Is online learning really better for the environment? We ask the experts

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Remote learning and working from home has become the norm over the past year as people have adjusted to living through the pandemic. 

The best online learning platforms have really upped their game, providing new and exciting courses for people who want to polish their resume and expand their horizons. And the best online tutoring services have been an enormous help to kids through a difficult period, when most schools have been forced to go online. 

But as governments attempt to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions and become more energy efficient to help with climate change, could online learning be a key means to saving the planet?

Here, we weigh up the benefits and negative impacts of digital learning – and get some input from teachers and eco-focused experts, too. 

Positive: Travel emissions and energy consumption are reduced

Without the commute and school run, and with educational materials being sent electronically rather than being printed, surely online learning would be good for the environment? At a first glance, research suggests so. 

A 2008 study discovered that distance learning higher education courses involve 87% less energy and 85% lower carbon dioxide emissions than full-time campus-based courses. A separate piece of research from 2015 also found similar results, noting impressive emission savings from online learning, with an 88% reduction in energy consumption and an 83% reduction in carbon emissions.

Even part time campus courses reduce energy and emissions compared with full-time campus courses. This is mainly down to a reduction in student travel (and thus gasoline), energy consumption in student housing and campus site operations (ventilation, lighting, etc).

Shweta Bahri, co-founder of Earth Warriors, a climate-change-focused curriculum provider, believes that online education isn’t necessarily an eco-solution.

She says: “If one argues that less transport to and from schools creates less carbon emissions, the increased use of technology for online education has its own share of carbon emissions as more research is revealing.

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"It also deprives children of the opportunity to build social and emotional skills, given they’re learning alone versus with their peers. Online learning is more effective for learning for older versus younger age groups, given that children in their early years always learn best through play. So while online education can be a great solution for specific age groups and contexts, it’s not a solution to the eco crisis – educating them and empowering them on the topic, on the other hand, very much is.”

Positive: Residential emissions are massively reduced

Despite concerns that the increase in computing for online education could negate energy savings, research from 2008 suggests that the other energy and emissions savings achieved far outweighed this downside.

The above study found that the largest environmental impact of online education was computing (adding 24kg of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere per student), but the 90% savings in energy and emissions in areas of transport, campus, and residential energy more than made up for this.

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The research considered residential energy consumption of full time students (assuming they had a term-time residence separate from ‘home’ that resulted in duplication of heating energy) compared to online students, finding residential energy use for full-time students to be a whopping 102kg versus 4.4kg for online students. 

Negative: Recycling rates could be adversely affected

Only about 63% of paper is recycled in the US. This is important to consider, because high levels of greenhouse gases are generated from rubbish left to rot in the ground, which ultimately contributes to climate change.

In the above-mentioned research, student's paper use was very much the same when comparing online to on-site learners, so it may also be also important to factor in whether home pupils are more or less likely to recycle the paper they use, when considering the eco benefits of online learning. 

Positive: Students don't need to travel to access tutors

Felix Ohswald, co-founder and CEO of GoStudent, a digital learning platform for K-12 and college-aged students, says that there are numerous environmental and practical benefits to online learning: the biggest one being that teaching isn’t limited by geography.

“By learning in a virtual classroom, children can be matched with the tutor that best suits their needs – something which can be difficult in a real-world environment. Many parents will travel further to take their child to a school or a tutor that best suits them – but this has an environmental impact – and most parents will be constrained by the maximum distance that they are willing to travel each day, or each lesson.”

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He adds that learning in an online classroom ensures that the student has all the tools they need – a virtual whiteboard, 1:1 time with their ideal tutor – but it is also incredibly environmentally efficient. 

“When learning at home, in all likelihood, the computer, wi-fi, heating and lights would already be turned on and in use by at least one family member. To deliver an online lesson, no carbon dioxide-emitting commute by tutor or student is required, and an educational experience can still be achieved.” 

Plus, online education offers learning opportunities for students in rural areas and allows instructors to maximize their investment by reaching a greater number of learners.

Kavi Shah

Kavi Shah is an experienced freelance writer and editor who covers various topics for Top Ten Reviews, including photography, education and languages.