Online learning not a green panacea, researchers warn

Written by: Simon Baker
Published on: 22 Feb 2021

Guests ride the Tea Cups at Walt Disney Co.’s Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California

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The shift to online learning during the pandemic may have prompted calls for such methods to be used more in the future to tackle climate change.

But a study that found that staff and students may generate about the same amount of carbon emissions by working remotely as they do commuting to campus could give pause for thought, according to one of the authors.

According to the research, by a team at Bournemouth University, the institution’s carbon footprint in the UK’s spring 2020 lockdown fell by almost 30 per cent compared with the same period in previous years.

But the researchers found that estimated emissions from remote studying and working – through the use of energy to power computers, kettles and cookers and to light workspaces – were still “significant”.

Overall, they estimated that from April to June 2020, the university’s staff and students generated about 1,100 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, “almost equal to the [greenhouse gas] emissions attributed to their university commute” in previous years.

“This suggests that, unlike previous studies have argued…online teaching/learning can be less climate-friendly than it is anticipated to be,” the study says.

“Indeed, given that work/study from home can generate as much carbon footprint as the university commute, a large share of the carbon savings achieved by moving education online in pursuit of avoided student and staff mobility can be effectively negated.”

The study also found that despite the campus being virtually empty last spring, the amount of gas and electricity needed to run buildings during lockdown only fell by around half, so limiting the overall savings in the carbon footprint. The other main saving in emissions during lockdown was the lack of business travel.

“This suggests that substantial amounts of energy are necessary to maintain university campuses even in the absence of staff and students,” the study, published in Science of the Total Environment, says.

Coupled with the findings on remote working, the authors say this means that calls for using blended models of teaching and learning “as a (more) climate-friendly” method of delivery “should be taken with caution”.

“As this study demonstrated, blended teaching may be less carbon beneficial than fully online or fully on-campus teaching,” it adds.

Viachaslau Filimonau, senior lecturer in hospitality management at Bournemouth, who worked on the study with the institution’s sustainability team, said the research findings had come as a “big surprise”.

This was particularly the case as the study assumed “the bare minimum of at-home activities” and excluded things such as heating – due to the lockdown occurring during milder weather – and shopping for food.

“I think the surprise would have even been bigger if we were to conduct this assessment in winter,” he added.