Digital learning, sustainability and rewilding edtech

Until recently my engagement with Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) has largely focused on the ‘what we teach’ rather than ‘how we teach’. However, I have become increasingly aware that environmental issues rarely feature in critical discussions of learning technology or online education. As Neil Selwyn (2021) proposes, positive assumptions do not consider possible futures where digital technologies will no longer be available and accessible on mass, or the role that they play in exuberating the climate crisis itself – online learning is after all a practice that relies on the mining of natural resources, energy-hungry systems and processing. Online learners and teachers are still going to university, all be it through digital machines and devices. If the Internet was a country, it would be the fourth biggest emitter of CO2 on the planet, behind the USA, China and India, and responsible for 1.7 billion tonnes CO2e in 2020 (Stonham 2022). Each byte of data carries a carbon overhead. Whilst the Internet may well reduce carbon emissions in comparison to onground education (e.g. staff and student travel and building operations), we need to understand that how we choose to use it has consequences.

I have begun to read around the subject widely to understand the complexities involved and the gaps that currently exist in the research. I presented some of my findings and ideas at this year’s Open Education Conference (you can find the abstract on the UCEM Online Education blog, and the recording of my talk is on YouTube). Whilst it is reported that carbon footprints are notoriously difficult to pin down accurately, let alone those related to the Internet with countless devices to consider, I believe that we can be much more precise in measuring carbon usage in online learning and learning technologies. As professionals in this space we should look to implement this as part of standard quality assurance processes. We can enable this through:

  • implementing structured learning design which clearly identifies actions required to engage in a course and the carbon footprint of those actions (e.g. video conferencing; library searches; streaming versus download etc,.);
  • a deeper understanding of learner behaviours made possible through triangulating learning analytics with ethnographic research (understanding when and how long learners are online, the devices they are using, where learners study, etc.);
  • assessing the green credentials of suppliers and the carbon transparency in their supply chain.

Digital learning professionals have an ethical responsibility to embody ecological values in our practice, to develop further awareness and professionalism in this area so that we can practice care for our community and planet. I recently spoke to sustainability officers and learning designers at a HE institution who can demonstrate that they have reduced their online carbon footprint through better practice in their management and delivery of using video conferencing for events and online teaching. This is not a face-to-face versus online. This is online versus more ecological online. This is also where we can also challenge the notion of ‘sustainability’ – as with this term comes the concept of ‘development’ thus growth, or at the very least to ‘sustain’ – to keep things the same. As Macgilchrist (2021) writes:

‘Sustainability’ in either of these senses (growth or remaining stable) no longer seems sustainable. Yet when the stories we tell about ecology and edtech continue to use sustainability as a key word, then we are (albeit perhaps inadvertently) narrowing the frame for thinking and action.

Digital technologies are responsible for vast amounts of carbon emissions, and we need to look at a variety of mitigations to reduce this. This can include harnessing better procurement strategies, implementing less resource intensive web design techniques, reducing e-waste, and inspiring more sustainable learner and teacher behaviour. I was recently introduced to an old concept applied to a new field – that of ‘rewilding’ (Macgilchrist 2021; Piattoeva, 2021). Can we design and implement technologies for degrowth, move away from an edtech excess? Can we look to open communally run infrastructure like OpenETC to take control of our use of technology? Does every step of online learning have to happen with a device? Can we move out into the world and reconnect with onground spaces, places and people and bring this back into (a lesser employed) digital environment? We need to be mindful that quite often as digital learning professionals ‘our instinct to fix and think our way out of situations may only lead to more problematic ‘Ed-Tech solutionism’’ ‘ (Facer and Selwyn 2021). It is time to be more critical of our impact and our advocacy of educational technology and accept this may feel uncomfortable at times

References

Facer K & Selwyn N (2021). Digital Technology and the Futures of Education: Towards ‘Non-Stupid’ Optimism. Paris: UNESCO. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377071.locale=en.

Lindsay K (2022) ‘Online learning in a time of environmental crisis’ [conference presentation] Open Education (OER) Conference, 26–28 April 2022. London. Available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3C7J6yXojE

Piattoeva N (2021). On the tight grip of the modernist sentiment and the need to decenter the human in critical studies of digital education technology. Available at: https://www.edu-digitalinequality.org/2021/10/14/on-the-tight-grip-of-the-modernist-sentiment-and-the-need-to-decenter-the-human-in-critical-studies-of-digital-education-technology/

Stonham S (2022) Exploring Digital Carbon Footprints. Bristol: JISC. Available at: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/reports/exploring-digital-carbon-footprints

Macgilchrist F (2021). Rewilding technology. On Education. Journal for Research and Debate, 4(12).
https://doi.org/10.17899/on_ed.2021.12.2

Selwyn N (2021) Ed-Tech Within Limits: Anticipating educational technology in times of environmental crisis. E-Learning and Digital Media. 2021;18(5):496-510.

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