University of California Sustainability: A Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis of Distance Learning
CitationThorne, Sarah E. 2019. University of California Sustainability: A Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis of Distance Learning. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
AbstractAchieving sustainability in universities is key to achieving a resilient society. Universities educate students, engage local communities, raise awareness about impacts, and encourage the incorporation of sustainability values into society. Faculty research and technology development is solving some of the most critical environmental problems. Recognizing their leadership role, many are now incorporating sustainability goals into their core activities and looking for ways to reduce their own impacts.
The University of California (UC) is a leader in efforts to achieve sustainability, setting an aggressive target of carbon neutrality by 2025 (UCOP, n.d.-a). Achieving this goal will be challenging given expanded enrollments and targets that seek to eliminate emissions from campus commutes and air travel. Given the scale of impacts from campus energy consumption and transportation, distance education initiatives may prove valuable in achieving sustainability.
The primary objective of this study was to develop an expanded analytical framework for evaluating university sustainability programs and policies like distance education and e-learning that reduce environmental degradation (represented by CO2e emissions) in a cost-effective and socially-beneficial manner. I hypothesized in this test case that the direct effect of 10,000 enrolled UC Santa Cruz students completing their undergraduate degree remotely rather than in expanded traditional brick and mortar buildings will help meet state enrollment growth targets while significantly reducing environmental impacts. This shift will help achieve carbon neutrality goals for the campus without moving boundaries to outsource student and operational impacts. Further, I proposed that the social and economic benefits from expanded access will outweigh potential negative impacts.
To test this hypothesis, greenhouse gas (GHG) emission models were constructed for a pilot UC campus, Santa Cruz, with existing and proxy foreground data. After calculating the difference between impact categories, it was determined that meeting growth expectations of 10,000 additional students over the next 20 years through expanded distance programs paired with a static but more sustainable campus will be superior to plans to expand the residential and peripheral facilities to educate in a traditional model.
The modeling tool developed to demonstrate that the university should significantly increase the development of high-quality online/distance programs to achieve long-term sustainability can now be applied to other critical sustainability issues like business travel and procurement to demonstrate leadership in identifying net-positive initiatives to achieve true sustainability.
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