Save the trees! Apparently Moodle is a conservationist

1977

This post was contributed by Megan Pope.

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In a recent press release, NCC Home Learning, a UK based online distance-learning organization, discussed their efforts to “green” the planet. Their contribution? Using Moodle to help the environment:

As technology systems are developed, more students are able to complete their courses online…This system has reduced the amount of paper being used to deliver education and is helping work towards the overall reduction of paper usage.

Utilizing Moodle as their Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), NCC Home Learning offers courses ranging in topics from interior design to business. With over 500k learners, they must be doing something right. Their marketing team is certainly clever to tap into “green” fever. However, they have hit on a relevant topic: the environmental impacts of online education platforms.

Saving the environment?

Saving the planet is important, even Obama thinks so. The American President announced this week his goals to reduce global warming emissions. But is utilizing a Learning Management Systems (LMS) an act of saving the planet? It could be argued, as NCC Home Learning does, that VLE and LMS such as Moodle decrease the amount of paper being consumed in education. Especially in courses which utilize digital textbooks.

According to one source, “The death of printed media would save about 125,000 trees annually (and unfortunately kill a lot of jobs, most likely, in the process).” That is awesome! And awful.

However, if there is less paper, that means more technology. As more and more schools are implementing Moodle, more computers and devices will be utilized. It was reported, “the energy consumed by electronic devices and the mining required to produce electricity may actually cause more damage to the environment.” Why does this feel like a win/lose situation? The benefits from technology education seem to be numerous, and there is such hope for online learning innovations.

Newton knows best

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every great innovation has had to abide by this principle, and Moodle is no different. Online learning may be saving trees, but it appears there may be other repercussions and challenges to face in our increasingly digital age. One of those challenges will be how to Skype with our potential new alien neighbors, living on far-off newly discovered planets.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Another consideration: imagine how much carbon is not put into the atmosphere by commuting students in online courses vs. their counterparts in place-based training. It’s more than just paper.

  2. If you want a more serious (if slightly dated) analysis of the impact of various ways of delivering education, see

    Roy, R., Potter, S. and Yarrow, K. (2008). ‘Designing low carbon higher education systems: Environmental impacts of campus and distance learning systems’ International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9 (2), pp. 116–130.

    You can get the full-text online from http://oro.open.ac.uk/10677/1/paper5.RoyPotter%26Yarrow_IJSHEPaperJuly07.pdf

    Of course, you can suspect bais if you like, since this report is written by three OU academics, and clearly we have an incentive to make distance learning look good. On the other hand, the methodology is clearly explained, and it got pushed in a peer-reviewed journal.

    I would like to see an updated version of that work because
    1. As reported there, at the time, many students had a habit of printing out any document that was provided online.
    2. Most orgainsations have worked hard to reduce the greehouse gas emissions from their buildings (e.g. by installing better insulation).

    However, I think that report is still interesting.

  3. Of course, most trees used for paper come from tree farms. If those trees were “saved”, it implies the question of what becomes of that land. Georgia-Pacific is unlikely to just let the land return to the forest primeval. What’s the environmental consequence of having a tree farm become a WalMart or a condo development? (Or a feed lot – at least trees pull carbon out of the air, unlike cows…)

    I’d also love to see someone explore the idea that students at F2F institutions are doing more reading on the screen, because the numbers on our public printers suggest that transition is happening very slowly if at all.

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