Dire Disconnect

The hidden impacts of online learning.


COVID-19 restrictions have forced us online, which luckily has lowered the environmental emissions from many sectors. In the environmental sector, it has forced change on our curriculums, which has been positive in some respects. However, the insular separated nature of COVID-19 restrictions might be blocking the ability of our learners from sharing vital environmental literacy with less engaged population segments.

The hidden impacts of isolated online learning on the environment

Unless you’ve been living in the cold depths of Canada’s northern forests, it’s likely that you’ve been impacted by the quarantine restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the most noticeable has been the change to our post- secondary education systems. Campuses are ghost towns, spaces have been restricted, and everyone has gone online.

What is the environmental impact of such a significant drop in traditional learning spaces? For that matter, what will become of environmental education itself?

Without a doubt, the world has changed. For post-secondary institutions, this is most noticeably seen in the significantly reduced and restricted use of campus services and amenities. With fewer students on campus, less electricity is used. There are less spaces occupied, fewer lights on, and reduced commuting. We know globally there has been a drop in GHG emissions directly related to the quarantine restrictions we have collectively placed. While many sectors and industries have nearly returned to business-as-usual, post-secondary institutions are one sector that has remained mostly restricted.

Due to present circumstances, universities around the world have been adapting their course offerings in unique ways. Some universities like McMaster, have swapped their course load to be almost entirely online. Oppositely in Ontario, the University of Toronto has about a third of their classes on campus; in a COVID-19 hotspot no less! However, no one has more in person classes than that. It goes without saying that having fewer bodies on campus will have a direct impact on our total environmental emissions. The question that follows though, is less clear.

What are the long-term implications of this shift to virtual learning? It seems unlikely that post-secondary institutions could return to business- as-usual. Can virtual learning platforms effectively replace traditional in-person institutions? Relatedly, can the students of these platforms disseminate their knowledge of complex issues (like climate change) to less informed population segments? That remains to be seen.

Anant Agarwal, the founder of edX, (a joint online education venture from Harvard and MIT) has said “Online Education is like a rising tide, it’s going to lift all boats”. Online education platforms like edX provide us with significant amounts of open learning resources, which are often called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). There are many other platforms besides edX, however, in a recent press release, Agarwal stated that edX has reached 100 million enrolled students. The total market cap of online education is expected to reach US$319.167 billion by 2025 of which Agarwal’s brainchild is a part.

Clearly, the anticipated growth of virtual learning shows how vital these resources will become. However, that does not mean platforms like edX are without their flaws. Recent studies have shown that MOOCs fall short in terms of completion and engagement. This is where traditional institutions have had them beat.

To gain insight regarding the difference between traditional and online learning (especially within the context of environmental literacy), I interviewed two professors from Western University. Both teach introductory and masters level courses in environmental science and sustainability concurrently. Dr. Brennan Vogel and Dr. Paul Mensink shared their opinions regarding the current transition to online learning.

AJ: There has been a lot of differing opinions regarding the effectiveness of online learning. Do you feel the course is on par with what it would have been in person? Are you using the online tools to their full effect?

Dr. Vogel: It’s very different. Most of my colleagues that I’ve spoken with have mentioned that there have been some serious pedagogical shifts in moving to an online environment. I’ll definitely bring back more asynchronous learning when we return to regular classes. Being able to bring more material in a digestible way [like short video lectures of key concepts], so that once we are together in class – It’s possible to get students to engage in relevant discussion. It always bothered me in lectures when I would be talking at them for hours on end and then trying to cram discussion right at the end.

Dr. Mensink had voiced similar sentiments as Dr. Vogel during a separate conversation. In his courses, he has found it tedious (and ineffective) to create traditional lectures to an audience he can no longer see. It has also been difficult. He went on to explain that in traditional learning spaces there are usually indicators of whether a particular concept is understood or not (such as shared glances between students). Those glances had been a helpful hint that more time spent on the topic would be needed.

Both professors have lowered the number of mandatory sessions for their courses but have increased
the amount of asynchronous material (recorded lectures, video content, readings). Scheduled class time is shifting from lecture hours to discussions, breakout groups, and problem-solving. For both, it seems virtual learning has been a mixed bag – some improvements, and many unanswered questions.

AJ: Could online learning platforms like edX that offer Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) be used to help with fostering the next-gen environmental leader?

Dr. Mensink: They might help new leaders along their path, but not with any high degree of efficiency. Where online learning platforms could help is in the development of environmental literacy

in learners who are already interested in these issues. For some segments of the population, formal education or MOOCs won’t work. They lack the interest to pursue this type of knowledge. Their learning will need to continue to be done in an informal setting through family and friends.

Anecdotally, I know that there have been times when conversations about climate change with some of my older family and friends have led to their “Eureka!” moments. In many cases, the surface level information available to the public regarding environmental issues simply isn’t enough. These informal conversations seem to be one of the most effective methods of environmental knowledge transmission. There are a plethora of resources available to help develop environmental literacy, from edX to the United Nations “UNCC:e-learn”. For these MOOCs, ensuring that interested learners have the access they need is crucial. It’s unfortunate that more people aren’t developing their environmental literacy themselves, but those of us who have the knowledge need to do what they can. These informal conversations are even more critical now when certain population segments (such as seniors or rural communities) are even further isolated.

Dr. Mensink and Dr. Vogel had both mentioned during our interviews that younger students coming into their programs have more interest in current environmental issues and a higher degree of environmental literacy. Hopefully, this might indicate online platforms’ future readiness to further develop younger generations’ environmental knowledge base.

Due to current quarantine restrictions, however, the generational gap in environmental literacy might be increased. MOOCs and traditional learning methods alike require interest to maintain engagement, which means that certain groups are unlikely to gain knowledge of complex issues like climate change. Passive transmission of environmental knowledge, which environmental learners and leaders would have passed on during face-to-face interactions with family members and friends, could be limited for the foreseeable future due to our restricted “social bubbles”.

In short, COVID-19 Restrictions have forced us online, and in many sectors, environmental emissions
have been temporarily reduced. Like many other industries, post-secondary institutions have had to implement unique solutions. Creative pedagogical improvements, like asynchronous learning, seem to be effective to some extent. However, there is also concern that the isolated nature of our new “social bubbles” will impact the ability of environmental learners to effectively transmit their knowledge to the population segments that can’t be reached through online platforms. If true, such an intangible issue would be difficult to quantify. If social isolation is limiting environmental knowledge transfer, how long will it be before it becomes noticeable? That remains to be seen.