Designing low carbon higher education systems: Environmental impacts of campus and distance learning systems

Roy, Robin; Potter, Stephen and Yarrow, Karen (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.



Purpose – This paper aims to summarise the methods and main findings of a study of the environmental impacts of providing higher education (HE) courses by campus-based and
distance/open-learning methods.

Design/methodology/approach – The approach takes the form of an environmental audit, with data from surveys of 20 UK courses – 13 campus-based, seven print-based and online distance learning courses – covering travel, paper and print consumption, computing, accommodation, and campus site impacts. Results were converted into energy and CO2 emissions per student per 100 hours of degree study.

Findings – Distance learning HE courses involve 87 per cent less energy and 85 per cent lower CO2 emissions than the full-time campus-based courses. Part-time campus HE courses reduce energy and CO2 emissions by 65 and 61 per cent, respectively, compared with full-time campus courses. The lower impacts of part-time and distance compared with full-time campus courses is mainly due to a reduction in student travel and elimination of much energy consumption of students’ housing, plus economies in campus site utilisation. E-learning appears to offer only relatively small energy and emissions reductions (20 and 12 per cent, respectively) compared with mainly print-based distance learning courses, mainly because online learning requires more energy for computing and paper for printing.

Research limitations/implications – Assumptions were made in order to calculate the energy and emissions arising from the different HE systems. For example, it was decided to include all the energy consumed in term-time accommodation for full-time campus students while part-time campus and distance learning students live at home, only requiring additional heating and lighting for study.
Future studies could include more distance and blended learning courses offered by institutions other than the UK Open University and impacts other than CO2 emissions.
Practical implications – Existing HE sustainability programmes should be broadened beyond considering campus site impacts and “greening the curriculum”. Indeed, were HE expansion to take environmental impacts seriously, then part-time and distance education should be prioritised over
increasing full-time provision. This appears compatible with the Leitch Review of Skills on continuing education and training for the UK workforce.

Originality/value – The paper is the only existing quantitative study of this issue.

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