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Sustainable ICTs in the Digitised University

Universities are increasingly utilising digital technologies to deliver their services, but at what environmental cost?


Virtual learning environments (VLEs), emails, attendance-logging apps, cloud-recorded lectures, downloadable software packages, videoconferencing platforms Like Zoom and Teams, and other online tools, such as Turnitin and Padlet, are now standard components within an increasingly digitised university experience for staff and students alike. Online services are often imagined as ‘virtual’ processes that take place in digital ‘clouds’. Metaphors like the ‘cloud’ erase any sense of the material infrastructure and associated carbon emissions that power internet-based platforms. Amidst growing investment in online services and digital-intensive research among higher education institutions, addressing the issue of computational sustainability is an increasingly urgent task.


While digital systems are often promoted as eco-friendly solutions, their environmental footprint is persistently overlooked in university carbon calculations and sustainability pledges.The Sustainable ICTs project investigates the environmental impact of key education technology (‘EdTech’) providers (e.g., Canvas, Pure, Moodle and Turnitin) through a focus on their infrastructure. The aim is to help universities better understand the extended carbon relations within which they are entangled. As universities outsource their IT workloads to the cloud and form partnerships with EdTech providers, they increasingly find themselves within a complex web of globally distributed ICT infrastructure. Current regulatory frameworks only require organisations to report the carbon emissions that they directly produce. This means that indirect emissions, such as those produced by third-party EdTech service providers, are often not included in university sustainability strategies.


Digital tools have a key role to play in building a low carbon academy, but they also have environmental impacts that must be uncovered if the transition to a green economy is to be successful. The Sustainable ICTs project will produce a collection of resources that will enable universities, as well as other organisations, to begin grappling with the issue of digital sustainability and to more effectively manage the environmental impact of their digital provision.


For more information, please contact the project’s Principal Investigator, Dr Alexander R. E. Taylor.