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.

Six trends to watch in online assessment in 2014

John Kleeman HeadshotPosted by John Kleeman

As we gear up for 2014, here are six trends I suggest could be important in the coming year.

1. Privacy. The revelations in 2013 that government agencies intercept so much electronic data will reverberate in 2014. Expect a lot more questions from stakeholders about where their results are stored and how integrity, data protection and privacy are assured, including the location and ownership of suppliers and data centres. I suspect some organizations will look to build trust with stakeholders by adopting the ISO standard on assessments in the workplace ISO 10667.

2. Anticipation of problems. Many organizations already use assessments to look forward, not just backwards. In regulatory compliance, smart organizations don’t just use assessments to check competence; they analyze results from assessments to identify trends or problems that can indicate potential issues or weaknesses, and prompt corrective measures before it gets too late. Universities and colleges increasingly use assessments to predict problems and help prevent students from dropping out (see for instance Use a survey with feedback to aid student retention). It’s exciting that assessments can be used to find issues in this way and deal with them before they happen. Don’t just treat assessments as a rear-view mirror: use them to look forward.

3. Software as a service (SaaS). For all but the very large organizations, running online assessments via a software as a service is much more cost-effective than running an on-premise system. Delegating to a service provider like Questionmark,makes the hassle of upgrading, maintaining security patches and managing deployment goes away. Increasingly, delivering assessments via a SaaS model will become the default.connected

4. Smaller and more connected world. The Internet is bringing us all together. The world is becoming connected, and in some sense smaller. We can no longer think of another continent or country as being a world away, because we can all connect together so easily. This means it is increasingly important to make your assessments translatable, multi-lingual and cross-cultural. Most medium and large organizations work across much of the world, and assessments need to reflect that.

5. Environment. I wonder if 2014 could be the year when the environmental benefits of online assessments could start to be seriously recognized. Clearly, using computers rather than paper to deliver assessments saves trees, but a bigger benefit is in reduced carbon emissions due to less traveling. For service organizations, business travel is a large proportion of carbon emissions (see for example here), and delivering training and assessments online can make a useful difference. With many countries requiring reporting of carbon emissions by listed companies, this could be important.

6. Security. Last but definitely not least, assessment security will continue to matter. As there is more awareness of the risks, everyone will expect high levels of technical and organizational security in their assessment delivery.  If you are a provider, expect a lot more questions on security from informed users; and if you are a customer or user, check that your supplier and your internal team is genuinely up to date on its security.

Read this list and look at the starting letters, and you get P – A – S – S – E – S! I wish you a happy new year and hope that each of your test-takers passes their assessments in 2014 when it is appropriate that they do so.