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Education Technology Summit speaker interview: Paul Bailey

Paul Bailey is Head of codesign at Jisc. He has over 25 years’ experience in edtech and organisational change within UK universities and colleges. He is currently exploring the future of assessment, the use of digital to transform practice and the impact of climate change on education.

Tell us about your work into the impact of climate change on education.

Tackling the climate emergency is a priority for Jisc. We are supporting educational institutions to understand and address the carbon footprint of the digital technologies they use in learning and teaching whether that’s related to data storage, procurement, the sustainability of equipment or the video conferencing tools we use to work remotely.


Hasn’t the pandemic made education ‘greener’ by moving more classes online?

The pandemic certainly resulted in much more rapid adoption of digital technologies and much of that change is here to stay. However, I wanted to do some research into what that means for our environmental impact because I had seen various conflicting reports.

Some analysts were even saying that digital learning could release as much, if not more, carbon than net zero travel options so I wanted to look into this and see if there was any truth in it.

It is important because there are many scenarios where we can predict the ‘scaling-up’ of education i.e. increasing student numbers. Two large potential growth areas are:

  • International education where students choose to study at an institution outside their home country.
  • Workforce development as technical advances mean there is considerable need for more upscaling and training for workers.

I built scenarios to capture the different elements of these learning experiences. Whilst it is clear that international travel and buildings are the biggest carbon emitters, digital comparisons are interesting and I will be sharing some of those outcomes at ISE.


Are our unified communications tools and multimedia resources the bad guys?

It’s true that not all videoconferencing tools are equal in terms of their carbon footprint but it is a very nuanced area. Comparison between systems can often be a red herring and a bit misleading. Some suppliers make big efforts to develop net zero services; there is also a difference between well-managed cloud hosted services and on-premise hosting. We could be skating on thin ice to make simple comparisons.

In general, even the most carbon hungry videoconferencing system will come out better than the travel options for large-scale commuting or international students.

As regards learning resources, it is inevitable that bigger images/videos and more multimedia have an impact, however the primary consideration should be the learning. What do you need to achieve the learning objective?

There is also an inclusivity angle. If you create websites that require fast streaming and high bandwidth, you are disadvantaging students who don’t have this. Low bandwidth learning helps mitigate against digital poverty. It is even possible to build the flexibility to deal with this into the technology. Some systems can sense what data bandwidth the student has and stream at a lower bandwidth when necessary.


Are there technologies you are worried about?

My role is looking for new opportunities for the use of edtech in learning, teaching and research so I am always exploring new things and identifying the challenges in their implementation.

Immersive environments have a big cost in terms of data and streaming. The metaverse is currently an ill-defined concept but immersive learning in all its forms is currently expensive, requires high bandwidth and is limited in what it can achieve. However, I expect all of that to change quite rapidly.

AI is interesting. There is a huge carbon impact of machine learning. The training of GPT3 is equivalent to many flights across the Atlantic. However, what is equally interesting/worrying is the inbuilt white male bias within the technology industry and how this impacts our AI tools so I’m pleased to see that will also be discussed at the summit.


Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

Things are improving all the time and I am optimistic that a lot of the challenges will disappear.

The big players in edtech are making a lot of effort to develop net zero services and we are already seeing the benefit of properly managed cloud hosted services in terms of carbon impact. In future we will have more effective and efficient network distribution systems and costs will come down. I believe we must create an environmentally sustainable digital future.

Universities and colleges have choices about how to move forward with learning and teaching and we should think about the environmental impact as we develop the future models of education.