October 28, 2021

E-learning: driving a more sustainable future

Evaluating the relative merits of distance learning versus on-campus provision has, to date, focused primarily on comparing learning outcomes, with most studies finding minimal differences and similar student satisfaction levels for both distance and face-to-face instruction models.


In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the conversation has moved on. Those factors previously regarded as among the lesser benefits of e-learning – accessibility, flexibility and lower levels of disease transmission, for example – have risen to greater prominence at the same time as the advantages of traditional university and college courses were, albeit temporarily, lost to a succession of crippling lockdowns.


Today, as Scotland prepares to host the critical COP26 summit, there’s another potentially game-changing tick in the virtual learning box: the contribution e-learning could make to achieving urgent environmental goals.


Ramping up our response to climate change

The scale of human impact on the planet’s ecosystems is well documented – a recent study shows that scientific consensus on human-caused contemporary climate change currently stands at more than 99 percent.


Adapting human activity to mitigate the changes we’re already experiencing will require an international response on a scale never before seen – a global shift that will forever transform the way we all think and learn and make decisions. Universities and colleges are perfectly placed to act not only as forums for furthering scientific discovery and debate but as exemplars of good practice.


It’s a challenge that’s being addressed in higher education institutions all over the world. Many campuses are already firmly committed to promoting sustainability through capital improvements, including the development of ‘greener’ buildings and the refocusing of campus operations to deliver sustainable benefits. Another, and arguably more impactful, long-term evolution is the provision of a broader selection of courses to remote learners via online instruction.


Enabling more students to experience high-quality, campus-equivalent university programmes isn’t just a smart commercial move. If implemented widely and effectively, it could create a ‘virtuous circle’, democratising access to some of the best educational institutions in the world, while encouraging the behavioural changes that would help tackle negative environmental consequences.


E-learning delivers proven environmental benefits

It’s more than pie-in-the-sky rhetoric. As part of an Open University sustainable teaching and learning project, researchers from the Digital Innovation Group found that deploying an online teaching model achieved carbon profiles that were almost 90 percent lower than face-to-face teaching.


The project explored the main sources of carbon impacts attributed to higher education teaching, including staff and student travel, the use of educational materials and IT equipment, energy consumption, and campus operations. It found that online learning lowered organisations’ environmental impact in three important areas:

  • Reducing deforestation by eliminating of the need for paper. The paper industry not only consumes vast natural resources but also requires significant energy to produce. Recycling wastepaper will mitigate this to some extent but migrating to mainly digital media offers a more sustainable long-term solution.
  • Reducing pollution from student and staff travel and accommodation requirements. More people on the roads equals more traffic plus more emissions and air pollution in heavily populated areas – typically where universities are located. A course developed by a team based mainly at a single campus can be presented to many hundreds or thousands of students, minimising impact on transport and accommodation (in term times and between terms).
  • Reducing the pressure on campus facilities, equipment maintenance and running costs. Large public buildings consume huge amounts of power and heat. While it’s true that decentralising students through e-learning shifts some of the energy burden from campus to home, savings are nevertheless considerable. A study at the Stockholm Environmental Institute calculated that students who moved their studies online lowered their carbon dioxide emissions from 90kg to 4kg per term. Universities looking to expand their on-campus population also need to factor in the carbon impact from the raw material requirements of new or updated facilities.


Advancements in technology are driving e-learning access

Online learning offers students from every walk of life a flexible way of upskilling to the highest level. The ubiquity of smart devices and the rapid penetration of high-speed telecommunications networks around the world, are gradually lowering the barriers to education, providing emerging opportunities for more people.


Delivering the quality of education – at distance and at scale – capable of elevating human capital, is one of the most important ways we can begin to address increasingly globalised sustainability challenges. Digital transformation is key to opening access to higher education, but it can’t be achieved without disrupting traditional learning models.


Novel innovations will be needed to meet the challenges of online learning, specifically:

  • The creation of learning models that accommodate students’ evolving requirements – including the provision of blended or hybrid programmes that combine theory with practice in some degree courses.
  • Speeding up the process of digital transformation in higher education institutions to enable the more efficient management of learning programmes and to provide individual support for remote students.
  • Designing scalable and personalised online learning models that optimise instructors’ expertise without increasing their workload to unsustainable levels.


For online learning to offer a real alternative to a campus-based educational experience, universities must invest in redesigning courses, tailoring them to remote delivery – rather than attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole. E-learning programmes can’t afford to be a pale imitation of their campus counterparts. Indeed, this could be a historic opportunity for faculties to embed digital delivery into the teaching and learning process to benefit all students – not just those learning remotely.


That said, the drive to build e-platforms that enable universities to deliver outstanding learning experiences to remote students is creating new problems for higher education institutions that have traditionally focused on campus-based courses. Implementing e-learning technology, while transforming course content for digital learners carries considerable cost. Which is why more establishments are choosing to blend delivery mechanisms with experienced EdTech partners to marry optimum economic performance with logistic efficiencies.


Planning a more sustainable future

While the pandemic-forced global shutdown of public spaces drove a rapid crisis-response migration to remote teaching, it also revealed the potential for online learning to play a more prominent role in sustainable education.


To be successful, though, teaching styles must evolve to match learning opportunities, tapping into increasingly interactive, creative and strategic ways to engage learners across multiple geographies. If we’ve learned one thing from Covid, it’s that we have to adapt to survive; as the pandemic has persisted, so online learning has gained a firmer foothold in the educational sector.


Demand is certainly growing. Market research specialist Research and Markets estimate that the global online education market will climb to USD 350 billion by 2025, due, in large part, to flexible learning technologies.


The United States leads the charge, with over six million learners enrolled in online learning and distance learning programmes but other countries are quickly catching up. Interestingly, a rise in the number of UK universities offering online courses has led to a significant increase in international students – especially from the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa – choosing to study remotely at a UK university.


Universities now face an opportunity embedded in a challenge. Recruiting higher numbers of remote students will allow them to create a potentially profitable income stream while balancing their broader sustainability goals. But they must master the technological challenge if they are to meet the aspirations of a demanding and disparate student body. As issues of global sustainability reach crisis point, and heads of state gather in Glasgow for the latest round of climate negotiations, it’s a challenge that can’t be swerved.



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