Online Learning: Accidentally Green

This is where I admit I’m a little bit of a green freak. I use an electric lawn mower, an electric weed eater, and an electric leaf blower at my house, partly because they’re less expensive to fuel and maintain, but mostly because it allows me to avoid the wasted fossil fuels and absurd emissions of small gasoline engines. I can’t afford an electric car on an academic’s salary, but I did manage to find an electric scooter that I could afford, and I ride it to work any time the weather’s not too horrible…and as an old motorcycle lover and bicycle nut, I have a ridiculously liberal definition of “not too horrible” for riding. So yeah. Green freak. That’s me. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.When I first started working with the BLS Program in 2004, our primary goal was not to provide a green method of delivering our classes. In fact, it was the least of our considerations. We were mostly concerned with meeting the needs of the nontraditional students who wanted to complete a bachelor’s degree, but didn’t have the leisure to make it to regularly-scheduled classes on campus. The people we thought about were working 8-to-5 and weren’t served by the evening offerings on campus. Or they were working parents and couldn’t afford childcare to go to class. Or maybe they worked in some field with unpredictable hours, such as emergency services, or the medical field, or the airline industry, or even the good old restaurant business (and we have since had students in all of those fields). Whatever they were doing to pay the mortgage and support their children, we wanted to make classes that they could complete from home, in the hours they could manage to carve out of their schedules. From what I hear from our students, I think we’ve been pretty successful at that goal.

What we didn’t plan was the myriad ways in which our online classes are so much more resource-conserving than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Here are a few that come to mind.

No Driving — Instead of having each of our students burn a few gallons of gasoline getting to class (a lot of them are pretty far from campus), we use a few watts of electricity to deliver their classes electronically. They can participate in their classes anywhere they can get online, whether that’s at home, at work on a quiet night shift, at their favorite coffee shop, or from their hotel room while they’re traveling on business. It goes even further than that, because many of our faculty also teach their classes from home. Given that we have faculty who live in the Triangle, in Charlotte, and even out of state, that adds up to a lot of driving avoided by teaching and taking classes online.

No Buildings — We don’t need big spaces to gather faculty and students in the same room, so we don’t have to spend a bunch of money and resources building, heating, cooling, and lighting classroom buildings. That means fewer buildings and more green space for everyone, and it adds up to a substantial savings in terms of resource usage. Even with smart climate-control systems, classroom buildings take a vast amount of energy to heat and cool, and because of their scale, they have to be heated and cooled around the clock, even at night when no one’s around. By delivering our classes online to our students, we help reduce the pressure to build and maintain more resource-hogging classroom space. In fact, an online class full of students using their laptops at home, even if they leave them on all the time, still uses less electricity than it takes just to run the nighttime security lighting in a classroom building.

No Paper — Using online discussion boards, and writing, receiving, critiquing, and grading essays online saves reams of paper (literally) for each online class. My writing-intensive class has ten discussion boards, a prospectus, an essay, and a final revision. With twenty-five students in that class, assuming one full page each for the discussion boards, two pages for the prospectus, and ten pages each for the essay and revision, that’s (*does some math*) eight hundred pages that aren’t getting printed. Add in a syllabus that doesn’t have to get printed and handed out to the class, and that one 25-student online class has saved two whole reams of paper. Multiply that by the twenty-four classes we are offering this semester, and that’s a nice, heavy case of paper that isn’t getting deforested, pulped, packaged, shipped, and most likely ending up in a landfill somewhere at the end of it all.

So, less driving, less construction, less heating and cooling, and less paper. As a green freak, I gotta say that’s not too shabby as an accidental side effect. And here we were just trying to make it easier for you to go to class in your pajamas!

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