Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why Online Learning is the Green Choice

My Two Cents: Why Online Learning is the Green Choice
By Erika Yigzaw, Senior Vice President,

At ACHS, we’re all about environmental sustainability and we do all we can as an institution to reduce, reuse and recycle. (See our sustainability summary at

However, I have recently had the opportunity to see first hand how “green” online learning is.

I recently completed the Master Gardener program through Oregon State University. First, let me say how much I enjoyed the class, which ties nicely in with my “day” job here at the college, but also with my hobby’s of gardening, green living, agriculture, and sustainability. It is an on campus program, meaning one day each week, I drive 19 miles in my car, sit in a basement classroom with no windows and listen to people lecture from 9 to 4, with short breaks.

It has been an eye opening experience for me. First, because of the subject, we study ecology and ecosystems, so we actually discussed in class the carbon footprint of attending this class, and it was quite shocking:

- Every student drives to the location (yes I drive a Jeep, so its not gas friendly – but I live up a long bumpy driveway in the country so a Prius could not make it and the cost of a new hybrid SUV is just insane!)
- We park in a large parking area that has been converted from farm land (this class is held at the Extension Research center, so lots of it is still farmed)
- OSU converted the basement into a classroom with all the associated construction impact (the facility used to be a house so its not new construction)
- The rooms are heated and lit, since there are no windows and no natural light
- We sit at particle board tables, on metal folding chairs, all of which took resources to manufacture and off gas
- We read a 400+ page printed manual and various printed handouts

We are talking about a big carbon footprint here!

Not only is there a significant green impact, but the personal impact has been quite significant also. Of course, it’s a great program and sometimes we have to inconvenience ourselves to get a good education, but lets look at what happened during class...

In January, we had several weeks of very nasty ice and snow. The news was warning against driving if it could be avoided, but no, I had to get dressed in multiple layers and head out onto the slick roads to get to my class. Contrast that with the fifteen steps to my nice warm home office, warmed by my super efficient wood burning fireplace fueled by wood from our woodlot to log into my online classes.

Unfortunately my daughter and I both developed Pneumonia as a result of a nasty flu bug in February. Although I was still not well enough, I could only take two weeks off class and pass, so I had to drag myself into class on the third week of my illness, still feeling weak and against doctors orders. Whereas I had been logging into my online classes most of the time I was sick, sitting in bed with my laptop, and actually enjoying the sensation of interacting with people even though I was contagious! I had to arrange my sister to stay home with my daughter, as she was not cleared to return to preschool, otherwise I would have had to pay a nanny (which would have been difficult to find anyway, since temporary nannies are not that keen on looking after sick four year olds!). So there are direct as well as indirect costs, as well as health impacts and sheer inconvenience.

Educational Goals
So aside from the environmental and personal convenience factors, what about the education? Was this on campus program meeting my needs better than an online class would have?

On campus:
- The course is based on a large printed course manual, with assigned reading for each week.
- Each presentation is a PowerPoint, with a person talking along to it.
- We get copies of some PowerPoints, but not others, so we must furiously take notes of any important details.
- Some PowerPoints contain web links, but the presenters have no web access, so we must write down the URL and remember to go look at it when we get home
- There is limited opportunity for questions at the end, usually truncated due to time.
- There is no or little application of what we have been talking about and few if any practical examples
- To be honest, I don’t retain much of the information until I go home and do my own study. Which surprises me to some extent, since most of the materials is fairly familiar and I work in a related field.
- There are no performance objectives, so no one is quite sure what is important, and the only assessment is a test in the 10th week of this 11 week program and a five minute talk we each give.

So given all that, am I benefiting by personally meeting the people in my class?
- We have short breaks (10 minutes) between each lecture – but by the time you line up to use the bathroom, its straight back into it.
- At the lunch break, they have additional lectures that are valuable and most people listen to, so there is not much meaningful peer interaction, although from our brief chats, it is clear that there are some fascinating people with a lot of relevant and interesting background in our class. The few people I have had the chance to chat with are lovely and I am looking forward to getting to know them outside of class. However, unless you happen to sit next to them or stand next to them in the line for the loo (toilet!), you may not find out about them!

In contrast, with ACHS online classes:
- We provide learning objectives up front, so you know what you need to learn.
- You get lectures to read in the manual and online (more and more online) and lectures online can be updated throughout the class, so students do not need to make personal notes of new information
- Students also access a range of resources and learning tools depending on the course including PowerPoint presentations, but supplemented with multimedia presentations such as animations, videos, audio lectures, and interactive activities
- There are tests in each module so students can ensure they are meeting the learning objectives in small chunks, not waiting till the last week of the class to discover perhaps that they misunderstood a key point
- There is meaningful authentic assessment in the form of various projects, essays, and labs to complete in each module to help different learners internalize the concepts and theory
- There is extensive peer to peer interaction through the discussion boards and personal interaction through the cyber cafe, which allow students to connect with fellow students with similar interests
- There are unlimited opportunities to ask questions via the discussion boards and instructor Q&A.
- Plus, ACHS is working on ways to create audio files of instructors discussing lectures in file sizes small enough for all students to access, so soon just about every aspect of the on campus version will be covered.

Of course, education is never just about the carbon footprint, but clearly, when the educational objectives are being equaled or in my opinion exceeded by a well put together online class, why not take the opportunity to walk a little more softly on the earth and take your classes online. My two cents!

For information on any of our programs at ACHS please contact an admissions advisor today! Call 800.487.8839 or email Be sure to ask about our AA and MS Complementary Alternative Medicine degree programs!

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