Balancing benefits and invisible overheads in “Sustainable ICT in Higher Education” report

Posted on January 27, 2009


Here’s more notes from Peter James and Lisa Hopkinson’s  study on Sustainable ICT in Further and Higher Education  (firstsecond, third posts).    

The application of ICT in higher education is pervasive and beneficial in both administration and learning.   With the benefits come “an ‘invisible overhead’ of environmental impacts, which is seldom fully appreciated”.    Some areas are of disproportionate impact (supercomputers, graphic-rich applications, storage of “old emails and complex research data”,  cable TV in halls of residence).  

The authors describe areas of social overhead:  “degradation of the learning experience through reduced face-to-face contact” (several of my colleagues might argue with that), exclusion of groups and individuals with “virtual-in-crowd”, health and safety.

Balancing these benefits and overheads “are beyond the scope of the study” but the authors argue that it is important that:

decision makers and opinion formers understand that there are considerable ‘disbenefits’ associated with increased ICT dependence, such as that inherent in the move to Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs).  There is a couple of pages of discussion on e-learning “distance learning courses in higher education on average consume 90% less energy and produce 90% fewer CO2 emissions per student than conventional campus-based courses”.

increased ICT dependence is matched by increased commitment and action to environmental improvement and social responsibility so that there is not a proportionate rise in impacts

emerging issues such as ICT-related health and safety, and social inclusion, issues amongst students are addressed

activities within further and higher education where the application of ICT can assist sustainability are recognised and encouraged eg substitution of physical activities or artefacts with electronic ones, consolidation or integration of multiple activities or artefacts into ones with a smaller footprint.   

–  ICT-related activities creating potential social benefit (of relevance to common definitions of sustainability) are developed, including improving access to, and benefits from, educational opportunities for disadvantaged groups and individuals, improving quality of life for staff, and reduce time spent undertaking administrative tasks, so freeing people to engage in the more creative aspects of teaching, learning and research.

Flexible work, e-work and virtual meetings are discussed as examples of areas of potential importance.  

There are many reasons for this low usage. Some will – and perhaps should – never be overcome, because  they relate to the effectiveness of communication, which is generally higher when people are in physical proximity. However, the aim of a sensible conferencing strategy is not to replace ‘high value’ face-to-face  meetings. The environmentally beneficial opportunities are those which substitute for relatively ‘low value’ ones – such as some meetings between people who get together regularly – or sessions where travel times and/or costs are disproportionate to benefit. Another opportunity is interactions that would have been impossible if travel had been involved, but these are more about creating social benefits than environmental ones.


Barriers include a lack of connection between the cost savings that other parts of the institutions can achieve from
reduced business travel, the additional resource needed within IT departments to support VC, limited internal marketing,
them, lack of knowledge in IT departments, and lack of supporting functionality.

These findings are unfortunate because the sector infrastructure has the capability to handle a much higher
number of calls than are being undertaken, and is therefore considerably under-utilised.

The authors hedge their bets big time:

Perhaps the greatest impact of universities and colleges on sustainable development is the legacy of learning, as manifested in the attitudes and behaviour of students as they progress through their lives. If e-learning can help to increase access to specific knowledge of the topic, and to support the development of social equality and active citizenship, then can it make a very positive difference. 

Of course, it is also possible that e-learning could lead to poorer quality, and less humane, education, just as location-independent working and virtual meetings could lead to more atomised and less fulfilling lives for staff. However, the balance of evidence is that these dangers can be avoided, and that net environmental and social benefits can result. This could be even more true if the long-term opportunities to use ICT to completely rethink the ways that some activities are conducted are taken, so that they are more sustainable without being less effective.