Is online learning more sustainable?

Lockdown had different effects for everyone. Some loved the time at home, whilst others couldn’t wait to get back out. One thing that remained largely consistent was the rise of online working. Despite seeing all your course mates or colleagues as pixelated faces (when your Wifi wasn’t crashing) and being miles apart at times, in the wave of online work came a reduction in having to commute, and with it the potential for a lot of environmental benefits.

The Commute: 

In the UK and US, transport produces more greenhouse gas than any other sector, and globally this causes 25% of CO2 emissions. According to the IEA, transport activity across the planet fell to nearly 50% below the 2019 average by March 2020, and led in London to a 95% reduction in underground journeys in March 2020 as well.

This has had a domino effect on other things, for example a decrease in oil demand was noted, and 40% of the reduction was credited to passenger transport. In fact, another study found that for every 100 students who stopped commuting, there was a 10 tonne reduction in CO2 emissions. This was backed up by a further study which had totalled the pounds of CO2 emissions per student attending education in different forms. A student travelling full time in education creates about 180 pounds of CO2, versus an online student who produces only 4 pounds.

Image credits: BohunkaNika

The Method: 

Online schooling has another key difference that isn’t just travel, or being able to attend classes in your PJ’s. By putting education online, there is a reduction in the use of paper. 60% of school waste is paper, so by putting the curriculum online not only do you greatly reduce the amount of paper wasted, but also the amount of energy expended in recycling processes too, because there’s nothing that needs recycling in the first place.

It has also been noted that the move to online learning, and subsequent move of resources to online format, has the potential to save 28,000 trees per million books that are now online rather than paper copies. If online learning expands, it also does not require an increase in building facilities for students to be able to go to in order to learn: classrooms, canteens and so on, which also reduces a demand for materials in this aspect as the number of students grows.

The Location: 

Image credits: Mtaylor848

More than just the commute, brick-and-mortar buildings have to be functioning with lighting and heating that use energy if you are learning in person. 

One study into campus facilities with and without students found that offering online courses saved a university 4,000 hours of lighting, which was not only economically beneficial but also had the environmental benefit of preventing 19 tonnes of CO2 from being emitted.

‘Students still consume energy when they take courses at home’, one blog post argued, ‘but it takes far less to power existing structures (like home offices) than it does to power a large external facility’ (Beren Goguen, Colorado State University Online Blog).

Accessibility: 

However, despite the undeniable convenience of having your classroom be just down the hallway, or even just a reach over the bed for your computer away, there is a more notable benefit of online learning that stretches wider than just you in your learning space: accessibility.  It was noted in a study that  the move towards online learning actually increases the accessibility of knowledge to wider audiences: ‘online learning paves the way for affordable education to those individuals and communities who are not in the position to afford the cost of education’ is one of the lines used in the aforementioned study.

So there are several ways that learning online can benefit us – not only with the lie-ins we can have when our classroom is at the foot of the bed – but with a real knock on effect to how our planet fares.

About the Author: Ani Talwar is the Lifestyle editor at WILD Magazine. Ani can be found at @Mischief.weavers, cares passionately about sustainability and she wrote the book ‘ATRO-CITY THE FLOOD’ !

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