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Online Learning Impacting the Carbon Footprint

Climate change is heating up — perhaps online learning is part of the solution.

Around the world, new record high temperatures are soaring. These changes are stressing the health, budgets, productivity and tempers of many of those living in non-polar regions. Scientists tell us the cumulative effects of eons of anthropogenic pollution production coupled with natural sources such as sulfur and chlorine gases from volcanic activity, smoke and ash from wildfires, dust storms, and biological decay are causing the growing crisis.

A number of initiatives have been conducted to calculate and rank the pollution generated on college campuses. The calculations have been complex, inconsistent and self-reported for the most part. In Sustainability: The Journal of Record, authors Kevin Snyder, Sophia Koustas and Caitlin Jillson write:

While the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS) is the preferred model to track sustainability metrics from campus curricula, facilities, programs, and more, no equivalent measures exist for this fledgling population of virtual platform learners. By decreasing emissions from travel and on-campus facilities energy usage, there is potential for online learning to have a positive impact on the environment. … Currently, there are no generally accepted metrics for comparing environmental impact across non-campus platforms. Although these platforms have possible connections to several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — an increasingly common set of goals being adopted by higher education institutions — limited data exists to demonstrate progress toward these initiatives.

So, while documentation is limited, logic suggests that students enrolled in online and blended classes reduce their campus carbon footprint and provide savings in many ways. A few of those may include:

  • Faculty and staff not commuting to campus on a daily basis, instead commuting on a less frequent schedule likely reduces energy/pollution.
  • Enrolled learners commuting to campus on a less-frequent basis is another likely activity to reduce energy/pollution.
  • Not producing and consuming paper handouts in classes; replacing them with digital texts and other digital resources clearly reduces the carbon footprint.
  • The per-square-foot energy expenditures of the 100-year-old “old main” type buildings with ten- to twelve-foot ceilings and little affordances for superior insulation and tight, sustainability-conscious construction are not inconsequential. To the extent we can reduce or eliminate use of those buildings and use more sustainable alternatives we will reduce energy costs and the campus carbon footprint.
  • The energy-intensive and pollution costs of campus building and grounds maintenance in such activities as lawn mowing, snow removal and landscape maintenance are costly and pollution generating. Laundry and dining hall services that again are shifted to the learner’s work or home where analogous activity is already conducted may result in net savings.
  • Not using on-campus heating, air conditioning, lighting, water, sewer and associated facilities while instead using those that already are in place and used to support the learner’s home raises the question of whether the sum of the incremental home energy expenditure may be lower than the campuswide utility expenditures.

For example, a campus with 10,000 enrolled students, 5,000 of whom are at a distance, can expect to use less natural gas/oil, electricity, water and sewer resources on the campus than if all 10,000 were commuting to, or living on, campus. Online students’ costs for the same services would, in many cases, be shared with family or other co-habitants in a home that would incur little additional lighting, heating and cooling expenditures by adding one more person to an already heated, cooled and lighted home, both in terms of pollution as well as out of pocket utility expenses.

We learned — and continue to learn — much during the pandemic of how distance learning can reduce campus energy use. The University of Michigan Dearborn in January of 2021, reported after less than a year into the pandemic: “Fewer people studying and working on campus has meant that UM-Dearborn’s facilities teams have been able to reduce the energy footprint of nearly every campus building. Now, we have our first glimpse of what that means for the university’s bottom line. All in all, when you add up savings from electricity, natural gas and water-sewer bills, Executive Director for Facilities Operations Carol Glick says the university has saved more than $570,000 on its utilities since the start of the pandemic.”

Certainly, not all of the campus utilities savings represent the net sum of expenditures/savings since those faculty, staff and students who are not on campus continue to use some utilities elsewhere for climate control and other daily needs. And, yet, there are undeniable energy/pollution savings from eliminating the daily commuting costs, greatly reducing the paper product costs, and other actions that shift face-to-face expenditures to digital solutions. Blending even some, if not all, classes will make a difference. These digital approaches also offer further opportunities for less-polluting, more energy-efficient models that we may see realized through the emergence of the Metaverse environment over Web 3.0.& Leveraging the emerging technologies will enable even greater interaction, deeper immersion and more refined simulations that are currently reserved for on-campus delivery in laboratories and analogous physical facilities. These advances are closer than we may think, with experimental versions rolling-out this year and more robust platforms to be firmly implanted in 2025.

Who in your institution is looking at online learning with an ecological vision? Is there a system in place to track and compare on-campus to online sustainability? Are there ways in which you can further enhance sustainability through blended and online approaches?


This article was originally published in Inside Higher Education’s Transforming Teaching & Learning blog.

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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