Come March 2020 and the world was shaken by a tiny virus that changed the very foundation of functioning that the human race was used to. Everything from daily chores to social interaction changed dramatically. So much so that we are still trying to grapple with the ‘new normal ‘. Yes, all of us have heard this story in the past one year. However, education took a bigger hit than any other sector in the last year. According to a UNESCO report published in March 2020, a staggering 13 crore primary students and 14 crore secondary students in India lost access to education. Other effects have also been observed:

  • Academic buildings are closed but learning hasn’t stopped.
  • Teachers are conducting virtual classes through varied platforms.
  • Students are isolated, connecting remotely to the class and peers.
  • Learning is being measured in terms of online assessments (and sometimes even without any formal assessments at all).
  • Teachers have either been trained or have innovated on online teaching methods and pedagogy for the same concepts that they had always taught in their physical classrooms.
  • Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have been largely successful in making a place in the teaching plans for most teachers

The above enlists perhaps the most tangible and obvious effects of the pandemic on education. But there are other subtler and long-term impacts which have not been studied as much.

We celebrate World Environment Day on the 5th of June. Every year, there is a specific theme stated by the United Nations and this year it is: ‘Reimagine. Recreate. Restore.’ as the year 2021 marks the beginning of the ‘United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration’.

One of the most important metrics to understand ecosystem quality is ecological footprint (including carbon footprint).

Carbon footprint, as defined by Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/science/carbon-footprint), is the amount of carbon dioxide emission due to the daily activities of an individual, community, society or any other human population group. In the context of this discussion, the carbon footprint for a physical school environment would be the measure of activities such as transportation, electricity, kitchen and sanitary emissions as major sources of carbon emission.

Schools in the pre-COVID era were in the physical space. The activities that contributed towards the carbon footprint (carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases or GHG) at that time largely included:

  • transport to school: school buses, personal transport;
  • electricity usage: in keeping the school buildings running viz. air conditioners, water heaters, lighting, fans, cooking appliances, computers, mobile phone chargers, tablets etc.;
  • kitchen waste: food waste, hot water waste, burning of fuel;
  • sanitary emissions: bio-waste from toilets;
  • stationery usage: paper consumption and wastage.

A report on carbon footprint from schools in UK published by The Sustainable Development Commission (UK) as early as 2008, estimates carbon emissions from English schools to be 8.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. In this report, carbon dioxide emissions are divided into four main sources:

  • The use of energy in school buildings
  • Pupil and staff travel, and school transport
  • Supply chain activities of companies producing goods and services procured by schools
  • Waste management and minimisation by schools

This report is able to project carbon emissions from the school sector till 2050. (http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications.php@id=765.html)

Studies in India have mostly been conducted in the higher education sector in colleges and universities with very few case studies available for the K-12 sector.

A report by Maitreyi College (Delhi University) for 2018-2019, puts the top 3 areas of emissions within the campus as electricity consumption (55.57% of the total emissions), commuting (39.96% of total emissions) and paper consumption (1.84% of total emissions). The total emissions computed for the college is 480322.64 kg of CO2 equivalent.

( http://maitreyi.ac.in/DataFiles/Tender/NWM541Maitreyi%20CF%20Report.pdf).

An interesting case study was undertaken by The Centre for Innovation in Science and Social Action (CISSA) Thiruvananthapuram across 13 individual school campuses in Kerala in July 2019. The project reached out to both government-aided as well as private schools in both rural and urban schools in the Thiruvananthapuram district and sensitized the stakeholders to:

  • carbon emission sources,
  • the fall-out of such emission,
  • mitigation measures, and
  • possibilities arising out of such mitigation practices.

The impact of the project was extremely encouraging with dramatic decreases in carbon footprint in the same population after they were sensitised.

( https://www.slideshare.net/HannaatUNU/estimation-of-carbon-footprint-in-schools-creation-of-low-carbon-campus-plans-kerala-india) (https://cissa.co.in/low-carbon-school-programme/)

The school systems of the ‘new normal’ in COVID times are mainly virtual. This means that the carbon emissions from transportation, school building electricity, maintenance and related activities have significantly reduced. However, the use of technology-aided gadgets and appliances has gone up significantly. Also, we have started staying mostly at home. This means that the carbon footprint resulting out of electricity use, waste from kitchen, toilets and general household activities has increased. It would be interesting to undertake a study of the comparison of carbon emissions (carbon dioxide and GHG) from the K-12 population during pre-COVID and COVID times in the near future.

The concern is the absence of awareness for such a raging environmental crisis in our school curriculum. Environmental studies or ecology curriculum does not have scope for discussion and understanding of ecological footprint (including carbon footprint) during the formative years of future citizens. It is evident from the CISSA assisted project in Kerala as mentioned above that if the school curriculum engages students actively in the understanding of carbon emissions (Carbon dioxide and GHG) and the fall-out of such emissions, we may bring in deep awareness of processes that cause increase in carbon footprint and mitigation methods.

Such awareness can be brought about by:

  • Helping students connect to the world around: In the absence of curricular information that provides understanding and awareness about ecological issues,assessments that contain questions which are not restricted to areas taught in classrooms and textbooks can really help. Questions can test knowledge or create knowledge by providing information in a context that kindles curiosity in students. Such questions are written to target misconceptions and to help students apply a basic knowledge of subjects to their day-to-day lives. As part of this, many ASSET and Detailed Assessment passages and questions relate to topics like GHG and carbon footprint. This is seen as an example of moving from recall of facts to understanding and applying concepts. Here are two ASSET questions that bring the point home:

  • Only 26.3% students in grade 9 nationally answered this question correctly. With 41.2% students choosing option C as a common wrong answer, understanding of quantities of methane and carbon dioxide emission and their dispersal in the environment seems a major misconception area. 

Only 17.1% of students nationally answered this correctly in grade 9! 47.1% of students chose A as the common wrong answer; a misconception that carbon dioxide, being a GHG, is regarded as a toxic gas, or that any emission into the environment is “toxic”. Data suggest that although students are taught these concepts, they do not go into the depths of understanding the impact in real life or across different perspectives.

  • Making learning digital: Traditional classrooms that envisage a lot of stationery use as a major method to reinforce concepts have seen a wonderful transition through AI and ML learning methods that have brought in significant drops in the generation of carbon emissions. Learning solutions like Mindspark (for Maths, English and Science) ensure that students are learning at their own pace, now from the comfort of their homes, while teachers are able to track their progress, struggles and wins in each topic and each subject.
  • Making assessments digital: Re-thinking modes of assessments is one of the biggest needs for educational institutions today. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. At a time when we have adapted to virtual learning methods, we have realized assessments can also be virtual, proctored, authentic and unbiased. ASSET, EI’s flagship assessment is one such case in point. ASSET had started as a pen-and-paper diagnostic assessment. We were aware that it involved a humongous amount of stationery expense, what with the question papers, answer booklets, student reports, school reports, and teacher reports for thousands of students, parents and schools. We have been able to reduce the carbon footprint significantly by designing ASSET Dynamic, a digital version of ASSET. ASSET Supertests, a quick diagnosis tool, has also helped many students to diagnose learning gaps and remediate them at home.

Detailed Assessment, the school curriculum-aligned assessment, also saw a lot of transitions from a pen-and-paper version to an online version to reduce GHG and carbon dioxide emissions through reduction of stationery and e-waste generation.

The pandemic has been a friend for our environment. We’ve realised that just by staying home, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint. This has been true in the education space as well. However, technological use also produces carbon emissions so, online learning does not mean no carbon footprints. While learning has shifted online out of a necessity, we should gauge how that changes our carbon footprints and if shifting to the online mode completely would be truly useful for our environment. If so, online learning is the future of education.

Where do students fit into all this? Students can control their carbon footprint in the online setting if they are made aware of the concept and taught to apply it in their lives. Curriculum and assessments should be designed towards this. EI has been doing both: making learning accessible online and creating assessments for ecological awareness.

‘Reimagine, Recreate, Restore’ should be a part of the daily life of every citizen and we continue to make learning and assessments inclusive by creating a world where children everywhere are learning with understanding; not just about theoretical concepts but about the impact of their actions on earth every day.