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.