Since COP26 and Australia’s commitment to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, every industry has had to scrutinize how it contributes to the current climate crisis. This scrutiny has made it increasingly clear that digital technologies are a huge part of the problem. As leading technology innovators, UTS considers this issue at the institutional level through its Climate Positive Plan. For those of us who work specifically with EdTech, it’s getting harder to ignore the need for better reporting and action on the impact of this form of digital technology.

To answer the question then ‘Is EdTech incompatible with sustainability?’, I’ll take us through the Yes, No and Maybe responses.  

For some context of why, here’s a tidbit from the 2022 UN Secretary General’s address to the General Assembly:

Let’s have no illusions. 

We are in rough seas. 

A winter of global discontent is on the horizon.

A cost-of-living crisis is raging. 

Trust is crumbling.

Inequalities are exploding.

Our planet is burning.

People are hurting – with the most vulnerable suffering the most.

The United Nations Charter and the ideals it represents are in jeopardy.

Yes, EdTech is incompatible with sustainability

Neil Selwyn (Monash) is probably the main Australian voice in EdTech who calls out how often digital technologies don’t work through the study of Critical EdTech. More recently he’s turned his attention towards Studying digital education in times of climate crisis: what can we do?. Definitely watch that talk – it’s compelling viewing. In summary, he asks whether digital education is part of a realistic future. A future in which sustainability, climate breakdown, and a possibly eco-compromised world are our main priorities for human survival and, hopefully, thriving.

Neil is not the first to question the role of digital technologies in a sustainable world. The White House recently released a report on the Climate and Energy implications of Crypto-assets in the United States. It’s not a pretty picture. But, anyone working in EdTech has heard of the promised potential of blockchain technology to revolutionise higher education credentials, not to mention the illusive ‘Metaverse’. Tuvalu, at least, sees the Metaverse as a desperate way to preserve their country from rising sea levels. But without rapid change in the way energy and water are consumed in the server farms that support cloud computing, neither the Metaverse nor blockchain tech will last. The Dark Side of Cloud and Edge Computing explores this and other problems of the cloud more closely.

Some in the world of computer science are attempting to rein in the excesses of digital tech with movements like Computing Within Limits and Permacomputing. Others are already preparing for the survival of computing beyond environmental collapse with systems like Collapse OS which can run on scavenged electronics. Professor Tim Unwin (University of London) expresses the problem of digital technologies and climate change fairly simply as “Climate change is not the problem; we are”.

No, EdTech is not incompatible with sustainability

Sustainability, of course, is not only about the climate crisis. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Richard Heller (University of Newcastle). His recent book The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education argues that the best thing we can do to “stop inequality and save the planet” is support online learning. As a student, advocate and employee of online learning, I can see the appeal of this approach. Having written before about the expansive campus, the distributed university seems like a logical way to go. In a similar vein, there have been pushes in innovation to design conferencing to go digital, such as Edtech for Sustainability: Designing Conferencing to go Digital from the Centre for Innovation.

Others like Chris Priest (University of Bristol), Vasiliki Kioupi (Imperial College London) and Kevin O’Reilly (Right to Repair) answer the question of how can edtech help steer us towards sustainability goals by focusing on prolonging hardware life, improving procurement processes, educating EdTech developers, and universities in particular driving the shift towards a circular economy. In their EdTech Youth Challenge, The Australian Museum and IBM aim to showcase the ability of AI systems to monitor and manage sustainability, disaster resilience and human health concerns. Data-driven decision-making platforms like Holon IQ promote growth and sustainability through a combination of climate, education and health tech.

Meh. Maybe?

One of UTS’s primary partners in cloud computing, Amazon Web Services, reached 65% renewable energy across their business in 2020 and they plan to reach net-zero by 2040. But better reporting doesn’t always mean better outcomes and can easily be another way of greenwashing the truth. Our role must be to hold our vendors accountable for their commitments and possibly drive them to ever more ambitious improvements.

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