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Online teaching in the Climate Crisis: A step in the right direction?

Online teaching in the Climate Crisis: A step in the right direction?

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I’m an environmentalist and have been worrying about our impact on nature since I climbed onto the roof of a petrol station armed with a banner with the staff in hot pursuit over twenty years ago. I’m also a techy language teacher who loves nothing more than running a class or training session via Zoom with participants spread around the globe. So I’ve got to ask myself is online learning in the the age of extinction part of a green recovery, or just accelerating our path in the wrong direction?

My instincts tell me online teaching, alongside remote working or video conferencing, is an example of a much-needed transformation in the way we live. For years I’ve know when it was time for me to hurry up and finish preparing my lesson and get to class by the smell and the noise. No, I don’t mean the last minute sound of my colleagues frantic photocopying or splashing on a dash of cologne or deodorant in the staffroom. I mean the smell of exhaust fumes from the snarled up traffic outside as students were dropped of for class. The high-pitched whine of drivers gunning their engines to set off and the low-pitched honk of the bus caught up in it all. Surely online teaching is going to make cities less polluted, reduce carbon emissions while freeing students from yet another long commute. Oil industry beware, I may not be climbing onto your petrol station’s roofs, but I’ve got my revenge on you again for everything you have done to me and I don’t even have to leave my living room!

If only it was as simple as that! In the words of Oscar Wilde, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. One look at the infographic below paints a very different picture!

In simple terms, the carbon footprint of the internet is huge, growing rapidly and the biggest causes of this are video streaming and cloud storage. Add to that the increasing rate that teachers and students are going to have to invest in new hardware to keep up with the demands of online learning. The creating of these devices involves the mining of minerals at and causes massive environmental and human suffering, as does the disposal of these devices and there components at the end of their lives.

What direction should the environmentally-conscious teacher to make of this? I don’t pretend to know the answer to this yet, but for now I’m going to take the following path:

  1. Whether I teach face to face or online, I’m going to do my duty as an educator, which is to teach language which can never be separated from meaning. I’m going to take the hard path and seek out topics and materials that are adequately covered in many teaching materials. I’m going to support my learners engaging with the issues that affect them. The climate crisis. Poverty. Injustice. The social transformation we need. I’m not going to purvey the idealised neoliberal paradise flaunted at learners in global coursebooks and other published language learning materials without offering learners the chance to challenge it! This, I believe to be the most important thing we can do as teachers.
  2. I’m going to follow my instinct that teaching online is ultimately the greener option in my context as I just don’t yet have the capacity to make a facts-based decision about which the greener option is: face to face or online teaching.
  3. I’m going to wait for an expert’s environmental impact decision on this rather than pretending I, with my degree in literature, can make this judgement.
  4. I’m going to keep this old, under-powered computer I’m using going as long as I can before replacing it, I’m going to look for the greenest cloud storage and I’m going to start using the ecosia. This includes running my computer on Ubuntu, a lightweight and free operating system that keeps old computers going long after they can’t run Windows.
  5. I’m going to make a lesson for my next Zoom class based around the infographic below so my students can raise their awareness of the issue, and form their own opinions on the matter, while engaging with a fascinating topic in the target language.

What about you? Ideas on a postcard please (or as a comment)!

Click to Enlarge Image

Carbon Footprint of the Internet

Carbon Footprint of the Internet
Infographic by CustomMade

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2 replies on “Online teaching in the Climate Crisis: A step in the right direction?”

A considerable portion of the energy needed for maintaining data centres is used to actively cool the servers. You might want to factor location into your decision making process for cloud providers; colder ambient environments probably mean less energy used for active cooling. For example, Scandanavian data centres on AWS are often cheaper than those further south which might be a reflection of cooling costs.

I suggest another thing to consider would be renewable energy. If the data centre or hosting provider don’t have an explicitly stated policy on this then perhaps choosing services from countries which generate a greater percentage of their electricity through renewables could be a valid approach.

On the topic of your own desktop. It probably runs fairly hot if it’s old. Perhaps looking into replacing the fan with a passive cooling solution would be a good way of reducing electricity consumption. When it comes to replacing the system, doing so with a second-hand system might be another way of reducing your impact.

Thanks for an interesting article.

Hi Matthew,

Thanks for your comment – it means a great deal, and I’m really glad you found it interesting. Useful points about where the data centres are located, and it seems that a lot of them are quite explicit about their green credentials. I believe Box is quite a good provider on that. One other thing I was wondering is it’s quite easy to switch a data centre to use renewable power quite quickly, just plug it into a wind farm source for example, whereas creating planes that fly on electricity instead of fossil fuels will take longer – though I know that Norway is making strides in this field.

Thanks also for your thoughts and the advice you give. I’m definitely going to look at the options of passive cooling solutions instead of fans as it’s not something I’ve considered.

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