How Online Education Makes Schools Greener

Online learning has many benefits, including the flexibility to continue your education from just about anywhere on the planet.

Want to earn your master’s degree while living on an ex-army steel tug boat? You can! Earning a certificate or degree online is also ideal for working professionals because you can complete coursework when it works for your schedule without the need to travel to a campus.

Online learning can also play a role in reducing the ecological footprint of higher education.

Think about it: A lot of people attend colleges and universities. Between 2018 and 2019, there were just under 22 million students enrolled in higher education institutions, according to Educating all those people requires a lot of resources: classroom space, energy, course materials, and transportation to and from campus.

As institutions strive to grow more sustainably, they should strongly consider developing more online programs as part of those efforts. Here are just 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 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.

The Future of Online Education

While institutions like Colorado State University (named the greenest university in the US in 2019) are making great strides when it comes to on-campus sustainability, let’s not forget that online education is a necessary part of sustainable growth. Although online education will never completely replace face-to-face learning (nor should it), it does extend educational resources to people who may not otherwise have access. This, combined with the added sustainability and reduced costs, ensures that online learning will surely continue to grow.

Learn more about How Online Learning Works at CSU.

This post was updated on 4/22/2020

4 thoughts on “How Online Education Makes Schools Greener”

  1. Rosarian Academy

    Hey Beren, great article by the way.
    I love what your wrote “Online learning has many benefits, including the flexibility to continue your education from just about anywhere on the planet.”
    This is so true. I believe online learning is here to stay. What are your thoughts?

  2. Hi Beren,

    I couldn’t agree more! Online learning should be a part of every degree, but not replace traditional classroom.


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