Do You Do Virtual?

In this short blog post, Dr Dave Reay examines the vast potential for technology in education to

Dr. Dave Reay

Dr. Dave Reay

provide solutions for those seeking to reduce their own carbon footprint. He explores the reality of making personal sacrafices to live a low-carbon lifestyle and illustrates the ways in which we as a society could re-imagine the approaches we take to our professional endeavors. Could digital technologies provide us with the tools to make our visions of sustainability a reality?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I’m currently on the return leg of a trip to give a climate change talk at a big science conference – the European Geophysical Union (EGU) – in Vienna. Almost a decade ago I made the decision that, wherever possible, these trips would be made in a low carbon way. I haven’t been on a plane since.

However, after these past 5 days of travel by clackety rails and lumpy seas it’s now clear that a much speedier AND lower carbon option would have been to attend and present at the conference online. The over-lit expanses of the conference centre were teeming with the usual multitude of academics and students dodging poster tubes but, alongside this traditional format, was a system (called PICO) that allowed virtual participation via the internet. Though some of the ‘researcher bonhomie’ is inevitably missed as a virtual participant, it’s a route that opens attendance up to so many more people and has the potential for big carbon savings.

As academics, attending international conferences is a standard part of the job with most of us having cut our presentation-teeth as jittery doctoral students at annual meetings like the EGU. The skills and networks that grow from this practice are certainly important yet, with advances in technology and the huge challenge of climate change, it seems high time that virtual meetings and presentations came more to the fore.

In other facets of academia the benefits of virtual meeting and learning technology are being more successfully reaped. Participation in online learning is growing apace across the world and higher education is a lead player in this. At the University of Edinburgh our inaugural set of free-access online courses (called ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ or ‘MOOC’s) attracted 300,000 registrations. Together with a growing portfolio of online honours and Masters courses the ‘virtual’ student body at Edinburgh is now fast outgrowing its face-to-face counterpart.

This revolution in the way we teach and learn could do wonderful things. It could link us with great students anywhere in the world whose circumstances would, in the past, never have allowed them to study with us. Students with families to look after, jobs to hold down, and insurmountable visa restrictions could now more easily become part of the global community that is the University of Edinburgh. The environmental benefits may also be far-reaching, with distance-learning students avoiding some or all of the carbon-intensive travel between Edinburgh and home.

Based on the success of our existing distance education courses (such as our Carbon Management Masters), and internationalisation initiatives such as the Global Academies, Edinburgh is well set to ride the online learning wave. This is an opportunity to realise the kind of ‘sustainable growth’ that most businesses and governments can only dream of – growth that is both economically and environmentally sustainable.

The only certainty when predicting the future is that it will be different to what you expect, and in the field of climate change this is something we know only too well. Nevertheless, a future in which online learning becomes a core part of higher education provision seems a good bet. As for academics, and our embracing more actively the technological substitutes for conference globe-trotting, the revolution may have a rather more sedate pace. For myself at least, the first question I’ll ask next time a conference invite comes in will be: “Do you do ‘Virtual’?”.


Dave Reay is a Reader in Carbon Management in the School of Geosciences. He is director of the MSc in Carbon Management and also runs the online MSc course ‘Climate Change Impacts & Adaptation’ .

For those who want to travel in Europe without flying one of the best resources available is ‘The Man in Seat 61

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