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Pros and cons of online education as a measure to reduce carbon emissions in higher education in the Netherlands

Versteijlen, Marieke, Perez Salgado, Francisca, Janssen Groesbeek, Marleen, Counotte, Anda
Current opinion in environmental sustainability 2017 v.28 pp. 80-89
carbon, carbon footprint, educational institutions, emissions, energy efficiency, greenhouse gases, higher education, interviews, learning, online courses, professionals, students, travel, Netherlands
Dutch institutions of higher education have to meet stringent requirements for energy efficiency and reduction of carbon emissions imposed by the national government and through voluntary agreements on energy-efficiency. This exploratory study reports the relative contribution of student (and staff) travel to the carbon emissions of Dutch higher education institutions (HEIs) and examines the arguments for and against online education as a means to reduce the carbon impact of student travel. Data on carbon emissions using the greenhouse gas (GHG) protocol, published by HEIs, were gathered and analysed. A comparison with data from other countries is presented. It was found that the contribution of the so-called scope three emissions (travel related) to the total carbon footprint of the HEIs is between 40 and 90 percent at the Dutch HEIs that were investigated. Online education (80 percent or more digitalisation of the educational processes) greatly decreases the carbon impact of student and staff travel.A series of interviews was held with HEI professionals of online education and ICT/sustainability. The interviews were analysed using the grounded theory approach. The professionals report as pros of online education its flexibility and power to personalise educational needs of individual students and the possibility to extend the learning environment with digital media. As an argument against online education professionals mention the non-committal behaviour of students. Only a few HEI professionals recognize the connection between online education and its potential for strongly reducing carbon emissions.