How Green is Your Course?

In my recent talks, I’ve been reminding audiences of the green effect and the potential for reducing carbon emissions and energy consumption by choosing distance as opposed to campus based education. Ironically, I’ve often had to fly on a carbon footprint expanding airplane, to get to these conferences, but that is another irony that escapes few- especially my wife.

Although it seems obvious that studying at home will reduce transportation costs, there are many other ways in which participation in courses requires energy expenditure – from the extra costs of heating the house while you stay up late doing online work, to the cost of running the computer versus reading a book.  It can become very complicated and challenging to quantify the differences. Thus, I was delighted to read the 2005 report from the Open University of the UK, that quantitatively addressed this issue. The report Towards Sustainable Higher Education: Environmental impacts of campus-based and distance higher education systems by R Roy, S Potter, K Yarrow, & M Smith is extensive (56 pages) and covers detail down to how many sheets of paper are consumed by both teachers and learners in a typical course delivered full or part time on campus or via learning or print based distance. The results are “that the distance learning courses examined on average involved nearly 90% (87%) less energy consumption and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions per student per 10 CAT points than the conventional campus based university courses”  The summary chart below illustrates the savings in energy consumption per 10 CATs (a British course unit – 360 CATs required for a degree).

The graph and commentary in the text notes that e-learning has a slightly lower impact on the environment than print based courses. “E-learning courses appear to offer only a small reduction in energy consumption and CO2 emissions (20% and 12% respectively) when compared to mainly print-based distance learning courses.” This was not a big surprise as I think the benefits of e-learning over print based relate more to pedgagogical flexibility, access to additional resources, groups, networks and collectives and access to multi-media than to energy savings alone.

I look forward to a follow up study that looks at blended learning models in which increases of online learning are paired with potential reduction in campus based activities. This will likely result in energy efficiencies, but if the students are forced to travel to campus everyday anyways for some ‘blended component” the energy or CO2 costs may actually increase as compared to straight campus based programming.

Congratulations to the the authors and the Open University for taking the time and effort to quantify the important envrionmental impacts of our choices of learning modality.

Collectives, Borgs and Hive Mind

Jon Dron and I have been writing a book chapter on our “Taxonomy of the Many” – groups. networks and collectives. In the process we’ve been thinking (again) about the challenge of the term collective to our individual sense of unique self. We continue to see applications evolve where data mining and aggregation of large numbers of Net activities, opinions, artifact organization and postings yields very interesting and useful results that can be used to guide decision making and increase effectiveness of Net activity for individual, group and network benefit.

But there is something inherently threatening about the loss of individuality associated with the hive mind and of course amplified when human choice to participate is eliminated as in “Resistance is Futile”. Searching further (using the hive optimized Google search tool ) I found a very interesting article Speculations on Hive Minds as a Posthuman State by Anders Sandberg. In the article Sandberg discusses various type of borg like entities including social insects, individual cells in an organism or component parts of a complex organ such as the human brain. Sandberg goes on to discuss the nature and psychology, weaknesses and strengths of these borganisms.

While interesting, Sandberg’s analysis assumes a coercive and all consuming state of borganism, where the benefits of borganism are available only to those who have given up their individualism. I see collective activity in a more tool like fashion where I exert my individual agency to exploit an affordance provided by collective tools. I realize that my activities on the Net are constantly being mined and aggregated. But I don’t think this is too much more loss of control than I give to a traffic engineer or a radio station traffic reporter counting the number of vehicles using an intersection at any given moment. Knowledge of the collective activity helps me make individual decisions.

Of course the collective may make mistakes and we see evidence of group think, erroneous meme proliferation and illegal extraction of individual and identifiable activity from collective activities, but misuse and inefficiencies accompany all forms of human organization. One must judge the value of the tool use, as compared to these costs.

Sandberg references a 1999 article Metasystem Transition by Turchin and Joslyn in which they describe the emergence of metasystems that coordinate and control lower level activities. They show that these higher control systems have developed from control of movement, through control of individual thinking to emergence of human culture. Again, I don’t like the coercive connotation of the work control, but I do acknowledge that as life has evolved to more complex entities, meta systems are necessary for survival.

But these are tools, not mindsets. even though, as Marshall McLuhan noted “We make our tools and then our tools make us“. We need practice and time to evolve tool use in ways that allow us to optimize our indiviudal selves in a complex and collective universe. Resistance may be futile, but in the resistance we recreate the technologies to meet our individual and social needs.

More Collective connections

My friend Jon Dron has finally nailed his own (and no doubt others) ideas about the collective nature of Wikipedia. His recent post notes:

  • the individual actions that create most of the articles,
  • the groups of administrative types who manage the overall infrastructure and set in place the algorithms that manage the look, feel and performance of the system
  • the networks of mostly regular users responsible for maintenance and collaborative development of the articles and finally the way we mine
  • the wiki as a collective resource.

I realize that some folks think this task of dividing and allocating ideas into categories is an arbitrary function that just gives rise to arguments (see for example Dave Snowden’s diatribe and his focus on ‘crews’.)

However I think our ‘Taxonomy of the Many’ classification system has value and defend it and classification systems in general in the rest of this post.
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New tool to mine the collective knowledge

Thanks to the DownLoad Squad I bumped into a very interesting tool to mine collective knowledge. Avanoo is a social software tool that allows members to query others through simple Likert like scale items. Nothing too new here except that everyone gets to view and segment the results according to demographic criteria including gender, nationality, age, income level etc. For example I can create a questions and then determine if Canadians answered that question differently than non-Canadians, men differently than women or the wealthy differently from the poor. If I want I can augment my response to any question with a comment or explanation. Again nothing too new here, except that this type of analysis and results are usually costly to gather and remain the property of the survey owner, not the recipients.

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