Sustainable Study: The Nature of Online Learning

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Reporter: Daniel L. Wilde

We don’t often think of online learning in terms of environmental sustainability. There is every reason not to see this type of study as green. Particularly for the younger among the student population, the act of leaving home and undertaking the independent venture of post-secondary education marks an important psycho-social transition into adulthood. The relationships and life lessons learned in the school environment become the formational stuff of stories told (or not told!) to our children and loved ones in years to come. There are any number of reasons to opt for online learning, and Memorial University offers an impressive list of courses and programs. For some, the cost of living away from home leaves the cupboard bare, and part-time work steals precious time and focus that could be otherwise devoted to studies. Online studies also play an important role in providing accessibility options in light of physical or mental challenges, or simply serve as a convenient option for those engaged in full time employment or other endeavours.

It is worth considering that distance learning via online platforms such as Memorial’s D2L-Brightspace encompasses a host of related benefits to our environment. Not least of these benefits is perhaps the most familiar to students: the laptop largely replaces hardcopy assignments and paper exams with digital submissions. Estimates depend on multiple factors, but tree-to-paper ratios range from 0.006 – 0.5 trees per ream (500 sheets) of paper. Entertaining the idea that paper consumption for regular school attendees averages 1 ream per semester, we arrive at a loose figure of 12-1000 trees per 1000 students per school year. During this school year, taking a reasonable value of 20 trees per hectare (2.5 acres), and around two thirds of the total number of current Memorial students, at minimum a section of forest approaching the size of the Harlow Campus will (hypothetically) need to be levelled. This is by no means an estimate meant for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal; it does, however, provide a relatable scale.

Online learning also reduces our carbon footprint in several ways. First, we can consider the increased energy consumption that would be required if all online students required brick-and-mortar accommodation on campus. Second, the fossil fuel requirement to travel to and from campus is, well, not required for online students. This reduction in fossil fuel use also technically applies to the teaching staff, although many online instructors teach on campus as well.

There is also another aspect of sustainability that is often forgotten. Studying from home not only allows us to appreciate the sometimes underappreciated ecosystems that await us beyond our front door, attending to familial social bonds has the potential to increase individual, family, and community wellness. Not everyone’s priorities or situation is the same, but the potential for a reduction in stress and an increase in disposable time also stacks the odds in favour of local exercise and appreciation of our natural surroundings. We are fortunate in Canada to have incredibly diverse and beautiful landscapes either within or in close proximity to our urban centres. Although there is such a thing as eco-therapy or what Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle, would call “vitamin N,” the simple and intimate subjective pleasure that natural places provide is a prescription we know all too well.

 Online learning has many benefits, not the least of which is a reduced impact on our environment. The default position that online learning represents a detached and solitary form of study is far too short-sighted to take seriously. The reality is that it has the potential to enhance our experience of social bonding, community awareness, and appreciation for the re-invigorating natural spaces that surround us – wherever that rich environment finds us most comfortable.

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