By Ronald Ravel, Director B2B at Dynabook South Africa
In September 2020, charity UNICEF reported that over 90% of countries had adopted some form of distance/remote learning during the height of the pandemic to curb the spread of COVID-19. At the peak of the crisis, over 1.6 billion children in 195 countries worldwide could not use their classrooms.
While school closures were often effective tools in the fight against the virus, extending them too long also came with the risk of loss of educational opportunities for children in the long term. To mitigate these effects, alternative ways for children to access education had to be prioritised, and this shift has changed the face of education – possibly permanently. Students and children all over the world have been learning remotely, using technology such as online courses and video classes, via their laptops or handheld devices. This change could usher in a new era of hybrid learning, where some students attend classes in person while others join virtually. While the concepts of blended and e-learning are not new, hybrid learning offers digital, interactive, and engaged teaching in the classroom, while remote students benefit from the same learning experience.
As the pandemic continues, and governments and schools work to provide teachers and pupils with the right tools to work from home, there are questions about the damaging impact that this could have on the environment. The tools, technologies and processes required to make remote learning successful need careful evaluation. How can distanced or hybrid learning deliver the best possible experience for teachers and learners, in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way?
Implementing an IT strategy for remote learning
A clearly defined sustainable IT strategy – including a commitment from management and measurable targets – can help any organisation reach social, economic and environmental goals. While schools are unlikely to close for good (in-person learning will always have a place), investors believe that remote learning is here to stay, and grow. Venture capital investment in edtech more than doubled from $7bn in 2019 to over $16bn in 2020 globally. As a result, increased school spending on cloud solutions, remote IT assistance and portable devices is set to become the norm. Indeed, respondents of our research described laptops as “the unsung heroes of the pandemic” due to their portability and flexibility in a variety of working and learning scenarios. Smart investments into secure and robust IT equipment will not only save time and money in the long run, but can improve workplace credentials and create a healthy foundation for hybrid or distanced learning to thrive.
Help or hinder?
At a first glance, engaging in a sustainable IT strategy seems simple when more remote work or education is on the cards. In a report drafted by the World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs 2020, a number of trends including the expansion of remote working and the acceleration of digitalisation and automation were highlighted as potentially having an overall positive impact on the environment. The same findings could surely be extrapolated to schools: remote learning would reduce CO2 emissions caused by means of transport, and heating and cooling school or university buildings, for example.
But IT leaders in education know they need to consider the impact of the number and types of required devices to power remote learning too. Computers, laptops and printers all invariably have their own environmental footprint and as such, could contribute to rising levels of electronic waste around the world. According to The rising tide of e-waste study, nearly all of the 600 global enterprises surveyed (97%) had to purchase new laptops to accommodate the shift to remote working during the pandemic. Global laptop shipments in 2021 are set to reach a record-breaking 236 million units to accommodate remote work and education. And our own study found that nearly two thirds of IT leaders in education will increase their IT budgets this year. Given the longevity of these developments, these trends have to be examined in more detail.
Does a global surge of interest in laptops and other portable devices, for example, mean that truly hybrid learning is bad for the environment? Not necessarily. While the current consumption of electronic materials is seen as ‘unsustainable’ by some experts, schools and universities investing in electronic devices to power their employees and students could look at moving away from a linear model and towards a circular economy in electronics, by improving the life-cycle environmental performance of products. For a sustainable, circular economy in the IT industry, reducing e-waste, and using schemes such as reusing, recycling and asset recovery have never been so important.
A sustainable hybrid option for education
The first way to alleviate e-waste is with good IT support. This ensures that purchased devices last for as long as possible, and that the technology operates smoothly. Away from the physical classroom or educational facility, remote IT support can provide both students and teachers with on-demand support so that IT teams can access devices to remotely perform activities including general maintenance updates to resolving more complex technical issues.
The benefits of IT support are numerous: from regularly monitoring systems for malicious software to ensuring security software is running properly and the systems are working efficiently. With over half (58%) of educational organisations already prioritising remote support technologies for staff, it is no surprise that investment in appropriate support is growing.
A number of vendors also offer initiatives to help schools and universities deal with devices after the product’s lifecycle. Two of the most effective are reselling and recycling, which involve either the resale of old devices that are still in good condition, or sustainable recycling initiatives which allow customers to dispose of their items in eco-friendly ways.
The benefits of these initiatives extend even beyond their eco-friendly credentials. With resale, old equipment that is still in good condition can be bought back from the organisation, so places with smaller budgets benefit from a refund while freeing up space for new investments. For equipment that has reached the end of its lifecycle, a robust recycle initiative will ensure that any educational facility can entrust the process of disposal to their vendor, relieving the burden while safe in the knowledge that equipment is being managed in the safest and most sustainable way.
Can hybrid learning ever be truly sustainable?
Most signs point to yes – if carried out appropriately. However, while the answer to this question is nuanced, it is clear that only part of the environmental improvements would be caused by students and staff staying out of classrooms.
Shifting to a more circular model of operating when it comes to technology devices and improving behaviours when it comes to electronic waste also play a role. Even larger universities that require a constant flow of equipment shipments can offset this by signing up to initiatives that help them resell or dispose of their old products responsibly. And while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, it is certainly apparent that hybrid learning is not a one-time fad, and so it is up to all of us to find the best and most sustainable way to make it work.