e-learning: green learning?

ereaderA few weeks ago our Senior Instructional Developer, Emerging Technologies the illustrious Mark Morton sent off an email informing us of an interesting new device that he had come across called the PlayAway. This device is an audiobook that is integrated with its own hardware, including battery so you can just plug your earbuds in and “play away”. He suggested that they were virtually “disposable” and popular in elementary schools where it would not matter if they were lost since they were relatively inexpensive. This caught me on a bad day and I promptly shot off a nasty response expressing my overwhelming “joy” at the development of yet another earth-friendly landfill-filling option.  Mark being ever calm and resourceful responded that they probably were not designed to be disposable but that perhaps I blog about this topic – is technology “greening” our learning?

So here I am. I was actually surprised to find that the folks at PlayAway suggest that their product is an environmental friendly option.  The companies that produce the full-fledged eBook readers also market themselves as environmentally friendly “green” alternatives to paper books. That is fine, but who doesn’t jump on the environmental bandwagon these days?  Is there any evidence for their claims?

According to a report by the Cleantech Group, the production of a Kindle (Amazon’s eReader) produces 168 kilograms of carbon dioxide compared to 7.46 kilograms for a paper book so once you have downloaded 25 books on your Kindle it can be considered to be  “carbon neutral”.  However, their calculations did not take into consideration the energy needed to run the eReader nor the e-waste upon disposal of the unit and the battery.  I wonder too how long these devices last, how long will an average person keep their reader before the model is obsolete?  Even if they are properly disposed of as e-waste and recycled (which my bet is a great many of them will not be) what cost in energy and what toxic waste will be generated from their disposal? The jury is still out. I do know that I have many, many 50+ year old books in my house and I bet I will never own a even a 10 year old eReader (and that is not because I am aging)!

Of interest though, several large American universities including Princeton and The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia are adopting Kindle textbooks in an attempt to go “paper free.”  I do buy the argument that electronic textbooks make perfect sense since they are so very expensive, are often not kept more than one term by the user, and publishers put out new editions every couple years. This is a market where we may save some trees and make a difference environmentally. Rather like reading the newspaper online.

I also began thinking about whether posting lecture notes represents a “green” alternative. I think probably not yet, since I see students coming to lecture with reams of paper, far more than if they just took notes the old fashioned way. However, if lectures were provided as a podcast or screencast and students were encouraged to take notes on their laptops and listen on their iPods, perhaps they would be disinclined to print the notes and would learn to study using less paper.  Having students take tests online, submit assignments to course management system dropboxes or collaborate on projects electronically can go a long way towards saving paper – and therefore trees.

Getting back to my original thought, I simply cannot agree that the PlayAway holding just one book is an environmentally friendly option; however, some technologies such as ebook readers and effective uses of course management systems can “green” learning. So maybe technology does not have to result in clash of the three Rs! “Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic versus Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle.

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Mary Power

As Senior Instructional Developer, Blended Learning, Mary Power develops programming that promotes the effective use of the online environment in on-campus courses. Working closely with faculty liaisons, Centre for Extended Learning (CEL), and Instruction Technologies and Multimedia Services (ITMS), she helps manage initiatives related to “blended learning” courses. Mary is also involved in research projects related to the impact and effectiveness of blended learning.

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