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.

Shared pedagogic research interests and the sustainability of learning and teaching

Oxford Brookes University has a CETL called the Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Network (HLSTN). In 2007 the CETL published a special edition of its LINK newsletter. It was on small projects completed up to 2006 that had received support from the HLSTN’s pedagogic research fund. I worked with the authors to produce 27 edited summaries for the newsletter.

The projects reflect interests of HLST staff across the country: e-learning, employability, sustainability, assessment and feedback, work-based learning, PDP and key skills, interdisciplinarity, student motivation, internationalisation and cultural values, reflective practice, research methods, student retention, problem-based learning, the first-year student experience, foundation degree delivery, learning styles, widening participation, student performance, academic writing and quality assurance.

Although these projects were all embedded in the HLST sector, I could not help noticing when I re-read them recently that the University of Leicester – and Beyond Distance  in particular – share many of these interests. Some of them are national themes.

Sustainability is a concept with many angles, including green ones, but I’ve just read the report published by HEFCE nearly six months ago about the sustainability of learning and teaching in English higher education.* Its message is that this learning and teaching is unsustainable at current funding levels and with current student numbers. Staffing, buildings and equipment are inadequate now and will become more so. Our international standing and competitiveness are at stake. This finding surprised me, because under Labour education has experienced relative plenty.

In a recession, with a huge national debt, how can financial sustainability be attained? In 2007/08, says the report, the higher education sector delivered efficiencies of at least £202m; figures for 2008/09 are not yet available. Further efficiencies will no doubt be demanded. The sector may lose, not gain, government funding.

I don’t know the answer, except that economies of scale must be found, possibly through increased use of e-learning. But to date e-learning has been seen as an add-on cost. A couple of years ago a paper** made the case for distance learning (not e-learning as such) systems offering substantial savings in carbon emissions over campus systems. That’s another kind of sustainability.


*JM Consulting (2008) The sustainability of learning and teaching in English higher education. A report prepared for the (HEFCE) Financial Sustainability Strategy Group.

**Roy, Robin, Potter, Stephen and Yarrow, Karen (2007) ‘Designing low carbon higher education systems: environmental impacts of campus and distance learning systems’. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9, 2, 116-129.

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