How Online Education Impacts the Environment

By Karen McBride, Ed.D.

Some of us these past couple of years have touted international virtual exchanges as beneficial for several reasons.  One of these reasons include the fact that by engaging students across borders through technology, we are reducing the carbon footprint that comes along with travel.  Another reason is that it can proliferate education in such a way as to fulfill Sustainable Development Goal #4: access to Quality Education.  However, a current blind spot within education – or, at least, a communication deficit – is how the technology we increasingly use to become connected and internationally engaged does have an environmental footprint.

Our use of technology, particularly cell phones, the Cloud, e-mail, web searches and video-conferencing does impact the environment in negative ways.  For example, constantly recycled cell phones are not always re-used and frequently become harmful waste.  Lithium and aluminum mining are needed to create batteries and cell phone cases and any type of natural resource extraction has a negative effect on the environment (water supplies, biodiversity disruption).  Our “clouds” are just large electronic servers, of course, and they become larger and more numerous the more content we create and save.  Per a recent CNBC report, Google’s data centers alone require 15.5 terrawatt (15.5 trillion watts) hours of electricity per year which is more than twice what is used to power San Francisco, California.  Additionally, researchers at Purdue University and the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Maryland noted that there was not only a 20% increase in Internet usage since the pandemic began, but that a significant percentage of carbon emissions comes from keeping cameras on – making things tricky for online synchronous learning where many of us would agree that the camera is a key element of virtual engagement.  The upside?  Remote learning and tele-commuting can drastically reduce utility usage (by up to 90% per person) and produce a lot less waste for the college campus.  Where does this leave us?  According to an article in Sustainability: The Journal of Record:

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 (Snyder, Koustas and Jillson, 2020). 

As we increasingly traverse borders through virtual learning, especially international borders, we must endeavor to do two things:

  • Leverage our curricula, assignments and dialogue to talk about the greatest threat of our time: human-driven erosion of the planet.
  • Measure and assess learning and other outcomes resulting from these connections. Metrics need to be developed and with no current baseline, all assessments (be it quantitative or qualitative) should be explored and shared.  Whether it’s student learning outcomes, faculty engagement, scientific measurements, statistical analyses, impacts on communities, tracer studies, funding opportunities or policy development, a coordinated and collegial effort for accountability must be established.

In the meantime, the anticipated benefits of international virtual exchange should be a primary motivating factor for its proliferation.  To open up the world – its people, its localized realities, its dialogue and its passions – means to exponentially improve upon some of our greatest challenges, such as building trust to prevent conflict, eliminating social barriers, finding solutions to the climate crisis and dreaming of what is humanly possible.  We are also in need of Sustainability Shepherds along the way.