Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

The environmental impact of teaching and learning
The environmental impact of teaching and learning

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Part 4: For lecturers and academic designers

4.1 Examination of the carbon impacts associated with different systems and models of providing higher education teaching and learning

Teaching and learning is the core business of higher education. And yet the design of teaching and learning in HE institutions can lock staff and students into making unnecessary carbon impacts.

It is notable that there have been few studies examining the carbon impacts of different systems and models of delivering higher education. This is partly due to the complexity in higher education systems of delivering teaching and learning that can make it difficult to carry out a carbon-based environmental assessment.

Such studies would help to understand the impacts of different learning designs and identify the key sources of energy consumption and carbon emissions associated with teaching and learning.

The first major quantitative study to assess the environmental impacts of different systems of delivering higher education in UK institutions was the Factor 10 Visions study of sustainable higher education (Roy et al., 2005). This developed a methodology to assess the energy consumption and carbon impacts of courses provided within campus-based and distance-taught higher education systems in the UK.

Historically, campus-based and distance teaching HE systems have been very different HE teaching systems and consequently might be expected to have different environmental impacts.


Try to identify the main characteristics of different campus-based or distance-based HE teaching systems, and consider whether this is likely to have different environmental impacts.


Compare your description of the main characteristics of campus-based or distance HE teaching systems with the example in Box 5.

Box 5 Main characteristics of campus-based and distance HE teaching systems

Campus-based teaching systems are characterised by a single or multi-site campus sites offering face-to-face teaching to students living either in temporary accommodation or at home, from where students commute to and from the campus to attend lectures, use libraries, laboratories, etc. For students in temporary accommodation there is also travel between their main or usual ‘home’ and term-time/semester residences.

In the campus-based system, teaching staff plan the course/module and present lectures and tutorials to relatively small numbers of students (usually fewer than 100), with some amount of face-to-face teaching, and travelling from home to the campus and to other sites as required (for example, to off-campus field trips).

Distance teaching systems are designed to offer openness and flexibility in education and to reach significantly larger numbers of students. Specially developed educational material is prepared by an academic production team and delivered online or by mail to students for part-time study mainly in their homes. So the distance teaching system has a specific infrastructure to support the production, presentation and transportation of teaching materials.

Some distance teaching systems offer supported learning – such as The Open University, which offers tutorials, day schools or residential schools supported by tutors called Associate Lecturers. Nowadays tutorials may be held online using software such as Elluminate and Blackboard Collaborate, or face-to-face in regional study centres. Further support is offered via email, computer conferencing, mail and telephone.

(Updated from Roy et al., 2005, p. 12)

Here is a short video introduced by Professor Stephen Potter about the Factor 10 project and findings on the environmental impacts of different higher education systems.

Download this video clip.Video player: Environmental impacts of different higher education systems
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript|Hide transcript
Environmental impacts of different higher education systems
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

The Factor 10 study found that on average the production and delivery of distance teaching consumed nearly 90% less energy and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions than campus-based HE courses and modules. Distance-teaching HE systems have higher numbers of students learning on each course, so this achieves efficiencies of scale, which results in lower carbon emissions per student. The much lower energy impacts of distance-taught courses was found to be mainly due to a large factor 10 reduction in student’s need to utilize campus site facilities, as well as their need to travel and use additional housing during their studies.

Since this study was conducted, UK higher education has been transformed by the use of ICTs such as the digital resources and technologies utilised for the preparation, administration, teaching and learning on courses. This is supported by the widespread deployment of ICT-based infrastructure, such as virtual learning environments (VLEs), local area networks, wireless networks and cloud computing services. This infrastructure includes the equipment and networks that support platforms housing educational content, tools and applications within learning systems, or hosted separately on ICT devices, including personal computers, laptops, tablet devices, smartphones and software etc. (If you want to learn more about ICT devices and learning then look at the free courses Living with the internet: learning online [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] or ICTs in everyday life).

The next sections explore the types of teaching models used in higher education and how they are being transformed by the use of ICTs. This helps to consider the impacts of different educational designs and whether the greater use of ICTs in higher education teaching has a better or worse environmental impact compared with more traditional teaching models.