How ICT Can Improve the Environmental Performance of Educational Institutions

By Sarah Sorensen
July 14, 2010 | Comments: 1

In my last blog, I discussed some of the technology trends transforming higher education, now I would like to talk about some of the ways in which schools are driving the use of technology to improve the environmental performance of their institutions.

For starters, the use of information and communications technology (ICT) can help combat increases in basic costs associated with running a campus. Due to a pending price for carbon and some of the ensuing price rises for inputs to basic operations, including electricity, heating and transportation fuels, water, food, and waste removal, the pressure on school budgets is only going to continue. ICT can be used to mitigate some of these costs, increasing resource efficiency and reducing consumption. (Take a look at this new guide commissioned by the San Diego County Office of Education for some specific tips.)

Then there is the impact that ICT can have on the way schools think about their physical space in the first place. Educators are starting to think differently about the supply, location, and design of their "built environment," which includes all of the buildings and infrastructure needed for a school or campus. As ICT is integrated into the planning and strategy of education, schools can ensure the right learning environment is created for each scenario - and that the use of physical spaces is optimized to truly enhance education.

Of course, there are the benefits associated with deploying technology and Green principles to further increase the efficiencies of the facilities that are in use - automated building and landscaping controls, combined with environmentally friendly building practices have been shown to significantly reduce the overall resource consumption of a building over its lifetime.

According to Greening America's Schools: Costs and Benefits, "the financial savings are about $70 per square foot, 20 times as high as the initial cost of going green. Only a portion of these savings accrue directly to the school. Lower energy and water costs, improved teacher retention, and lowered health costs save green schools directly about $12 per square foot, about four times the additional cost of going green." The USGBC suggests that "if all new school construction and school renovations went green starting today, energy savings alone would total more than $20 billion over the next 10 years.

Another way ICT can improve the environmental performance of schools is in the transportation of students, faculty, and administrators to and from campus; it's as significant an issue for educational institutions as the buildings and campuses themselves. While much of this might be out of the direct control of the college or universities, it is a part of the institution's footprint - in what is classified as Scope 3 emissions in a carbon footprint calculation. Technology can be used to facilitate remote learning environments and make it possible to adopt policies that reduce the transportation impacts on campus and the community at large.

Which leads to the curriculum. Social media tools, mobile applications, streaming media and virtual learning environments are expanding the reach and effectiveness of learning. (There are a whole host of questions around how education may need to adapt to acknowledge, incorporate and teach the skills required in the digital world.) The key for schools is to create a technology environment that can handle the ever-increasing bandwidth and on-demand, performance requirements all these rich-media services, with the flexibility to support the new and innovative applications that will enable learning in the future. It's definitely coming - A recent study by SRI International for the Department of Education found that "on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction."

As curriculums change to adapt to virtual learning environments, we will also see the role of teachers changing. We have already seen in the private sector, the nature of work change; an ever-growing portion of people in the United States are becoming "knowledge workers" who work almost entirely with the creation, manipulation, and delivery of intangibles rather than physical things. Teachers, and an increasing number of education administrators, are prototypical knowledge workers, delivering a product called education. ICT can be used to support the new ways their expertise is tapped and education is delivered.

The learning environment is turning ubiquitous, so it is critical that the technology infrastructure is prepared to enable, anywhere, anytime access to resources. For those institutions with a strong research arm, their ability to facilitate productive online collaboration environments can help ensure the right resources are brought to bear on the right problems. Just as in the workplace, it can be a competitive differentiator and much more sustainable than traditional, travel-intensive, geographically-restrictive, face-to-face connections.

Then there's the technology itself - as ICT becomes increasingly central to the content and delivery of education, as well as the physical environment in which education occurs, schools need to adopt practices that harness the power of the technology in an environmentally sustainable way. While ICT represents 2-3% of global emissions, on a campus the IT infrastructure can represent up to 15% of the campus' energy use (with more than 50% coming from personal computing consumption).

The goal is to ensure that exponential growth in the use of ICT doesn't equate to exponential growth in resource consumption. To mitigate the impact of the technology itself, schools can incorporate environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) criteria into their purchasing process, adopt energy management plans and monitoring systems for minimizing ICT power consumption, include environmental criteria as a base requirement for developing technology systems, responsibly collect and dispose of systems at the end of their life, develop criteria and systems for measuring, monitoring, and reporting on the environmental performance of technology initiatives and the organizations that support them, and create educational programs for students, faculty, and administrators about the environmentally responsible use and management of technology equipment.

The key is to elevate technology discussions within the institution to a strategic level, to ensure all the ways in which ICT can be used to improve the environmental performance and sustainability of the school are explored. To keep up with the increasing velocity of technological change in society as a whole, educational institutions will be forced to re-think attitudes and approaches to using and managing technology. We need to find technologists who are educators and make educators technologists to ensure we can effectively integrate ICT into the fabric of the institution. When we do this, we have the opportunity to use these technologies and connections in ways that benefit us all.

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1 Comment

Online collaborating and teaching can work, If you have trust and the right tools.
I recently tried - good app for uploading documents and working on them in real-time.
Most file types are supported and it needs no installation. - andy

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