Greening: what can e-learning do?

As an undergraduate at the University of Cape Town in 1952, I received a handout from William Talbot, Professor of Geography. It was a journal paper written in the 1940s by a person whose name I can’t remember. The topic was whether changes in the balance of the atmosphere’s gases, particularly CO2, would result in global heating or cooling. It could go either way, he suggested. And, on the evidence he gave, that’s what I thought for a very long time. 

More than half a century later my current views about climate change met up with Sahm’s blog about GECKO* and his heartfelt presentation at the EDEN Conference in Gdansk last week.** GECKO was a pilot project designed to draw attention to what a university like Leicester might do to make its activities greener. 

My wife and I live in a village in a corner of Bedfordshire. The village’s identity and a large area of countryside are threatened by proposals to build 4,400 houses nearby, over the next 20 years or so, within a regional strategy aimed at meeting a nationwide shortfall in housing identified 10 years ago when Gordon Brown was Chancellor. 

The proposals do not take into account the forthcoming impact of climate change, within the period up to 2031, let alone beyond. After a passing mention of ‘a significant challenge’, the issue is raised perfunctorily, reflecting the low priority given to it. Yet climate change will soon be the top priority for national and local government. 

The UK is third from the bottom of the EU league table for renewable energy, said The Guardian this week. What strategies should be borne in mind by my local authority for renewable energy and carbon emission reduction? Why do the proposals contain no requirements for eco-housing, only aspirations? Where are the estimates of additional car miles per commuting worker per year for those living in the proposed ‘urban extensions’? Why are there no earmarked sites for wind farms? Where are proposals aimed at ensuring carbon-neutral status for new developments and old? Whence will the water supplies come from? Where is the vision and leadership that will enable communities to meet the very considerable challenges posed by climate change in this century? Who will benefit from building houses on the countryside? 

The proposals are a recipe for more development as before, without jobs and without infrastructure, at the expense of our environment and, in due time, of our society and its economy. If implemented, they will be storing up trouble for our children and grandchildren. 

I wonder whether there is a mission for non-formal e-learning in all this. Attitudes must be changed. 41C in London, as predicted by the Met Office for later this century, will be hell, let alone much more serious consequences of climate change.


*GECKO (Greening of E-learning ChecK Out)

**Nikoi, Samuel and Wheeler, Matthew. How green is your learning? Pedagogical options for environmentally sustainable education. Paper presented at the EDEN Conference, 10-13 June, Gdansk.

Olympic Computing Power

Radio 4’s Costing the Earth: Virtual Warming programme (thanks Simon for downloading the podcast for me) investigated the issue of ‘data centres‘ that enable every twitter, Facebook posting and YouTube video to be viewed, but which all have a carbon cost that is becoming increasingly dear, as our use of computers grow exponentionally.

The programme covered the expanding digital cloud which is contributing 2 per cent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, about the same as aviation, and it’s rising. The high energy demands of the massive data centres needed to store all our information are of growing concern to both the government and industry. Part of the programme was dedicated to the concern that London’s data centre capacity is on the brink of bursting at the seams for various reasons – one of which is the amount of electricity that is required to power such ventures – the reason – this infrastructure may be being held back in reserve for London 2012.

Which got me thinking..? How much computing power is going to be required for the Olympics and therefore what is the carbon cost?

The organising committee for London 2012 have plans in place for the environment and sustainability but has anyone considered the environmental impact of broadcasting and journalism at major sporting events? In Beijing there were more than 20,000 journalists each with their essential equipment (laptops, satellite phones, cameras etc…) then the thousands of kilometres of cabling and networking for all the billions of viewers around the world – that is before we even think about the equipment used for timing and measuring events for the Olympics or even in the lead up to qualifying for the games.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being a doom-monger, I’m just interested. I love everything about the Olympics and what it stands for; I love the competition, the colour and the energy that surrounds the games. I’m sure that London 2012 will be the best games yet under very difficult economic circumstances. Maybe I should send this link to my friend Seb and see if he has an answer?

Matthew Wheeler

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Carbon Footprint of Spam

Some of you may be aware that for the last 9 months or so we have been doing some initial exploratory research into the environmental sustainability of teaching & learning through the GECKO project. The project report of our findings is in its final draft and will be made available soon, but I was interested to read about a new study recently carried out for the computer security company McAfee. According to their research team ICF, there are some 62 trillion spam emails sent each year, wasting 33 billion kilo watt-hours (KWh) of power. Most of the energy is wasted at our computer, as we sift and delete messages, searching for the genuine ones!

These are just some of the findings from the report:

  • Spam filtering can reduce the energy wasted by up to 75 percent
  • Spam filtering is the global equivalent of taking 3.1 million cars off the road
  • The environmental impact of the spam generated in a year is the equivalent to driving around the earth 1.6 million times
  • The annual energy used to transmit, process and filter spam is equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes

The study looked at the energy expended to create, store, view and filter spam across 11 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, India, Mexico, Spain, the United States and the United Kingdom. The study calculated the average greenhouse gas emission associated with a single spam message at 0.3 grams of CO2.

“We’ve been talking about spam for a long while, and we wanted to bring a quantifiable environmental impact,” said David Marcus, Security Research and Communications Manager at McAfee. He then went on to say, “Spam is bad for the environment as well as for your productivity.”

The report is clearly aimed at providing another reason for adopting McAfee spam filtering products but could also provide more ammunition for those of us wanting to take action against spam and improve the environment at the same time. I understand how hard it is to calculate accurately the carbon emissions of various environmental parameters and the numerous variables within each one. However, if we put aside any doubts about the accuracy of the study for one moment and focus on the issue here, which is raising our awareness of our actions on the environment, then I do not think that is such a bad thing!

Matthew Wheeler

Keeper of the Media Zoo

A paperless society, how close are we?

About seventeen years ago I attended a seminar in Manchester at which the speaker predicted that a paperless society will emerge in twenty year’s time. We are three years away from the date and I wonder whether we are any closer to the prediction. Last week I was in London with Pal (a work colleague) to attend an HEA meeting at the London Knowledge Lab.  Before the meeting, we were emailed directions to the venue and we made sure we had a printed copy of the information before we set off from Leicester. At London Kings Cross we followed the instructions:

“From Kings cross, take the Piccadilly line south bound to Russell square, come out of the station and turn right, pass the Brunswick centre on your left and carry on and turn, carry on and turn, and turn and carry on and on and on and on…”

After the meeting, and based on my suggestion, we ignored the set of instructions sent to us, made an educated guess, and ventured in a direction we were convinced will take us back to the Kings Cross station. To verify that we were heading in the right directions, we stopped at a point and spoke to a couple who looked more like tourists than Londoners. After a few manoeuvres we made it to Kings Cross, hurray!!!

Back home I wondered why the direction to the venue of the meeting was not made available as a podcast for download, both for our immediate and future use and also considering the fact that the meeting was about podcasting for learning. The alternative would have been to have in our possession the revolutionary I-Phone with GPS functionality and maps.

Despite much talk about the exponential growth in computing power, the age of information technology, the age of digital revolution etc, characterised by the ability to access and transfer information freely, it appears many of us academics, and the institutions and organisations we belong to still limit our use of technology to aspects of our lives e.g. learning, teaching, researching, communicating  whilst  remaining ultra-conservative in other areas of our lives e.g. travelling, shopping etc. Clinging to, and tenaciously adhering to old ways of doing things, as pertained in the pre-technology era, instead of embracing the change and improvement technology can make in all areas of our lives has profound implications for how we view and change the future. From the point of view of “learning transition”, thinking digital and digital wisdom still remains a challenge in many aspects of our non-academic lives. Perspectives may differ on “initiation ceremonies” into digital modes of thinking, but the question still remains; how close are we to crossing the paperless chasm?

Sahm Nikoi; 31 March 2009.

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