A recent study by the Open University that found huge energy
savings associated with online learning. How do these findings
apply to organizational training? Here are some practical ways to
use e-learning to reduce energy consumption.
Could e-learning help save the environment?
This was a question I started to ponder when planning a recent trip
to Chicago. I was unable to find a single hotel room available
because a massive convention, hosting 27,000 professionals, was in
town. The sheer volume of people converging for this face-to-face
event made me think about its impact on the environment. Consider
all the plane, train, bus, and car rides that delegates took in
order to reach the conference. Think of the hotel rooms heated, the
towels and sheets laundered, and the restaurant meals cooked for
them to enjoy lodging and food during their stay. Finally, try to
imagine the number of printed handouts that were distributed during
A similar phenomenon occurs, albeit on a smaller scale, every time
employees travel to attend training sessions, seminars, or
face-to-face meetings. Even training events within one's own city
are not without an environmental impact when travel is involved, or
when meeting rooms need light and heat. With rising fuel costs and
pressure to cut energy consumption, e-learning is looking like an
increasingly attractive, as well as environmentally responsible,
Energy and emissions savings
Although organizations have always reviewed the cost reductions
associated with e-learning, few have examined the environmental and
energy savings. E-learning's wide range of format, including live
online classrooms and seminars, self-study courses, online
collaboration, performance support, and rapid e-learning, offers
many alternatives to traditional methods of learning and training
that are viable ways to reduce training's environmental impact.
A recent study by Britain's Open University, "Towards Sustainable
Higher Education: Environmental Impacts of Campus-Based and
Distance Higher Education Systems," found that on average, the
production and provision of distance learning courses consumed
nearly 90 percent less energy and produced 85 percent fewer
CO2 emissions per student than conventional campus-based
university courses. The main savings were due to a reduction in the
amount of student travel, economies of scale in the use of the
campus site, and the elimination of much of the energy consumption
of students' housing. In other words, studying from home and using
a home computer was far more energy efficient.
How might these findings compare in the world of training?
According to the most recent ASTD State of the Industry
Report (2004), employees in North America receive in the range
of 30-38 hours of formal training per year, of which nearly 63
percent is delivered by a live instructor, face-to-face. That's
nearly 19-24 hours per year per individual in classroom-type
training. Whether this training takes place at the employee's work
site or in another location, it's fair to assume that most of it
involves employees leaving their homes, desks, or regular work
sites, traveling somewhere and sitting in a room to receive their
Unless by bicycle or on foot, most travel consumes some form of
fuel. The time spent attending a training session also requires
energy in the form of such services as heating and lighting. The
most recent data available from the U.S. Energy Information
Administration on energy consumption in the workplace, "Energy
Information Administration: 1999 Commercial Buildings Energy
Consumption Survey," shows that approximately 70 million BTU or
20,515 kwh of energy (heating, air conditioning, and electricity)
is consumed per year per worker to supply the needs of commercial
buildings. Although only a small fraction of workers' time is spent
taking training each year, if you multiply these figures by the
number of workers, you're looking at a significant level of energy
consumption due to the provision of live training.
The Open University study examined in detail energy costs
associated with classroom learning in terms of CO2
emissions, and compared these to the costs of learning via a
computer. Computers are no environmental saints: They burn energy
at least 0.125 kwh per hour for a desktop PC, and can contain toxic
materials such as lead, cadmium, and PCB's that pose serious health
and environmental hazards. Despite this, the CO2
emission levels associated with computer use were significantly
less than those associated with more conventional instructional
delivery methods, and much of the studying was done from home using
computers that students already owned.
E-learning can also save trees. Many e-learning courses are
entirely self-contained, presenting all learning content online, or
providing alternatives to paper-based forms of communication
through such tools as email, PDF manuals, synchronous classrooms,
and other web-based tools. To provide each delegate at that Chicago
conference with just one 10-page hand-out would have used nearly an
acre of forested land. In addition, when you factor in the
resources required to manufacture paper, such as water,
electricity, fuel, bleach, and other chemicals, you can see that
paper leaves a hefty environmental footprint.
Interestingly, the Open University study found that e-learning
offered only a small reduction in energy consumption and
CO2 emission levels (20 percent and 12 percent
respectively) when compared to print-based distance learning. This
was attributed to the fact that students participating in
e-learning-based courses that the Open University studied often
preferred to print their web-based course materials. In addition,
their computer usage consumed energy.
Would these findings be similar in the world of training? Probably
not. University courses usually require a great deal more
background reading than a typical training course. For the most
part, people dislike reading dense texts online and university
students typically keep hard copies of their notes and reading for
future reference and exams. This notion contrasts markedly with
many training-related e-learning courses in which the content is
designed for online reading and print-outs represent only a
fraction of the course materials.
Converting to e-learning
The keys to saving energy and reducing emissions and paper usage
- convert applicable classroom or self-study courses to
- encourage e-learning either at home or at the learner's desk
- design courses to reduce the need to print out materials.
How can you put this into practice?
Blended online and face-to-face solutions. Move
content that can be studied alone to an online self-study format.
Provide expert support through formal email or web conferencing for
small groups. Reserve face-to-face events for short, critical
activities. In doing so, you will reduce the number of days and
travel required for classroom training.
Blended online solution. Replace a one-day
classroom event with a scheduled home study course. Employees stay
home, take an online self-study course in the morning, contribute
to an online discussion forum after finishing the course, and then
convene for a web-based seminar in the afternoon. All training is
tracked in the organization's LMS to ensure participation.
Web conferencing. Use this technology to bring
together globally dispersed participants to meet, learn together,
and discuss without ever leaving their offices. A key benefit
touted by web conferencing software providers is the cost savings
that customers see as a result of reduced travel expenses. These
reductions also translate into lower energy consumption and
Online resources. Provide online resources to
accompany e-learning courses, making them easily accessible after
the course has been delivered. Reduce printing by making them easy
to read online. Replace printed communiques and information sheets
such as product or systems updates with email, PDFs, or other web
formats. Build online libraries of knowledge resources that are
easy to search, access, and read online, and provide employees with
access to an online book service. This enables staff to read or
browse books online using only the sections relevant to their
needs. The service helps reduce the number of books printed, thus,
saving paper. Bookmarking and notes features can also reduce the
need to print the online materials.
Emerging tools and technology will make access to information and
training even more flexible. Reliance on specific times and
locations will become less of a requirement for those seeking to
improve their skills and knowledge. The energy consumption
associated with travel and the use of conventional computers will
decline as technological changes enable the transmission of richer
content through ever smaller devices. The following are existing
technologies that people are adapting to use in education and
- Devices such as handhelds, mobile phones, and personal
entertainment devices (e.g., MP3 players) can download, store, and
retrieve content from the internet, including audio and text files.
- New data transmission services, such as multimedia messaging
system (MMS), enable transmission of audio and video files over
wireless networks to handheld devices and mobile phones.
- The podcasting model, which enables users to subscribe to and
download audio files, can be used by trainers for transmitting
lectures, updates, and other types of audio to specific users.
- Blogs and their offshoots, audio and video blogs, can be used
to supplement formal learning events. For example, a blog that
documents a learners experience on the job can be shared with a
mentor or future learners.
Changing attitudes and behaviors
A final, and noteworthy, finding of the Open University study was
that student attitudes changed as a result of learning online.
Study participants learned that it was possible to learn and work
without traveling. Their new way of thinking also transferred to
other activities, including shopping online, corresponding via
email, and researching information on the Internet. Translation for
the workplace: As people grow accustomed to using technology to
learn, they may feel more comfortable using it for other
activities, such as meetings and teamwork, or vice versa.
No one is proposing that we abandon all face-to-face events. Their
value in certain circumstances is incomparable. However, for many
situations, there is a choice. As cost-conscious organizations have
tried to reduce energy consumption in relation to heating, air
conditioning, and so forth, some will now approach training from a
"green" perspective and start factoring in the environmental impact
of their options when deciding which delivery method to select. It
may mean fewer trips to exciting cities like Chicago, but at least
it will be good for the planet.