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Going Online is Going Green

Online learning options may appeal to students for many reasons, including convenience of access and flexibility of schedules. What about the "green" factor? Online learning may also appeal to environmentally conscious students and instructors.

While there is an energy cost associated with taking online courses – you are consuming electricity with your computer, mobile devices, etc. – you are practicing "green" learning by not burning fuel in your car to commute to a class building where electricity is also being consumed. You may even have eBooks and other paperless resources that reduce the consumption of natural resources. All of these efforts help to reduce your carbon footprint, defined by The Nature Conservancy as the contribution each of us makes "in going about our daily lives – commuting, sheltering our families, eating … to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change."

There are current arguments both for and against the positive environmental impact of telecommuting. The real benefits emerge when working or studying from home replaces traditional offices and campus facilities. If your school maintains physical facilities in addition to your expenditures at home, there is duplication of effort and the potential for wasted resources. There are a lot of variables to measure!

Steps YOU Can Take

You'll find lots of tips and techniques out there for being green in the workplace and study space. What can you do at home, as an online instructor or student, to make an even bigger impact in the reduction of your carbon footprint?

  • Don't print everything out. There are a few things that might be worth printing for each course, such as your syllabus and weekly to-do lists. Printing hard copies of all of your reading assignments could become quite costly in terms of both paper and printer toner. Think about each document before you select "print." Are there other ways you could conveniently access these materials and take notes? Making the switch from paper to digital takes time and practice, both necessary for changing habits.
  • Be stingy with paper. Sometimes we just need to print things out. Consider using both sides of each sheet of paper and saving drafts to use as scrap paper for notes. You can also purchase paper that has been recycled and recycle your paper when you are through with it. According to The Nature Conservancy, "recycled paper takes 60 to 70 percent less energy to produce than paper from virgin pulp.
  • Buy used. Reusing items that still have some life left is not only environmentally friendly, but also may result in cost savings. If printed textbooks are your only option, consider used copies if they are available. Renting textbooks is also an alternative, through sites like, which may reduce the total number of books that need to be printed. It's also tempting to want to buy the newest computer equipment and latest gadget. Explore available used and refurbished hardware options. Just make sure the items you use meet the specs required by your program.
  • Make your computer greener: Bright Hub offers a host of suggestions for green computing. Get started by adjusting your computer's power settings so that it moves into a power saving mode when not in use. Screensavers can use more energy by keeping your monitor active longer, so disable them in your settings. Check out more techniques through Bright Hub's Green Computing Tips and guides for buying eco-friendly hardware and software.
  • Make your search greener: EcoSearch, powered by Google, is a non-profit organization that donates to charity organizations that focus on the environment. EcoSearch also helps to increase public awareness of the work of these groups, which include Sierra Club, Rainforest Alliance, Healthy Child Healthy World, and others.
  • Turn your computer (and monitor) off. The U.S. Department of Energy provides guidelines for when you should turn off your personal computer. Sleep Mode features save a lot of energy, but turning your devices off completely saves even more. If you have a separate monitor, turn it off if you are going to walk away for more than 20 minutes. Turn your monitor and computer/laptop off if you are walking away for more than two hours. And don't forget about other devices, such as your printer and lighting in your workspace. 

Remember that every effort counts! Small steps, when done consistently, can make a big difference. Where can you start today? Pick just one thing and make it a habit.

Sustainability Initiatives

There are many current examples of environmentally conscious initiatives taking place in higher education, both on campuses and in administrative offices. All of these efforts are designed to save resources and lower costs.

  • Eco-Rep Programs: These can be found across the country and started at Tufts University. Led by students, Eco-Rep groups foster sustainability awareness and practices, including lifestyle changes, recycling, residential hall programs, and collaboration with campus administrators. For more information about current school participation, take a look at the Peer-to-Peer page of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).
  • Campus Initiatives: The University of Hawaii's sustainableUH initiative has taken on the mission of establishing the university "as a world leader in sustainable practices, education and research," and it appears they are well on their way. Improving practices through courses, workshops, and building energy audits, the results are amazing – $700,000 annual savings in energy costs at a campus library. And that's just one building at one school. Many universities now have Offices of Sustainability and other similar roles striving to achieve similar results.
  • Office Initiatives: Kaplan, Inc. is just one educational group that offers many of its higher education courses online, but also maintains physical office facilities for administrative staff members. Kaplan recently contracted with a facilities consulting firm to "streamline their Green Initiatives." This effort includes analysis of the company's carbon footprint and recommendations for waste management and recycling. 

It's not easy being green – but it's worth the effort!

In class, at work, and at home, changing your routine to include the adoption of sustainability practices has multiple benefits. These changes are good for the planet and society as a whole, and they are also helpful in reducing your costs and improving your immediate work space. What are your favorite ways to "go green?" Share your tips and techniques here and help us all to improve our habits.

September 14th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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