As lockdown nears its end in the UK, many children have gone back to school and university students are returning to campus in May. This past year, students spent a lot of time online learning to reduce COVID-19 transmission rates throughout the country. Although I'm not a student anymore (I do miss the fun times in university!), I have a younger brother in high school and sister at university which this greatly affected. The Polestar team also has members with kids, so the conversation of online learning has always been a topic at the office.

Oliver wrote an informative piece on the impact of digitisation on education, and I've done a valuation on the education sector for Q1 21', which covers edtech a bit more broadly. For this post, I'm going to cover the impact edtech on environmental sustainability and if we can adopt this approach in a post-pandemic world.

Edtech,  is the combined use of computer hardware, software, and educational theory and practice to facilitate learning. The UK edtech sector grew 72% in 2020. The growth puts the value of this sector at almost £3.5bn 

Fuel, Pollution and Emissions

Hundreds of thousands of students commute to school each day. Often, a lot of college students have lengthy drives for just one or two courses a day, which is wasteful in terms of fuel and natural resources. Edtech's innovation in eLearning will help reduce the fuel usage for campus learning. Online learning allows the student to learn from the comfort of their home while avoiding vehicles and local roads. In the Design Innovation Group's final report, they found that on average, the production and provision of the distance learning courses consumed nearly 90% less energy and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions (per student per 10 CAT points) than the conventional campus-based university courses. (1 CAT point is equivalent to 10 hours total study and 360 CAT points are required for an UK undergraduate degree). 

Even if some colleges and universities adopt a hybrid model of online learning, part-time campus-based courses also cut energy by 63% and CO2 emissions by 62%. The main reason for this impact was a major reduction in the amount of student and staff travel, economies of scale in utilisation of the campus site, and the elimination of much of the energy consumption of students’ housing.

While online learning may be possible for older students in colleges and universities, I do agree that younger students will need to be in a school environment to help them learn and socialize. Students learning in the STEM area will also need to meet in person for labs and research. If online learning cannot be not fully adopted, what the government can do is build greener schools. Last year, the UK government announced a £1 billion investment in new school construction and an additional £560 million for school repairs and upgrades.

The Carbon Trust organization outlines the main components of a typical school’s carbon footprint. These are heating, lighting, hot water, catering, and electricity for information and communication technology (ICT).

Some examples that UK schools will need to take to reduce energy consumption are (1) decrease the energy demand for heating through insulation and double-glazed windows (2) better controls and zoning for temperature control (3) using LED lighting and (4) all ICT equipment needs to be switched off when possible. 

To go fully carbon neutral, schools would need to switch out their gas boilers for electric heat pumps. They would also need to provide on-site renewable energy, such as rooftop solar panels. Improving the energy performance of schools going to be vital for UK is to achieve its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The investment by the government in greener schools would be of great outcome, not just environmentally, but also financially. A study done by U.S. Green Building Council found that green schools cost 2% less than conventional schools and they provide financial benefits that are 20 times as large. The money saved with greener schools could then be reinvested back into a better education experience for students. 

A Paperless Environment 

Another huge impact of edtech is the reduction of paper usage. The average secondary school produces 22kg of waste per pupil each academic year and 45kg for primary schools. Moving tests, essays, and other assignments online can help reduce the paper usage in schools. There are great online platforms, such as Blackboard, that schools can adopt to share all the information they need. Using laptops or tablets to skip paper textbooks and workbooks entirely can reduce paper usage as well.

There are plenty of other benefits for a paperless environment. With a virtual platform, teachers can save time when it comes to grading, informing and giving feedback to students and parents. The administrative staff can handle manual filings, various printing tasks and sending letters home in a more immediate way. 

A paperless environment can also provide a better space saving and organized environment. There will be no use of having physical documentation in schools if all paperwork is moved to a cloud-based platform, creating more room in schools for students and utilizing space in a more efficient way. This also allows for students, teachers, and schools to be more organized if all paperwork is in one general locations.

Final Thoughts

Schools were left without a choice in gradually adopting edtech for leaning because of the pandemic. But through this, we have learned a lot in the benefits of the edtech space. With reducing fuel, pollution, emissions, and paper usage, edtech is very pro-environment. However, the reality is that we may not be 100% online due to the social nature of humans-but that is where greener schools will come in.

At Polestar, we have and are advising a number of businesses in the edtech sector. With the rapid demand in this space, this could be a good time to explore your options for raising funding or securing a valuable exit. Like always, if you have any interest, please reach out!