E-learning impacting carbon footprint

All over the world, new temperature records are breaking. These changes are straining the health, budgets, productivity and temperament of many who live in non-polar regions. Scientists tell us that the cumulative effects of eons of anthropogenic pollution production associated with natural sources such as sulfur and chlorine gases from volcanic activity, smoke and ash from wildfires, storms dust and biological decomposition are at the root of the growing crisis.

Several initiatives have been carried out to calculate and prioritize the pollution generated on university campuses. The calculations were complex, inconsistent and mostly self-reported. In Sustainability: The Journal of Recordauthors Kevin Snyder, Sophia Koustas and Caitlin Jillson write:

While the Sustainability Rating and Evaluation System (STARS) is the preferred model for tracking sustainability metrics for campus programs, facilities, programs, and more, no equivalent metrics exist for this nascent population. learners of virtual platforms. By reducing emissions from travel and energy consumption of on-campus facilities, online learning can have a positive impact on the environment. … Currently, there are no generally accepted metrics for comparing environmental impact on off-campus platforms. Although these platforms have possible links to several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – an increasingly common set of goals adopted by higher education institutions – there is little data to demonstrate progress towards these initiatives.

So, although the literature is limited, logic suggests that students enrolled in online and blended courses reduce their on-campus carbon footprint and save money in several ways. Some of them may include:

  • Faculty and staff do not travel to campus daily, but rather travel on a less frequent schedule, likely reducing energy/pollution.
  • Another activity that can reduce energy consumption and pollution is having enrolled learners traveling to campus less often.
  • Do not produce and consume paper documents in class; replacing them with digital texts and other digital resources clearly reduces the carbon footprint.
  • The energy expenditures per square foot of 100-year-old “old principal” type buildings with ten to twelve foot ceilings and few means for superior insulation and airtight, sustainability-conscious construction are not inconsequential. To the extent that we can reduce or eliminate the use of these buildings and use more sustainable alternatives, we will reduce energy costs and the campus carbon footprint.
  • The energy-intensive and polluting costs of maintaining campus buildings and grounds in activities such as lawn mowing, snow removal, and landscape maintenance are expensive and pollution-inducing. Laundry and dining services that are transferred back to the learner’s work or home where a similar activity is already taking place can result in net savings.
  • Not using heating, air conditioning, lighting, water, sewer and related facilities on campus while using those already in place and used to support the learner’s home begs the question of whether the sum of the additional household energy expenditure may be less than the campus-wide utility expenditure.

For example, a campus with 10,000 enrolled students, 5,000 of whom are remote, can expect to use fewer natural gas/petroleum, electricity, water and sewer resources on campus than if all 10,000 traveled or lived on campus. . Online student costs for the same services would, in many cases, be shared with family or other cohabitants in a home that would incur little additional expense for lighting, heating, and air conditioning by adding one more person to a house that is already heated, air conditioned and lit. home, both in terms of pollution and utility costs.

We have learned a lot – and continue to learn – during the pandemic about how distance learning can reduce energy consumption on campuses. The University of Michigan at Dearborn in January 2021, reported less than a year into the pandemic: “Fewer people are studying and working on campus, which means that facility teams at UM-Dearborn were able to reduce the energy footprint of almost every building on campus. Now we have our first look at what this means for the university’s bottom line. Overall, when you add up the savings on electricity, natural gas, and water and sewer bills, executive director of facilities operations Carol Glick says the university saved more. more than $570,000 on its utilities since the start of the pandemic. »

Admittedly, not all of the savings on campus utilities is the net sum of expenses/savings since off-campus faculty, staff, and students continue to use some utilities elsewhere for control of the climate and other daily needs. And yet, there are undeniable energy/pollution savings from eliminating daily travel costs, dramatically reducing the cost of paper products, and other actions that shift face-to-face spending to solutions digital. Even mixing some, if not all, of the classes will make a difference. These digital approaches also offer further opportunities for less polluting and more energy-efficient models that we could see realized through the emergence of the Metaverse environment on Web 3.0.& Exploitation of emerging technologies will enable interaction even greater, deeper immersion and more refined simulations that are currently reserved for on-campus delivery in labs and analog physical facilities. These breakthroughs are closer than you might think, with experimental versions rolling out this year and more robust platforms being firmly established in 2025.

Who at your institution views e-learning with a green lens? Is there a system in place to track and compare on-campus sustainability to online sustainability? Are there ways to further improve sustainability through blended and online approaches?

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