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Energy Solutions

On the Benefits of Online Learning

With a new group of online courses starting this week, I’m reminded of the benefits of learning — and teaching — from home

Traffic in the San Francisco Bay area.
Image Credit: Getty Images

Truth be told, I was slow warming up to online instruction. Ten years ago, in early 2004, BuildingGreen was approached by Boston Architectural College (then Boston Architectural Center — but with the same acronym, BAC) about collaborating on sustainable design curriculum. There is so much value in face-to-face instruction and student interaction, I thought, how could online instruction take its place?

But we did collaborate, helping BAC develop its Sustainable Design curriculum. And I created and for a number of years taught one of the foundation online courses for the program: “Sustainable Design as a Way of Thinking,” which is now being taught by my friend David Foley.

This assemblage of courses, now housed in BAC’s Sustainable Design Institute, offers the most comprehensive, accredited online instruction in sustainable design anywhere. There are nearly three dozen courses offered that can be taken as continuing education courses by anyone, taken as part of graduate degree programs, or taken as electives as part of a relatively new MDS (Masters in Design Studies) program in Sustainable Design that is now in its third year.

Pros and cons of online instruction

I’m teaching a brand new course in the BAC Sustainable Design Institute, Resilient Design, that starts this week, so I’ve been focusing actively on online instruction and its various advantages and disadvantages. There still is the disadvantage of not being able to engage students in the classroom — responding in person to questions and perspectives that come up, having eye-contact with students, etc.

But the online discussions can be dynamic, as I learned years ago with my first online teaching. And there are ways to encourage active participation by students that BAC has become very good at.

Beyond the pedagogy of instruction, however, online education has some significant environmental advantages.

The big benefit is less driving. I can teach from my home in Dummerston, Vermont, and students can participate from all over. In my Resilient Design course, I have students from California, Florida, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oregon, Texas, Washington State, and Alberta, Canada. In other courses I’ve taught, students have enrolled from as far away as Iraq and Japan.

Even when students and faculty live close-by, commuting energy can be huge. In 2009, I participated in an exercise of figuring out how Antioch New England in Keene, New Hampshire, could become a carbon-neutral university, and I was astounded at what a huge percentage of the university’s total carbon emissions resulted from student and staff commuting — over two-thirds as I recall.

Better online teaching tools make learning from afar better

Until I started this new Resilient Design course it had been five or six years since I had taught an online BAC course (though I’ve been participating for several years in BAC’s onsite intensive weeks with their new MDS program). Back in 2006-2008 we were using different online learning software (Blackboard); BAC is now using Moodle.

I used to simply post lectures as static PowerPoint presentations, but now I’m using a package called VoiceThread to add audio commentary and even highlight items in the slides that I’m talking about. So far at least, I’m very excited about the capability VoiceThread offers.

As with Blackboard, Moodle has extensive online discussion capabilities, including the “Coffeehouse” forum. I’m looking forward to dynamic conversations there — which I can take part in with my feet up and a cup of tea (I’m not a coffee drinker) on the windowsill of my new house.

BAC course offerings

Unfortunately, my Resilient Design course is now filled up, but it should be possible to still sign up for most of the other 13 eight-week courses that started on Tuesday of this week. Included are courses in residential energy modeling, green roofs, materials and indoor air quality, sustainable design and preservation, sustainable transportation, the economics of green building, and zero-energy homes.

And I’m sure we’ll be repeating the Resilient Design course, so keep an eye out for future offerings of that.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


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