The Open University once conducted a study into the environmental and sustainability effects of e-learning courses, discovering along the way that producing and providing these courses consumes 90% less energy and produces 85% fewer emissions per student than face-to-face training.
I was keen to find out more, so I had a look into some of the other benefits of remote learning that may have been discovered during the Covid lockdowns and beyond.
In the UK, primary schools, secondary schools, colleges, and universities are typically built in strategic positions to maximise the number of students in their catchment area. This is a good thing, as it allows for regular bus services, carpools, walking, and cycling. What it also means is more people on the roads, more traffic, more emissions, more idling, and more waiting in car parks. All of this car and bus movement leads to wear and tear on the road, increased fuel use, and more air pollution in heavily populated areas.
Then… poof! Overnight the world changed. Boris gesticulated his ‘stay at home’ message on the evening of the 20th of March, 2020, and suddenly our working and studying lives, for the most part, moved to our computer screens.
On April 9th, people in Delhi were shocked to see the Himalayas from the city for the first time in 30 years, as air pollution dropped 44%. Beijing, one of the most polluted airspaces in the world, suddenly saw 48% drops that resulted in their everpresent smog not being so… everpresent. The city could be seen from space.
The University of West Georgia in the US found that students moving their studies online reduced each student’s carbon dioxide emissions by 100kg per semester. A similar study at the Stockholm Environmental Institute saw similar results, around 90kg per semester for in-person learning, and just 4kg per semester for online students.
The UN Sustainability Goal 3, which looks at good health and wellbeing would indicate a reduction in emissions as a good thing for public health.
It’s not just the commuting that takes a lot of natural resources, it’s the educational facilities themselves. Power and heat need large supplies for these buildings, with around 100kg of CO2 being produced by a regular classroom per semester, and just 5kg for an online classroom. Of course, computers need power, homes need heat or cooling, and decentralizing students still creates emissions, but it does reduce the need for raw materials like plastic, metal, wood, and concrete. Building a school or university has a far higher raw material requirement than the equivalent laptops for all of the students it would hold.
Building new schools, colleges, and universities isn’t all that common, in fact, most educational facilities have been there for decades, in buildings that were not designed with the same low-carbon standards of the modern day. These inefficient buildings take more energy and fuel to power than they should, leading to unnecessarily high carbon footprints. Studying from home is clearly far more efficient.
The National Wildlife Foundation approximates that 60% of school waste is made up of paper. Since deforestation is a huge global issue, this is a very pressing problem and something that has been massively tackled by transferring traditional paper learning materials into a digital format.
One tonne of paper requires 16 large trees to make and recycling waste paper saves huge amounts of energy in production and natural resources. By using online learning, Zoom, and a range of educational platforms that require no paper waste, students and teachers alike can make huge resource savings.
Entire curriculums, textbooks, assignments, tests, feedback, and more can all be done in a digital format that subconsciously unlocks environmental benefits. Students’ costs drop significantly and teachers can use digital tools more effectively than trying to apply them in a classroom setting where students can’t truly interact with them (in most cases). Even the schools and universities themselves can use the move to online learning as a spur, helping them to move their paperwork, registration and financial processes onto digital platforms as a way to reduce paper and office space.
There’s no adequate replacement for physical contact and socialising in groups, but when doing so puts people’s health in jeopardy, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us, we need to find alternatives. The digital world facilitates that and more. The environmental and sustainability side-effects of lockdowns and moving studies and work online are numerous and clear to be seen, but I guess the question we have to ask is ‘for how long?’.
The schools, colleges, and universities are already built. The textbooks are already printed. The school bus already has mileage on the clock. So, when the vaccines are distributed, the population is safe, and people can go back to normal life, will remote learning just… stop?
I hope not. Like all things, I hope we will find balance.