Air, Climate Change, Corporate Responsibility, Energy, State and Local, Sustainability

Selecting Courses During a Pandemic and Beyond: Can Choosing Online Courses Help the Environment?

by Bella Churchill

In March 2020, members of our Fordham University community received an email stating that the university will not return to face-to-face instruction for the remainder of the semester. Now, we are finalizing our fall schedules and deciding whether to enroll in online or in-person classes. For some, the decision has already been made, a physical return to campus is precluded by pandemic-related reasons. If the decision is ours to make, however, we might consider how a shift to online learning can help reduce our ecological footprint.

In-person education requires many resources including classroom space, energy, course materials, and transportation to and from campus. During a pandemic, the need to increase cleaning and ensure sufficient air circulation might increase resource use per building to unreasonably high levels.

Online education can help reduce environmental impact by cutting down pollution and resource consumption. For example, by offering 105 courses online in the 2009 Spring and Summer semesters, the University of Dallas prevented an estimated 252 metric tonnes (278 tons) of CO­2 emissions from classroom lighting, gasoline, and paper use.

Some benefits of remote studying are less obvious, like the reduced consumption of plastic. When you’re short on time, disposable coffee cups, straws, and utensils can seem like an unavoidable part of life. It might feel like a small use of plastic, but when 22 million students are enrolled in higher education institutions per year, the overall contribution ends up being much more significant. The “to-go” coffee culture is a major contributor to the world’s plastic crisis; it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by mass.

Finally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, prioritizing environment sustainability coincides with our own quality of life. Remote education can help extend opportunities to people who may not otherwise have access to them. This can help increase diversity and opportunities for equal access. Additionally, remote working may lead to lower stress levels, better sleep patternsbetter productivity, and feeling happier.