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Is effective online learning bad for the environment?

Teaching may be more rewarding when students’ cameras are on, but it comes at a cost.


Delivering lectures online to students who have their cameras off is one aspect of the shift to online or remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic that’s been challenging for many instructors.

Tony Bates, a research associate with Contact North,  says there are many reasons students choose to do so, including privacy concerns.

“The students do not want to have a camera watching them all the time,” he said. “For many students, using the cameras is not a suitable alternative to going in person to university for socializing and meeting their friends.”

A recent survey of 33 students from McGill and Concordia Universities found that 40 per cent kept their camera off during online Zoom lectures to preserve their privacy in order to do other tasks. But around six per cent said they kept their camera off for another reason: to save the environment.

Turn off your cameras

Renee Obringer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Maryland. She and her colleagues at Purdue University recently gathered data on global internet usage from different communication centres that provide internet service all over the world. Their research shows that the number of internet users increased 20 per cent following the huge shift to online platforms during the pandemic. It came with an environmental cost.

“A standard video conference uses 2.5 gigabytes per hour and has a carbon footprint of 157 g of CO2. If one individual has 15 one-hour meetings in a week, his monthly carbon footprint would be 9.4 kg,” said Obringer.

Conversely, if one million videoconference users kept their cameras off, they would reduce emissions by 9,023 tons of CO2 in one month, which is about as many emissions as it takes to power a town of 36,000 people over that time.

The pandemic’s impact on human activity helped reduce energy consumption by almost 9 per cent in the first six months of 2020, compared with the first six months of 2019.

“But our study indicates one of the biggest contributions of the current carbon emissions are energy sectors which provide the electricity to provide the internet for remote working or learning,” said Dr. Obringer. “We suggest a simple tip to reduce the internet-related carbon emissions: reduce how often you keep your cameras on while you are in an online class.”

But is this simple tip practical for online instructors?

“Cameras being off impairs the teaching,” said Lawrence Nyveen who teaches web design in Concordia’s journalism department. “Teaching means effectively communicating with my students, but with the offline cameras, I could not recognize even their faces. So, how do we balance the efficacy of teaching with helping reduce CO2 emissions? And is that even the right question to ask?”

Redesigning online classes

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations surveyed 2,700 faculty, students and librarians at 21 universities across the province in November 2020. Sixty-two per cent of respondents said they thought the pandemic had a highly negative impact on the quality of education. The main reason was the lack of communication with others.

“It is not a key issue that the cameras are on or off,” said Dr. Bates. “It makes sense, but it is not the best way of communication for teachers and students.”

He points to the fact that before COVID-19, only about 10 per cent of all instruction was done online. When the pandemic hit, most instructors hadn’t received training on how to effectively deliver a class remotely.

“Giving back-to-back lectures via an online platform is not an effective way to teach for the students who are sitting in front of their cameras in their isolation without any interactive parts,” explained Dr. Bates.

He thinks encouraging students to be more active in the online classes, with or without cameras, is the best way is to reimagine the traditional university models.

“In the digital age, the teachers need to have a more digital approach,” Dr. Bates said. “You have to redesign more chunks and give the students a lot of activities, instead of just forcing the students to watch an online lecture or video for one hour.”

He suggests teachers combine short lectures and activities like small discussion groups, using online platforms.

However, Mr. Nyveen says this approach may  not be suitable for every course: “My class is based on face-to-face skills, more than thinking or theory, and I could not figure out the online discussion groups without using the cameras.”

For her part, Dr. Obringer doesn’t believe students or lecturers should be asked to turn off their cameras, or that there should be defined environmental standards for online teaching.

But she does think that by making people aware of the environmental costs, they can decide for themselves whether to keep their cameras on or off.

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