Does online learning and assessment help sustainability?

John Kleeman HeadshotPosted by John Kleeman

Encouraged by public interest and increasing statutory controls, most large organizations care about and report on environmental sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve been wondering how much online assessments and the wider use of e-learning help sustainability. Does taking assessments and learning online contribute to the planet’s well-being?

Does using computers instead of paper save trees?Picture of trees, part cut down

It’s easy to see that by taking exams on computer, we save a lot of paper. Trees vary in size, but it seems the average tree might make about 50,000 pages of paper. If a typical paper test uses 10 pages of paper, then an organization that delivers 100,000 tests per year is using 20 trees a year. Or suppose a piece of learning material is 100 pages is distributed to 10,000 learners. The 20 trees cut down for that learning would be saved if the learning were delivered online.

These are useful benefits, but they need to be set against the environmental costs of the computers and electricity used. The environmental benefit is probably modest.

What about the benefits of reduced business travel?

A much stronger environmental case might be made around reduced travel. Taking a test on paper and/or in a test center likely means travelling. So we’re not surprised to be seeing increased use of online proctoring. For example, SAP are starting to use it for their certification exams. Online proctoring means that a candidate doesn’t have to travel to a test center but can take an exam from their home or office. This saves time and money. It also eliminates the environmental costs of  travel. Learning online rather than going to a classroom does the same.

Training and assessment are only a small reason for business travel, but the overall environmental impact of business travel is imagehuge.  One large services company has reported that 67 percent of their carbon footprint in 2014 was related to it. Another  indicates that cost at over 30 percent.. Many large companies have internal targets to reduce business travel greenhouse gas emissions.

In the academic world, the Open University in the UK performed a study a few years back on the carbon benefits of their model of distance learning compared with more conventional university education. The study suggested that carbon emissions were 85 percent lower with distance education compared with a more conventional university approach. However, the benefit of electronic delivery rather than paper delivery in distance learning was more modest at 12 percent, partly because students often print the e-learning materials. This suggests that there is a very substantial benefit in distance learning and a smaller benefit in it being electronic rather than paper-based.

The strongest benefit of online assessment is that it  gives accurate information about people’s knowledge, skills and abilities to help organizations make good decisions. But it does seem that there may well also be a useful environmental benefit too.

One Response to “Does online learning and assessment help sustainability?”

  1. Julie Delazyn Che Osborne says:

    I have seen first hand how taking assessments and learning online contribute to the planet’s well-being. One customer has commented that by using Questionmark they saved about 4 million pages of A4 paper each year over paper testing. That’s a significant benefit to the environment!

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