30 Jan 2013

Sustainability toolkit developed by OU to achieve “greener” teaching and learning in Higher Education

Teaching models in higher education are still not green enough, a study from The Open University has found, with institutions urged to look beyond greening campus buildings and teaching about sustainability, to lower their carbon-based environmental impacts.

The research project culminated in the design of the SusTEACH toolkit – a resource available online offering tools and resources for lecturers, academic designers and students to help transform behaviour and make institutions “greener”.

The SusTEACH project run at the OU, and funded by Jisc, found that while there are some good, sustainability programmes in operation in HE institutions, there is more to be achieved by looking at how we teach and by embracing online methods and using ICTs. The study examined the role of ICTs in higher education teaching models and their effect on carbon reduction.

As well as adopting SusTEACH findings to look at the design and delivery of teaching and learning on its full qualification programmes, the OU is widening the net to support students to use a “carbon calculator” and indeed the general public will be provided access to a study unit on sustainable learning via the OU’s award-winning OpenLearn website.

The Open University is already embracing the use of ICT and online learning worldwide - through its existing teaching methods and new initiatives such as OU Anywhere and OpenLearn and is leading the way by adopting some of the SusTEACH practices to achieve greater sustainability in teaching.

Professor Andy Lane, Professor of Environmental Systems at the OU and report co-author, said: “The main source of carbon impacts in HE teaching is associated with travel to and from campus, residential energy consumption and the many campus site operations.
“We found that the use of online and ICT enhanced teaching delivery methods, as well as traditional distance teaching methods, reduced energy consumption and therefore achieved significant carbon reductions.”

The study represents the first time complex online HE teaching models have been compared with traditional face-to-face and distance teaching methods to test their environmental sustainability.
The study – which was shortlisted for the prestigious Green Gown Awards for best practice in the HE sector - found that the growth of ICTs is enabling more innovation and has created more teaching models and approaches, but also raises the question of whether this is environmentally better or worse than traditional teaching methods. The findings support the sustainability credentials of online teaching and learning.

Rob Bristow, Jisc Programme Manager for Greening ICT, commented: “We’re delighted to have funded the work of the team at the OU. I’m really pleased with the way that they have taken the task of understanding the environmental impacts of the rest of what universities do beyond IT. This tool kit is something that will help academics, curriculum designers and planners to finally get some understanding of the environmental implications of the decisions they make.”

Notes to editors

The report’s co-authors are: Sally Caird, Research Fellow in Design and Innovation, Andy Lane, Professor of Environmental Systems, and Ed Swithenby, SusTEACH Research Assistant all in the Faculty of Maths, Computing and Technology at The Open University.

The first major quantitative study to assess the energy consumption and carbon impacts of traditional campus-based and distance higher education systems was the Factor 10 Visions study ‘Towards Sustainable Higher Education’ led by Robin Roy and Stephen Potter. It found that on average, the production and delivery of distance teaching consumed nearly 90% less energy and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions than campus-based higher education courses and modules.
Building on this study, the SusTEACH project assessed some 30 higher education courses and modules in 15 UK institutions where a range of teaching models were used, including face-to-face, fully online and a range of blended teaching methods.
To permit a clear, comparative assessment, the study classified lecturers’ ratings of their use of face-to-face teaching, print-based materials and ICT-based teaching and learning. In addition, a carbon-based environmental assessment methodology was used to measure the carbon impacts associated with typical factors of HE courses including: staff and student travel; purchase and use of ICT devices and educational materials; residential energy consumption and campus site operations.

The SusTEACH project is funded by Jisc under the Greening ICT Programme. The authors are also grateful for the support of a large number of interested participants in the project from The Open University, Cranfield University, Loughborough University and Oxford University.

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