How Online Education Makes Schools Greener

Online learning brings with it many benefits—namely, the flexibility for individuals to earn an education from practically anywhere on the planet. But its benefits extend well beyond that to helping the planet as a whole. Many people aren’t aware of it, but online education plays a role in reducing the ecological footprint of higher education.

Think about it: a lot of people attend colleges and universities. In the United States alone there are approximately 20 million students enrolled. Educating all those people requires resources, including classroom space, energy, course materials, and transportation to and from campus. As institutions strive to grow more sustainably, they should consider developing more online programs as part of their efforts. Here are a few ways online education can help institutions reduce environmental impact:

It Cuts Down On Commuting

First, let’s consider commuting to and from campus. For those lucky to live just a mile from campus, driving there and back every week day contributes up to a third of a ton of CO2 emissions each month (we used this handy carbon calculator to estimate). If a commute is longer than that, just think of how much is going into the atmosphere.

By watching lectures, participating in class discussions, submitting assignments, and even meeting with professors from home, online students can potentially reduce tons of CO2 emissions every year.

It Reduces Energy Consumption

It’s not just driving cars to campus that makes an impact. Campus facilities require a lot of energy to light classrooms and heat and cool buildings. Online programs have the potential to help reduce overall energy consumption. While there is a need for more research in this area, one study found that a university was able to reduce the need for classroom use and save 4,000 hours of lighting by offering more online courses. This not only saved the school thousands of dollars, but it also prevented the generation of 19 tons of CO2 emissions.

Sure, students still consume energy when they take courses at home, but it takes far less to power existing structures (like home offices) than it does to power a large, external facility.

It Saves Trees

What about all that paper used for classes? From in-class handouts to textbooks, the college has traditionally required the use of a lot of trees. But when studying online, students primarily get their class information and readings electronically (that’s not to say they don’t print things out at home, but we can presume they print less). What’s even better is that as both online and campus students move to ebooks from paper textbooks, it is estimated they could save more than 28,000 trees per million books.

We should also take into account the trees that can be saved by reducing the need for more building. Traditionally, more enrollments have meant the need to develop more land. Growth in online education, however, requires little to no physical infrastructure expansion.

Looking Forward

While institutions like Colorado State University—which was named the greenest university in the country—are making great strides when it comes to sustainability, let’s not forget that online education is a necessary part of sustainable growth.

How else do you think online education could help universities to become more sustainable in the future?