Factor 10 Visions project: Higher Education Sector Towards Sustainable Higher Education: Environmental impacts of campus-based and distance higher education systems

Roy, Robin; Potter, Stephen; Yarrow, Karen and Smith, Mark (2005). Factor 10 Visions project: Higher Education Sector Towards Sustainable Higher Education: Environmental impacts of campus-based and distance higher education systems. DIG Report 8; Design Innovation Group, The Open University, Milton Keynes.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00009b47

URL: http://www3.open.ac.uk/events/3/2005331_47403_o1.p...


This report gives the findings of a major UK study of the environmental impacts of four different methods of providing higher education (HE) courses: Conventional campus-based full-time courses; Conventional campus-based part-time courses; Print-based distance taught courses; Part electronically-delivered distance taught courses.
This is an environmental assessment of these different HE systems and does not assess their educational effectiveness or socio-economic costs and benefits.
• On average, the production and provision of the distance learning courses consumed nearly 90% less energy and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions (per student per 10 CAT points) than the conventional campus-based university courses. (1 CAT point is equivalent to 10 hours total study and 360 CAT points are required for an UK undergraduate degree.)
• Part-time campus-based courses also cut energy and CO2 emissions, though by a lesser extent (energy by 63% and CO2 emissions by 62%).
• The much lower impacts of distance learning compared to campus-based courses is mainly due to a major reduction in the amount of student travel, economies of scale in utilisation of the campus site, and the elimination of much of the energy consumption of students’ housing. These are also key factors for the reduction in the environmental impacts of part-time course delivery. (The purchase and use of computers and consumption of paper and printed matter accounts for a relatively small difference between the distance and campus systems.)
• E-learning courses appear to offer only a small reduction in energy consumption and CO2 emissions (20% and 12% respectively) when compared to mainly print-based distance learning courses. This is due to high student use of computing, consumption of paper for printing off Web-based material, and additional home heating (probably for night time Internet access).
• Different campus courses involve a wide range of environmental impacts. Courses with low energy and emissions (per student per 10 CAT points) tend to have a high proportion of students who live at home while studying. The courses may also be taught at a compact, self-contained campus, perhaps containing energy efficient buildings.
• Existing programmes aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of higher education should be broadened beyond considering campus site environmental management and ‘greening the curriculum’ to include the impacts of student travel (especially travel between ‘home’ and university) and student housing.
• Nevertheless, there is evidence that HE courses with student-relevant environmental content can have a highly positive effect on student attitudes and behaviour towards the environment.
• Generally, this study challenges claims about the ‘de-materialisation’ effects and environmental benefits of using ICT to provide services such as HE. The environmental impacts of a service depend mainly on its requirements for travel and a dedicated infrastructure of buildings and equipment. The use of ICT or other methods will only benefit the environment if they reduce the service’s requirements for energy-intensive transport, dedicated equipment and heating and lighting of buildings.

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