Sustainability in Online Education

Europe has been actively preparing and planning for changes in how education is delivered at third level, with numerous reports and plans already published including: “Developing a High-Performance Ecosystem”, “Digital Education Action Plan” and “Universities without Walls: A vision for 2030”.

All these plans aim to align with European goals to address climate change, promote sustainability, embrace digitisation, and build an equal and inclusive society.

Online education would seem to be naturally aligned with these goals – and for the most part, it is. But there are a number of challenges to be faced.

Student Engagement

Students are very supportive on online learning, but their overwhelming preference (66%) is for blended programmes. This may reflect the fact that students struggle with fully ‘distant’ learning solutions. Many students reported a decline in mental health during Covid, which they attributed to online learning. This puts a responsibility on distance learning providers to create virtual communities which support the student’s learning journey.

Lower Carbon

Research shows that the online teaching model creates almost 90% less carbon than face to face teaching, thereby:

  • Reducing pollution from student/staff travel and accommodation requirements
  • Reducing the pressure on campus facilities, equipment maintenance and running costs
  • Reducing deforestation by eliminating of the need for paper

This is good for the planet – but it is also good for the profitability of education providers who should reflect the savings (or explain the reason for not sharing the savings) with their students.

Technology Cost

It is often assumed that the use of technology is 100% environmentally friendly, as if the use itself did not require any energy! ChapGPT is the current hottest thing for both tutors and students, but a recent article in EuroNews said that ChatGPT “drinks a bottle of fresh water for every 20-50 questions we ask.” That’s a significant environmental cost.

Technology is changing the way we deliver study programmes to students, and the ways in which we evaluate our sustainability score. In the future, sustainability accountability will become a necessary inclusion in the annual reports of Higher Education and Distance Learning Institutions.

Note: based on a presentation delivered to the EADL conference in Brussels on 12 May 2023.

Source: Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)

Source: EuroNews

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