According to ISTE, the goal of effective digital citizenship instruction is to “create thoughtful, empathetic digital citizens who can wrestle with the important ethical questions at the intersection of technology and humanity.”
And yet, I find the discussion about climate change and technology’s direct impact on the factors influencing it very much lacking. I have some suggestions for how and why to open the discussion about the environmental impact of technology usage and e-waste with students, your school, and stakeholders.
This post is not meant to provide any sort of concrete solution. Just as posting Earth Day activities or espousing the paperless classroom is not meant to solve environmental issues at the global scale.
The reality is we are past the point of stopping or solving climate change in the near future. Our children, students, and most of us are facing a future where scarcity, displacement, natural disaster, and hardship are the default, not the exception. And this is the best case scenario and one whose effects we notice each passing year.
Maybe you don’t “believe it,” maybe you want to “well actually…” a phrase I’ve used, or maybe you are doing the best you can and feel frustrated with the lack of accountability of corporations and inaction at the government level that acts as the gatekeeper of actual change.
What can we do? I struggle with this. I’m in the “doing-my-best-but-I-know-I-could-be-doing-more” group. And I try – through my vote, various campaigns, and actions – to put pressure on the levels that can mitigate the worst. At the same time, I, along with many others, continue to hope that science, using technology not yet invented, will ultimately innovate a band-aid, a way to buy time, or in our pipe dreams: a solution. So I continue to teach and support others in teaching with technology, in pushing STEM and in the turning-the-lights-off little stuff. Because even though it’s a small thing, it’s a thing. Which brings me to the point of this post.
And since this is a technology blog, let me stick to the focus…
It feels incredibly disingenuous to blog about technology, digital citizenship, STEM and hope for a technology solution…without acknowledging and encouraging others to acknowledge the impact of technology and our consumption of technology on the environment.
As I researched in writing this, I came up rather short. I was hoping to stumble on a community of edtech companies and organizations already championing this topic in and out of the classroom. Of course, I’m sure there are teachers pushing this on social media, but I was hoping this was past the grassroots stage.
Many of us are talking around it. ISTE standards encourage the empowered learner to engage with the global community, solve real-world problems, and even use technology to shape public policy We use technology to research global warming, to learn the effects of climate change, to do our science lessons, simulations, and even create 3D models. I found lots of promising information about green technology and sustainable schools.
But I didn’t see much current information about the “greening” of the actual devices we use and how we use them in and out of the classroom.
If you are using devices in the classroom, if students are using devices at home, if you are teaching in the 21st century, part of your digital citizenship curriculum needs to include discussions around e-waste and digital carbon footprints.
I’m hoping by sharing here, it gets you thinking and leads to more questions.
- How can we address this in the classroom?
- How can we push for more discussions about this at the building and district level?
- How can we pressure organizations centered on technology to devote time and resources to this topic?
- How do we hold edtech companies accountable for their environmental impact in providing schools sustainable products that don’t become “obsolete” in a year or two?
I’m sorry I didn’t ask these specific questions before, but I hope I can help those of you like me ask those question now.
Challenges of Teaching the Environmental Impact of Technology
One of the challenges is the topic is a moving target. It’s difficult to calculate a carbon footprint when tech is always changing and when most sites, apps, devices, and actions don’t have a published or easy to calculate energy usage.
Another challenge is there isn’t a definitive intersection between advancement in technology vs what’s actually necessary or needed by the average person, especially when the pace of change is so fast. Plus it’s difficult for the average person to tease out when an “upgrade” is a manufactured need.
Having grown up during this time of exponential increases in speed, processing, storage, it all seemed so necessary and wonderful when I think back to dial up or endless buffering. But what was the trade off? The latest generation of devices work well enough for the average person; should edtech companies focus solely on energy efficiency in light of the climate change crisis?
Some have argued that each new generation of tech has improved efficiency, battery life, and performance – similar to energy star appliances vs older machines. But more efficient devices didn’t necessarily mean usage was lowered. For example, as the internet became more efficient, websites became more bloated with video, large sized images, and additional energy-consuming script. As devices were able to do more using less, people used them more, purchased more devices, and replaced analog activities that didn’t require nearly as much energy. Things start to get muddy when you try to calculate it directly. One figure in 2016 placed technology as having an impact equal to air travel with regard to carbon emissions!
Regardless of the complexity, we need to continue to challenge the culture around consumption without consequence, especially in the edtech world.
And while I disagree that so much of the onus of climate change is placed on the individual and not the corporations or governing bodies who could implement more impactful changes, I do think giving voice to these ideas helps move the needle in some way.
Teaching the Environment Impact of Technology is Digital Citizenship
I’ve broken the topic down into three main categories. Each category includes a list of discussion questions.
- How much carbon is used by online actions like streaming, downloading, saving, etc.?
- Where is data stored? How are data storage companies consuming energy?
- What is green website design and hosting mean? What ways can websites become greener?
- How are tech companies planning to reduce carbon? Which tech companies have pledged to become carbon neutral? How do they plan to achieve that and how is it measured?
- What tech companies have pursued green initiatives?
- What devices, apps, consoles, etc. are always on? How can you adjust this in settings? Is there any way to completely turn off devices?
- Are consumers adequately informed about the carbon usage of devices, sites, apps, and digital actions? Should they be?
- What sort of online behaviors have a hidden cost (bitcoin mining, follow farms, and online gaming all consume major amounts of energy that is often unregulated)?
- Where are devices manufactured? Why? What sort of environmental cost does the manufacturing of devices have?
- What kind of trade-off would you be willing to make with regard to your usage of devices and online behavior to reduce your digital carbon footprint?
- How can you calculate your digital carbon footprint? Are there ways you can reduce it?
- What sort of legislation exists or should exist to limit carbon usage by devices, tech companies, and/or the various websites on the internet?
- What happens to out of date devices?
- How and where are old devices “recycled?”
- How can we learn to fix and extend device “life” way beyond what companies are suggesting with their fast-paced upgrades and product cycles?
- How much of new generation device need is manufactured? Is the reason old tech is not working because of the device itself or changes implemented to software or compatibility?
- What does obsolete mean in our current tech consuming culture?
- What makes it difficult for consumers to extend device life? Is it easy to replace parts like batteries or screens? Why?
- How are software updates causing us to be more wasteful?
- At point do you have to upgrade a device versus fixing it?
- Are device companies manufacturing a need to upgrade when the old device could be retrofit?
- How much e-waste does your household/school/country generate?
- How can you learn to fix your own devices?
- Who is responsible for reducing e-waste? Why?
- What kinds of innovative technology is currently being created, researched, or tested that aims to reduce, capture, or convert carbon?
- What sort of innovative products would help the average consumer reduce their digital carbon footprint?
- What actions are tech companies engaged in to address climate change and its effects?
- How can schools mitigate the environmental effects of tech usage and reduce e-waste? What sort of tools would help schools accomplish this?
- In what ways are green classrooms and schools using technology to minimize their impact on the environment?
- How can technology devices harness solar power or wind power at the individual level? What are some of the pros and cons of current solar-powered chargers?
Environmental Impact of Tech Usage Discussion Questions for the Classroom
I’ve consolidated these questions into a Google Slideshow you can download in my resource library. These questions can be mixed in with a Technology Daily Warm Up routine to use with students or used to inform your digital citizenship curriculum.
Display the questions on the board to promote discussion or assign each student a question as a jigsaw activity. Most slides do not have a definitive answer and many slides are opinion questions.
Download the Google Slide Discussion Questions:
Environmental Responsibility at the District Level
I also suggest sharing these ideas with the person responsible for purchasing tech equipment at your school. We need to do better at holding tech companies accountable for providing devices to schools with a longer shelf life. Buyback and recycling do not cut it if brand new devices are required every couple of years to run the operating system.
We need to demand that devices be fixed before being replaced and that training is provided in how to do fixes for the wear and tear expected of a device handled mainly by students. Ideally, device management software and operating systems on school devices would be backwards compatible.
Besides a handful of blog posts, I didn’t find any “home-base” or resources by organizations I would have expected. I hope I can update this list, but anyway, here are some of the websites I used when generating this post:
- Green Web Design
- Carbon Neutral Websites
- Green Schools
- Green Technology
- Environmental and Social Impact of Technology
- Are You Thinking About Your Digital Carbon Footprint
- What is a Digital Carbon Footprint
- The Importance of Teaching Students E-Waste Disposal
- Google Contributes Over Half the Internets Carbon Footprint
- The Impact of E-Waste
Here is a list of resources for students to learn more:
- Green Computing
- iFixIt Repair Guide for Everything
- The Duke Green Classroom Tips
- Comprehensive Lesson on E-Waste – includes links to articles and videos
- Scholastic Lesson – this seems to be missing pieces but is a good start.
I’m going to continue to share the fun and engaging activities for integrating technology into the classroom. I’m going to continue to advocate for the inclusion of digital citizenship into all classrooms. Because I continue to believe the skills & experience students gain from using tech are important, even more so as technology has become the tool we will use to (hopefully) invent ourselves out of the mess we’ve made.
However, we must make a better effort at including environmental impact as it relates to technology into our digital citizenship discussion and actions or else what good did your coding lesson do if the future is a wasteland.
Please reach out to me on social media or via email if you have resources I can link to or if you know of educators doing a fantastic job of addressing this topic in the classroom I can add to this post.