4 Ways to Be Digitally Sustainable in the Classroom
Seth Patterson is a Certified Customer Technical Support Representative at Cengage whose interests lie at the intersection of accessible technology, free software and resilience.
Whenever you use a computer or the internet, you use energy. And since energy resources are finite and can hurt the planet (even renewables can be hard to recycle and are often made unsustainably), we must conserve them whenever we can.
If computers use energy, how can we reduce our electricity needs? Here are some ways to cut your carbon footprint while teaching.
Allowing simple file formats
In the early days of personal computing, many files were in plain text formats, like TXT or CSV (spreadsheet) files. But today, files are normally in binary or rich text formats, like PNG images and Word documents.
According to The HTTP Archive, the median desktop version of the top 1,000 sites was 23.5% larger on January 1, 2023 than November 15, 2010. The larger a file is, the more energy it takes to store, process and share online.
Allowing students to submit homework in simpler file formats can reduce your class’s energy output. Plus, Computer Science students or students with low-powered computers will appreciate being able to use plain text formats.
Making the switch is easier than you might think. Your computer can already read plain text files with Notepad on Windows, TextEdit on Mac or apps like Gedit on GNU/Linux.
Making class websites smaller
What is the environmental impact of an image or a font on your website? You may not have thought of this, but the smaller your website is, the better it is for the environment. Tools like Website Carbon Calculator help you estimate a website’s energy usage.
Before adding a video, image, font or other content to your website or learning management system, ask yourself: “Is the content informative and necessary, or decorative and unnecessary?” A technical diagram or a photograph of a historical figure would be informative. A picture of arbitrary smiling people would be decorative.
By eliminating or limiting decorative content, you can save storage space, network usage and processing power. This also applies to slide presentations, documents and eTextbooks. Keep your content and websites as small and simple as possible. Complexity leads to wasted energy.
Provide offline content
Every time your students visit a school website, they send data to and from a server, which uses electricity. To save energy and allow your students to work in more places, make as much class content available offline as possible.
If your students can download the eBook version of a textbook or a PDF of a scientific paper, they only need to use the network once. Over a semester, this can save plenty of bandwidth.
Use devices longer
People think about the energy use from their computers. But they often forget the energy it takes to make and ship the computers.
The energy used to create a computer is called “embodied energy.” Sometimes the embodied energy of a device is higher than the energy used by the device during its lifetime. In addition, old computers must be disposed of, which takes energy, too.
Using the same computer for longer, reduces or delays these energy costs. Often, inefficient software slows computers down over time. Installing a new operating system can make a slow computer fast again, without the need to buy a new one.
Use free and open content
Developing curricula, computer hardware and software takes time and energy. Sharing your content freely, and using other instructors’ content, can save everyone from duplicating effort and expending extra energy.
Free and open content takes many forms, including:
- Free software (sometimes called “Open Source Software”)
- Freely licensed content (e.g., using Creative Commons licenses)
- Open access research
- Open source hardware
Open source hardware and free software are repairable, because anyone is allowed to modify them. Through open collaboration, we can prevent the wastefulness of “reinventing the wheel.”
Why should you care?
If digital sustainability takes effort, why should you do anything about it?
Being a good steward of Earth’s limited energy resources can inspire your students to do the same. The less energy you need to get work done, the less dependent you will be on energy infrastructure. If we reduce our energy demand, it will ease the switch to renewable energy sources. Plus, on top of the environmental benefits, reducing energy use can save money and make your devices’ batteries last longer.
Earth is a beautiful garden. We were put here to tend and keep it. By caring for our planet, you are fulfilling your role as a human.
How we use computers impacts our environment. So, we should use the simplest technology that can accomplish our goals.
To reduce the energy use in your classroom:
- Ask your students for feedback. Their experiences with slow network connections or overwhelming complexity can guide your journey toward simpler technology.
- Research older ways of doing things. Newer is not always better.
To learn more about digital sustainability and digital minimalism, check out these resources:
- Damaged Earth Catalog addresses environmental issues related to computing.
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport explores the philosophy behind simplifying your digital life.
- LOW←TECH MAGAZINE – High-tech Problems challenges our assumption that new, high-technology is better than old, low-technology.
- Minimal Computing “is a set of principles and practices that aim to reduce both environmental impact and barriers to access and engagement.”
To learn more about building a more sustainable classroom, check out this article on the best ways to teach practical sustainability skills to your students.