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

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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How to Engage Learners in Green Issues from the Lead-In

Imagine you are going to bring an environmental issue into your language class and you have already found the right text to do this. Let’s imagine it’s this video; a BBC introduction to Climate Change and its dangers, and it’s called ‘Our Planet Matters: Climate Change Explained’. This video outlines what Climate Change is, identifies the human activity that drives it and shows us the danger it poses, and is available here (new tab):

It’s a great video, so what is the best way to ‘prime’ students to engage with it?

A Well-Trodden Path:

Many teachers I have worked with might create a lead-in that involves students discussing environmental issues in pairs, ideally with a degree of personalisation. It might go like this:

We are going to watch a video about Climate Change but first I would like you to discuss the following in pairs

  • What do you know about Climate Change?
  • To what extent are you worried about Climate Change?
  • What can we do about Climate Change?

I’ll give you 5 minutes!

After the students discuss, the teachers asks them to share their ideas and the class watches the video, hopefully adding to the ideas from their discussion. It works, it fits in with what we’ve learnt on the CELTA, so why would I suggest another way?

What I Do Now:

I’m working on my Masters and one of the many things I’ve taken away is the Text-Driven Approach developed by Brian Tomlinson (2013). For a really concise overview of this approach, I’d highly recommend this blog post. It’s brilliant! Thank you Peter Clements for the help you gave me in my assignment with this post!

Right now I’m just going to focus on the idea of a readiness activity, in which, just like the lead-in above, we prepare students to watch the video. The difference is that the focus now is on learners using their imagination, an emphasis that any idea is great, and students do not feel they have to guess the content likely to be in the text on the topic of the Climate Emergency (I shall use this term as I outline how I now do it as I use this term as it is a more accurate representation of the situation we are in). So, this is what my readiness activity looks like:

Teacher: Imagine you are the head of the United Nations. It is a Monday Morning.

  • What are you having for breakfast?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What is on your list of things to deal with this week?

Students make a list on their own and then share their ideas with the class. Then we move to the next section:

Teacher: Now you have finished your breakfast and arrived at your workplace. You have this message from a president. Teacher displays the following text:


I’m sorry I said all those times that climate change wasn’t important. I’ve changed my mind since reading what was in the link you sent me. We really need to do more about it.

The first thing is I need to be able to explain what climate change is.

Can we talk soon?



The students are then given this information by the teacher: You’ve deleted the email that you sent with the link. What do you think might be in the website the link was for? Students discuss this in pairs and feedback to the class.

Now I will ask students to watch the video and add to their ideas.

I find this makes students much more engaged and there is evidence that as students are engaging with language on so many more levels, especially in an affective manner. Also, students are no longer pressured to feel they have to know a certain answer, and it makes it easier to deal with potentially sensitive issues as they are playing a role. It can be adapated to any topic or text.

My question to you is would you use this approach, and are there other approaches that you would like to share?

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