, often as targets of ridicule, or to create a negative impression of veganism as being practically impossible, unpleasant or faddish. So, the interactive is designed to avoid falling into a trap of ‘defending’ veganism against negative stereotypes, which would only amplify those stereotypes further. Secondly, starting with speciesism was a way to keep the interactive focused on other animals from the outset, short-circuiting anti-vegan stereotypes that circulate in the media (and that many vegans will have experienced in our personal lives). Thirdly, the definition of speciesism used in the interactive makes clear that it is a social problem that needs social solutions, rather than being a matter of individual choice. By doing this, the interactive avoids the risks of ‘guilt-tripping’ individual non-vegan learners and instead presents speciesism as a social structure in which we are all ‘caught’ (whether vegan or not). 

Veganism as anti-speciesism

After viewing the animation, learners are guided to a similar animated video about veganism, framed as “a way of trying to address some of the issues speciesist ideology can be seen to bring about".  In other words, veganism is presented as a social movement, and not (only) an individual decision, and fundamentally a social movement that rationally and compassionately responds to the fundamental injustice and unfairness of speciesism. Incidentally, one of the most exciting aspects of producing the veganism animation was the opportunity to share the story of how the word ‘vegan’ was invented, by Donald Watson and Dorothy Morgan, at the Palais de Danse in Leicester in the 1940s. This story was recently uncovered during research into an archive of Donald Watson’s letters and other personal documents – I hope to share more on this research in the coming months, but you can learn more about it from this presentation on YouTube. After viewing the veganism animation, learners can explore text-based resources about other aspects of speciesism and veganism. These include more on how other animals are portrayed in ways that perpetuate speciesism, and an outline of the ‘vegaphobia’ research that I mentioned earlier. The interactive course itself ends with a brief summary, but also a set of links to additional Open Learn articles I’ve written or co-written that explore other facets of speciesism and veganism.

Sanctuary tales: fighting speciesism one animal at a time

That’s not the end of the story though. To complement the veganism interactive, I recently produced a short documentary film for Open Learn: Sanctuary tales: fighting speciesism one animal at a time, filmed at Hillside Animal Sanctuary in Norfolk. The film gives viewers the opportunity to encounter other animals in a safe environment for them , protected from the harms of the wider speciesist society. This gives a glimpse of how a peaceable post-speciesist and vegan future may be possible. It also contests speciesism itself, by presenting other animals as valuable, unique beings in their own right, and not as the interchangeable commodities that speciesist industries would have us believe. Linking this back to the veganism interactive, the film puts a face to the otherwise abstract victims and survivors of speciesist social structures. Although I’ve emphasised presenting speciesism as a social problem and veganism as a social solution through the Open Learn resources, the film is a reminder of how the social and the personal are interconnected – not least for the non-human animals at Hillside who are individual survivors of speciesist social structures.

Please share!

I hope this overview of the Open Learn resources has been interesting and perhaps inspires you to share them more widely. As well as being thought-provoking to anyone with a general interest in veganism and speciesism, I produced them in the hope that other vegans might find them useful to share, whether among your informal personal and social networks but also if you work in any educational or outreach role. If so, please do feel free to share the veganism interactive and Sanctuary Tales film, and feel free to drop me a line with any feedback you might have.


Cole, M., Craane, I. and Stewart, K. (2020) ‘The Donald Watson Archive Project’. Available at:

Cole, M. and Morgan, K. (2011) ‘Vegaphobia: derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newspapers’, British Journal of Sociology, vol.61, no.1, pp. 134-153. Available at:

Cole, M. and Stewart, K. (2014) Our Children and Other Animals: The cultural construction of human-animal relations in childhood. London: Routledge.

Open Learn ‘Veganism Interactive’. Available at:

Open Learn ‘Sanctuary Tales: Fighting speciesism one animal at a time’. Available at:



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