Best practice criteria for sustainable e-learning

Today I presented at a workshop at the Open University, sponsored by JISC, the SusTeach project, the SusteIT project and probably others, on Best Practice Criteria for Sustainable eLearning. There’s more linked resources at Good Campus.

Solar Panels

It’s an interesting premise: what makes for sustainable e-learning? From the workshop flyer:

Financial challenges, market opportunities and technical innovation will drive greater use of e-learning. Some see cost-cutting as the primary driver, and fear that it will diminish the quality of the educational experience through reduced face-to-face contact. Others argue that e-learning creates new learning possibilities, and can strengthen educational quality, e.g. by enabling more rather than less learning contact with fellow students. The sustainability of e-learning is also contentious. Do virtual technologies have a lighter or heavier environmental footprint than traditional methods? And does e-learning create greater social inclusion, both globally and nationally, or will it lead to a ‘second class’ educational system with face-to-face methods reserved for an elite?

The flyer [PDF] teasingly suggests that assessment against best practice criteria “could be ‘light touch’ if the criteria were focused on the distinctive features of e-learning rather than aiming at a comprehensive QAA-style assessment”. I have my doubts – I think the distinctive features of e-learning make it more, not less important to do proper assessement. But the discussion should be interesting.

The presentations are being live-streamed on Stadium, where they’ll be available for posterity (if looking after the event, scroll back through the list of previous presentations to 1 November 2011).

Andy Lane welcomes everyone and introduces himself.

Rob Bristow – JISC

Difficult area to get hold of, but is very important work. Covers teaching, research, and the whole gamut. Sits with JISC’s institutional support area.

Suste-IT project, with Peter James. Year long look at Green ICT in HE and FE. Very useful reports. Carbon footprinting tool, and briefings and case studies. Then two phases of innovation projects.

  • Research.
  • Technical innovation. (geeky stuff). e.g. Interesting stuff on file storage. Print.
  • Directors of Estates work. e.g. Timetabling connection to Building Management System.
  • Institutional transformation – changing culture. e.g. Procurement and Scope 3 Emissions. Greening events and academic travel.
Rob keeps a Green ICT blog too.

Economic Best Practice Criteria – Andy Lane, OU

Greening ICT is very wide-ranging.

Very policy-relevant – Online Learning Task Force, HEFCE. ‘Collaborate to compete‘.

He sets out a series of questions for the economics of educational systems.

Two systems to contrast.

First, traditional campus-based teaching. Producing acetates for lectures used to be complex; much simpler now. These systems are challenged by student demand.

Second, OU-style supported open learning. Mass/industrial scale. Moving from physical texts and face to face tutorials, to more online resources and online teaching.

Economic impacts: increasing VLEs leads to more time spent in preparation/selection of resources. Open Educational Resources (OER) likely to reduce time and effort here. Elearning probably changing time in physical space and travel patterns of students and staff.

Accessibility – in terms of tools, platforms, bandwidth, displaced costs e.g. printing. Logistics of synchronous conferencing is an issue.

Andy bangs the drum for OER here – good stuff. You know it makes economic sense.

Explores business models and sustainability – real question here. One answer: not many people make money by selling educational content. (My thought – Maybe not many, but a few make a lot: What about Pearson – market cap £9bn, Reed Elsevier market cap £6bn, etc?!) Other routes: embed in existing processes, Freemium model, donations, grants, free labour from volunteers. JISC Strategic Content Alliance has looked closely at this sort of thing – a series of Business modelling publications.

Flat World Knowledge – CC licenced textbooks for US market. Newish. Freemium model – printed version paid for. Have $20m VC funding.

Ends with his criteria:

  • Use similar staff:student ratios to scale
  • Use asynchronous communications to reduce meeting costs
  • Use open source software to reduce purchase costs
  • Collaborate on resource development to share costs
  • Use rich media OER to save on costs
  • Use HE wide digital collections of OER

Pedagogical Best Practice Criteria – Doug Clow, OU

My presentation!

Pedagogical best practice criteria for sustainable elearning

Peter James made the excellent suggestion that I should’ve included a consideration of the personal support you can make available online. I reckon that should’ve been on my list. I don’t think that elearning profoundly changes the amount of contact time you can put in as a teacher – an hour of support takes an hour of your time whether it’s in your office or online. But things like learning analytics can help you to target your input more effectively to where it can make most difference.

Environmental Best Practice Criteria – Peter James, Bradford

Much research around the environmental impact of electronic technologies.

Sustainability of elearning matters – important to stakeholders, required by targets, question of course viability, driver of new business models, – a virtual Oxbridge? (New College of the Humanities?) Comes back at me about personal support – may not be a constraint if you drive out costs so you can have more learning support – one-to-one tutorials, small group teaching.

Question of science students: who’s the most helpful in your learning? Answer was the technical/lab support staff. Direct support is what they value. It’s not always academic who are doing it.

ICT does have a large footprint. In the UK, IT equipment, energy to factories in China – we’re using coal-fired computers, effectively.

Power usage in ICT at Sheffield – desktop PCs were just under half.  Scaled up, that’s a lot – about £100m a year energy bill for the sector’s ICT.

Assessing the shift from traditional model to OU/elearning model. Many of the benefits come from space efficiency. But also travel avoidance, print reduction. Have to ensure these greatly exceed the delivery impacts – personal computing, data centres/networks, equipment production and disposal.

Rebound effects – changing cost structures (students may take more, or more distant providers, travel more). Time is a very important in a time sense. Marchetti’s constant in urban design – extent of a city governed by one-hour one-way travel time. Was walking, now even air commuting. Making cars more efficient – leads to people buying more, using them more – so total impact goes up, not down. Can manage rebound effects, and they don’t absorb all the impact here.

Space energy considerations are important – UK office is 200-240 KWh for naturally vented; for aircon it’s 400-570. Domesting dwellings more like 300, except lower under more recent regs – down to 45 for Sweden.

People tend to exaggerate benefits from telecommunication – hypotheticals always difficult to answer. Range from low case to raw survey results was 10k to 300k tonnes of CO2 saved per year!

Not terribly helpful to come up with a single number – a travesty, too many assumptions embedded. Accept the uncertainties, come out with a range of scenarios.

The IT infrastructure – data centre efficiency is critical.

With videoconferencing, the main energy use is the monitors used, not the equipment.

Big change – development of the cloud, outsourcing. Given cooling is big issue, plan to put infrastructure in to Iceland, Finland, Norway.

Three criteria:

  • Understanding of environmental footprint
  • Minimising personal computing (and printing) impacts – tablets and ereaders have much lower footprint than laptops and desktops
  • Energy efficient data centres – from an average PUE of 1.7 in the sector to best practice 1.2
Me: Question of who supports learning effectively is really interesting. UK slower than US to adopt the graduate teaching assistant model, but we have a large and growing body of associate lecturers and similar on lower-paid, ‘flexible’ employment contracts – part time, fixed term, etc. Also peer learning hugely important, but a hard sell and needs structuring.Peter: Yes. Why are they low paid? Interesting question

Someone: Hard to make good measures. Move to elearning defrays the costs to others – moves out to own learners. Deferring costs to tutors, students – using own resources in their own home.

Peter: I don’t think it matters if elearning increases environmental impact, because I think learning is the most important thing we do. It’s not a showstopper, but we have to do what we can to minimise. IT equipment less important than we think – space is a bigger issue. With policies can ensure net impact is managed or reduced. Part of responsibility of elearning providers is to help students and staff to work sustainably. Power-down software, and so on. With that, impacts can be less.

Small Group Discussions

Task: Go through the criteria. Mix them up. Question them. Varied in any way? Other criteria that should be added? Write on the sheets, capture them later. Come up with master list on which we’ll vote later.

Very interesting discussions. Many focused on the nitty gritty, detailed business of doing good, sustainable elearning in particular contexts.

Out of the plenary discussion, we came up with some extra bits to add to my list of pedagogical criteria:

Evaluation processes (part of Enhancement)

Accessibility – include explicit mention of access considerations like access to devices, connectivity, etc.

Student development as lifelong learners – so that they can sustain themselves as independent learners

Flexibility, lifelong learning

Learning support – absolutely fundamental and critical

There was also consensus that these criteria rather miss important issues of social and cultural sustainability. The focus, fundamentally, should be on the student experience.

Next steps

The criteria will be written up. JISC will take them up and move the ideas on through their activities. Explore embedding this stuff in to things like QAA frameworks.


This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
No further permission needed to reuse or remix (with attribution), but it’s nice to be notified if you do use it.

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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.