Sustainability of Online Learning


This sustainability assessment addresses the sustainability of online or distance learning. Currently, I am doing my teaching assistant course through an online learning program, hence informing my decision to assess the sustainability of online learning programs. The rapid global spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has generated unprecedented challenges for health, safety, education, and the economy at large. The online education programs are sustainable because they help educational institutions reduce their carbon footprint, as it is primarily paperless and affordable than physical learning programs. Online programs provide an avenue to scale up education to the broader society, including the less financially fortunate students.

What is the Sustainability Assessment?

Sustainability assessment (SA) is a framing of impact assessment or appraisal. SA is conducted to support policy and decision-making in a comprehensive economic, environmental and social context and aims to deliver positive, sustainable gains both now and into the future (Teh & Corbitt, 2015).

What is online/distance learning?

Distance or online learning is an educational program where learners receive instruction and related materials through online classes, video conferencing, video recording, and other visual/audio technology programs (Eynon & Malmberg, 2021). Students can learn without having to be physically present in the classroom.


It is no doubt the term sustainability follows a wide-ranging spectrum of ideas. This sustainability assessment defines sustainability as meeting the present needs without compromising the future generation’s ability to meet their needs (Bell et al., 2017). In this context, sustainability entails the quality and availability of education in the global setting of educational needs. The setting incorporates the challenges of globalization. Sustainable online learning must meet the following expectations: (1) ecologically sound, (2) economically feasible, and (3) socially equitable. The significance of sustainability in a global environment was made distinctly clear at the “21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21)” deliberations in Paris in 2015 (Aykut, Foyer, & Morena, 2017). 

From the social perspective, an online learning program is expected to offer flexibility and self-paced learning, increasing access to education for the wider population, including the less advantaged groups. A more educated population translates into an equal and balanced society. In his book, Education Transformation, Ron Packardraises interestingconcerns on the role of technology in providing meaningful educational alternatives, particularly to the less financially advantaged learners. Packard notes that poor performance in most American schools is trebling, especially considering the massive infusion of money and extraordinary support towards ensuring quality education (Packard, 2013). The government’s expenditure on education has increased faster than inflation, but the outcome seems not to reflect the effort.

The most commonly cited reason for the lack of progress is scalability. The efforts have not delivered the expected higher education achievement. The learner-teacher ratio has fallen to about 50% since the 1960s, implying that the productivity in the educational system has declined by almost half for the past 50 years, in an era where industrial sectors have increased their productivity by ten folds. Distance learning has proven to help scale education to cover the most significant population shares. According to Packard, online learning is the online way to make the United States education system competitive globally for the next one hundred years plus. A high-quality curriculum delivered electronically can help the public education systems to deliver individualized, customized, engaging, and interactive education to learners in any setting. Technology is seen to make education more engaging, effective, and efficient. It does not matter where the learner lives, rural or urban or overseas (Packard, 2013). It is also believed that full integration of technology in the education systems through online learning and related assortment would diversify the learning styles, placing the learners back at the center of learning and teaching. In this perspective, technology acts as a catalyst for the democratization of education. Online courses also require less learning to complete, unlike conventional classes. There is the aspect of flexibility and independence, which accommodate the learner’s pace of learning (Eynon & Malmberg, 2021). The student can concentrate more effort on the components of the program they have a problem understanding while skipping what they already know.

Online programs are more affordable than physical learning from the economic perspective, reducing the financial costs needed to acquire an education. Online educational programs eliminate expenses related to the students’ transportation, meals, and accommodation. Besides, all the study materials and courses are available online, leading to a paperless learning environment, which is less costly and environmentally friendly. The programs suit a variety of learning styles. Students have varying learning journeys and diverse learning styles. Some learners integrate well with the visuals environment, while others prefer audio (Eynon & Malmberg, 2021). Likewise, some students thrive more in the classroom, and others are solo learners and are likely to be distracted by large groups.

Online learning provides an eco-friendly and healthy alternative to paper-based learning associated with regular classrooms. The programs are effective for institutions and societies that want to reduce their carbon footprint. Research by UNESCO, in May 2020, suggested out of about 1.2 billion students globally, approximately 60% may not resume physical learning in their schools and universities, hence the closure of some educational institutions, which comes with high economic and social costs. Research shows that, on average, the production and provision of online or distance learning programs consume virtually 90% less energy and generate approximately 86% less carbon dioxide emissions per learner than the traditional campus-based learning programs, hence making it sustainable (Verawardina et al. 2020). The sustainability of an online/distance learning system is based on its ability to achieve educational attainment sustainable resource management and promote professional development and innovation, as shown in figure 1.

Figure 1: Sustainability of an educational system


Sustainability Decision-Making Protocol
Decision Making CriteriaAcceptability CriteriaTargets
Social Progress
Is the online program increasing access to education for the general public? Does the instruction design incorporate communication and information technology, which is tested and verified to support learning?        The online program’s instruction design must incorporate communication, and information technology has been advanced and implemented in the course of the study. There must be a proof-of-concept state, and the learning design must be judged based on the evidence generated to be satisfactory to learning and teaching; b) the online learning systems, design, and concepts must have proven effective to be adopted and adapted for the application beyond the initial development;The program must support learning in a way that does not discriminate. It should also not be prone to disruption. The adoption, maintenance, and future improvement of the online learning design, concepts, and resources or the systems should not be dependable on the original developers to the extent that if the cooperation stopped, the prospect of the program is compromised.
Environmental Progress
Is the program environmentally friendly? Does online learning initiative provide an alternative to paper-based learning and testing of regular classrooms?The online learning program as an alternative to paper-based learning and testing programs in the regular classroom setting should decrease the educational institution’s carbon footprint.The program’s target is to provide effective learning programs while reducing educational institutions’ impact on the environment. The programs should reduce deforestation by eliminating demand for paper, hence saving trees.
Economic Considerations
 Is the online program more affordable than physical, educational programs?The online learning programs should be more affordable and accessible to increase education levels, hence more equalized.The target is to increase access to education even to the less financially fortunate population.



It is no doubt technology is yet to infuse the one sector critical in preparing the world for the opportunities and challenges linked to a knowledge society, and the rapid growth of online learning is a step towards the direction. However, there several alternatives to achieving a sustainable distance learning program:

  • Adopt a pure distance learning program
  • Adopt a blended e-learning program
  • Provide open educational resources and learning materials


Adopt Pure Distance Learning Program

The sustainability of a purely online program can be assessed based on its cost-effectiveness and the ability to provide quality educational outcomes and technology choices. Many education experts believe that the cost the fundamental advantage of online learning is that the cost can be distributed across a large number of students leading to economies of scale for the educational institutions (Verawardina et al. 2020). Even though cutting down the cost of education appears to be the primary motivating factor, other factors seem essential. Such include improving the quality of education through different forms of online interactions and increased access to education. The online learning model implies increased opportunity to interact with other students and instructors and broader access to several multimedia resources and professionals globally (Shen, Kuo, & Minh Ly, 2017).

Adopt a Blended E-Learning Program

Blended e-learning combines both online instruction and the traditional physical-based approach. It requires some physical presence of the learners and the teachers and some leaner control elements over their time and place. Like online learning, blended programs also allow learners to learn at their pace and place. However, it is not as cost-effective as online learning and also has some degree of carbon footprint (Shen, Kuo, & Minh Ly, 2017). The program may also fully favor those who are working.

Provide Open Educational Resources and Learning Materials

Learners anywhere in the world can access open educational resources at any time and place and repeatedly access the learning materials. Open educational resources are easy to distribute extensively with less or no cost. They can augment class materials, textbooks, and lecture notes where deficiencies are evident. The materials can be improved continuously through editing by users (Bliss, & Smith, 2017). The active role of the learners in developing content can potentially reduce the educational institutions’ cost of production and even increase the quality of educational materials.


The best alternative is to combine pure online learning and open educational resources and learning materials. The study has shown that many distance learning programs are as effective as classroom-based education, and there is no superiority of one model over the other. There is also total elimination of paperwork, hence conserving our ecosystem. With the disruptions brought by the covid-19 pandemic, online learning is becoming the new norm. Therefore, owing it is cost-effectiveness and flexibility, pure online learning is preferred over a blended program. Integrating it with open educational resources and learning materials helps enhance students’ active participation in the education program.


  • Cut educational costs by eliminating travel, accommodation, and meal costs associated with classroom-based learning.
  • Reduce deforestation by minimizing the need for paperwork, hence save trees
  • Save emerging by reducing the need for physical learning facilities and related equipment maintenance and running costs.
  • Reduce environmental pollution by minimizing travel costs associated with physical learning.
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Slowly, but certainly, online or distance education programs are impacting our society. Popularization of technology is shifting the world towards online education. The change is happening on such a massive scale globally. To cater for the rapid change, some universities even offer masters and doctorate programs to allow prospective graduates to complete their degree programs while simultaneously working on their professional careers. Online learning has proven to be cost-effective, efficient, and quality and reduces environmental footprint by adopting paperless learning programs.


Aykut, S. C., Foyer, J., & Morena, E. (Eds.). (2017). Globalizing the climate: COP21 and the climatization of global debates. Taylor & Francis.

Bell, S., Douce, C., Caeiro, S., Teixeira, A., Martín-Aranda, R., & Otto, D. (2017). Sustainability and distance learning: a diverse European experience?. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning32(2), 95-102.\

Bliss, T. J., & Smith, M. (2017). A brief history of open educational resources. Open The philosophy and practices that are revolutionizing education and science, 9-27.

Eynon, R., & Malmberg, L. E. (2021). Lifelong learning and the Internet: Who benefits most from learning online?. British Journal of Educational Technology52(2), 569-583.

Packard, R. (2013). Education Transformation. How K-12 online learning is bringing the greatest change to education in100.

Shen, C. W., Kuo, C. J., & Minh Ly, P. T. (2017). Analysis of social media influencers and trends on online and mobile learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning18(1), 208-224.

Verawardina, U., Asnur, L., Lubis, A. L., Hendriyani, Y., Ramadhani, D., Dewi, I. P., & Sriwahyuni, T. (2020). Reviewing online learning facing the COVID-19 outbreak. Talent Development & Excellence12.