Are We Missing the Obvious?

Posted on September 24, 2012. Filed under: sustainability, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

In the past year, we’ve witnessed some of the most dramatic changes ever in higher education.  A quick and incomplete list of the forces at work includes:

  • Declining federal and state budget support,
  • Soaring tuition costs and student debt burdens,
  • Game-changing technologies in the delivery of education,
  • Restructuring economies requiring lifelong learning for workers,
  • Increasingly global competition amongst universities, and
  • Aging facilities and faculties.

Indeed, as we see the business model for higher education being “blown to bits” – to borrow jargon from the dot-com days of the late 90s – many are even questioning whether college is “worth it” anymore.

For those of us in the campus sustainability movement, we’ve been working tirelessly to reduce carbon footprints, squeeze energy and water savings out of existing facilities, incorporate sustainable design features into new buildings, reduce waste streams, advocate for environmental curricula, and transform the university physical plant itself into a laboratory for learning about sustainability.  But in my view, we’ve been missing the obvious: the rise of online education could be the biggest sustainability initiative in all of higher education.

I see three reasons to support this claim.  First, consider the environmental impact of the treadmill of new construction.  According to a recent article in GreenSource Magazine, “It can take between 20 and 80 years for the impacts of a building’s operation to catch up with the impacts of its initial construction: For the first few decades of a building’s life most of its environmental footprint is from the materials used to make it.”[1]

That statistic stopped me in my tracks.  So according to GreenSource, the annual environmental impact of operating a building represents 1.25% to 5% of the environmental impact of constructing the building.  Ask yourself, where have you focused your attention as a campus sustainability professional?  Has it been primarily on how the building will (or does) operate, or on what the building is made of and how those materials were extracted, manufactured, and transported?  Chances are that you’ve spent most of your time on the former, and little on the latter, when in fact we should have done the opposite.  Don’t get me wrong, I warmly embrace those who pursue buildings that produce more energy than they consume.  But the hard truth is that in 2012, the greenest building is the building you don’t build (but please note that you won’t get a LEED certification for that decision).

As universities evolve to a “bricks and clicks” model – to borrow another phrase from the late 90s dot-com lexicon – they can potentially serve many more enrolled students without increasing their square footage.  As my boss, Dr. Barbara Bryson, suggested to me recently, suppose a small struggling college decided to change to a model with two alternating cohorts.  While one cohort would reside on campus for a set period of time, students in the other would use the burgeoning variety of online educational tools to advance their education.  And then after a certain amount of time – perhaps a few weeks – the two cohorts would switch, with the second cohort now residing on campus, and the first cohort using the online educational tools.  Back and forth they would alternate across the span of an academic year.  With that one bold change, that struggling college could double its enrollment without adding a single square foot of additional facilities to campus.  Remember that the greenest building is the one that you don’t build?

The second reason to support this claim about online education as a sustainability initiative is one of social sustainability.  Consider last year’s free online class on artificial intelligence at Stanford.  A whopping 160,000 students registered for the course, with 20,000 finishing.  These students weren’t your typical Stanford students, with high SAT scores, stellar high school resumes, and the financial means to attend one of the world’s top universities.  Rather, these were students of all ages with an internet connection and an interest to learn, period.  Interestingly, the 20,000 students who completed the course hailed from 190 different countries[2], and over 100 volunteers translated the course into 44 languages to make this possible.[3]

Definitions of social sustainability are tricky, but access to resources and access to opportunity are both at its conceptual heart.  When intellectual content from America’s top universities becomes available at no charge to a budding young entrepreneur in Indonesia, or an oppressed woman in Saudi Arabia, or a poor factory worker in China, the world becomes a more equitable place, and the prospect for the future of humanity has brightened.  Conversely, when we restrict access to education, when we raise financial, social, technical, or digital barriers, then the world has become a less equitable place, and the future has darkened.

The final reason why I believe that the rise of online education might very well be the greatest sustainability initiative in all of higher education brings me to the famed “IPAT” equation.  Briefly, “IPAT” is a conceptual equation that tells us that environmental impact (“I”) is a product of three factors: population (“P”), the average consumption of that population (“A”), and the resource intensity of the technology consumed or used (“T”).  If we assume that the global population will reach 9.5 billion by 2050 as many expect, and if we assume a 3% increase in global GDP per year through 2050, then just to maintain today’s level of environmental impact (which is already unsustainable) would require that our technology be 5 times more efficient in 2050 than it is today.  Scary, right?  But consider the following: one of the most effective and acceptable ways to reduce population growth is to educate women.  To quote The Economist, “Educated women are more likely to go out to work, more likely to demand contraception and less likely to want large families.”[4] What if we can reduce both the growth in population as well as the resource intensity of our affluence?  Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and similar tools from your or my university could very well be the conduit to provide women in developing countries with the education that they need that would lead them into the workplace and to a future with a smaller family.  Yes, massive open online courses can lead to massive environmental change.

I’ve been in higher education long enough to know that change at universities is often slow.  At times I’m amazed at how far the campus sustainability movement has come over the past decade given the inertia we sometimes see in higher ed.  Can this glacial pace of change continue?  Curiously, about a dozen years ago, I served as the teaching assistant for an experimental online e-commerce course at the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia, with students also enrolled from the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley.  Twelve years later, despite world-class strength in the digital humanities, UVA’s online educational offerings lagged so far behind the likes of Stanford and MIT that it arguably contributed to the painful and surreal episode of the firing and rehiring of that great institution’s president this past summer.  The lesson here is that the traditional evolution of universities might not survive the revolution of educational technologies.

This will be a new kind of conversation for us, and I am willing to bet that many of us will receive puzzled looks from senior administrators if and when we attempt to join their deliberations about online education.  My head and my gut tell me that online education should be front and center on the campus sustainability professional’s radar screen.  However, my eyes and ears tell me that aside from the occasional certificate program, we as a professional community are missing potentially the biggest initiative we could ever undertake.


[1] Malin, Nadav.  “A Material Issue,” GreenSource, September 1, 2012, http://greensource.construction.com/news/2012/09/120901-a-material-issue.asp accessed September 22, 2012.

[2] Rodriguez, C. Osvaldo, “MOOCs and the AI-Stanford like Courses: Two Successful and Distinct Course Formats for Massive Open Online Courses,” The European Journal for Open, Distance and E-Learning, http://www.eurodl.org/?article=516, accessed September 23, 2012.

[3] Leckart, Steven, “The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever,” Wired, March 20, 2012, http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/03/ff_aiclass/all/, accessed September 23, 2012.

[4] “Go Forth and Multiply a Lot Less,” The Economist, October 29, 2009, http://www.economist.com/node/14743589, accessed September 23, 2012.

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3 Responses to “Are We Missing the Obvious?”

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Thanks for this excellent post – I agree there is a lot of potential in online education for all of the reasons you so clearly lay out. I do think folks in the EfS space have been keeping a close eye on these possibilities as they emerge, and as new models are tested. The pace of progress and uptake is really astounding and exciting, but I think in the same way that the broader education field is still uncertain about the full potential and limitations of online delivery, the EfS movement likewise sees great possibilities and has reservations about remaining barriers. I think some of the hybrid models you touch on are very exciting for expanding reach, while retaining some of the attributes of in-person, bricks-and-mortar delivery that we still haven’t fully figured out how to address with online models.

Thanks, Georges. I think the parallels to the rise of the web and its impact on business circa mid to late 1990s are striking, and that includes the level of uncertainty. This entire line of discussion could help to make the sustainability office even more central to defining the core and future of the university.

[…] Lovins spoke of transformation of higher education with the emergence of online educational tools, a topic I covered recently when I suggested that online education could be the biggest sustainability initiative ever in […]


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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional

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