Going online to go green

Online academic resources are becoming an alternative to paper-wasting textbooks and course materials

Professors are increaingly turning to online resources such as Moodle to save paper and costs.
Image by: Justin Tang
Professors are increaingly turning to online resources such as Moodle to save paper and costs.

The shift to web-based learning at Queen’s is not simply an ode to new technology, but also a way in which the University is working to protect the environment by conserving paper and reducing waste.

The University has been cutting back on paper use by using e-learning resources like Moodle and WebCT and stocking e-books at the Campus Bookstore as alternatives to the traditional textbook.

Campus Bookstore textbooks manager Brian Vincent said students are becoming more accepting of using e-books.

“Early on, we’ve had examples where a faculty member would adopt only an e-book and a couple of years ago over half of the class would request a printed copy because they were unhappy with the e-book,” he said, adding that there are now quite a few textbooks available online.

Vincent said the Campus Bookstore is seeing a decreasing trend in print books. E-books, however, still account for less than half of books used by professors at Queen’s, he added.

Vincent said he thinks the new generation of students are taking to online resources because they’re “digital natives”

“They’ve always had the Internet, so it’s only going to pick up steam as the publishers are able to provide the content,” he said. “They’re going to catch up to the students’ desire for digital content.”

Vincent said the format of the e-books is also changing.

“The first run of e-books would be static PDFs [Portable Document Format], which you know is no real improvement over the traditional textbook,” he said. “Those days are hopefully behind us for good.”

Vincent said the e-books work on a subscription model. Students purchase an access code through the Bookstore or the publisher’s website and use it to view e-book content for a set period of time.

“There’s a company called Nowprepay, and they deliver digital pin codes,” he said. “We use that system. The publishers provide access codes and the students pre-pay here to print them.”

Because many students choose to print out the e-books, the environmental benefits may be limited.

Nancy Owen, Coordinator of Supported Services at Queen’s IT Services, said web-based learning management systems such as Moodle and WebCT offer similar advantages in that they allow students to access materials without necessarily using hundreds of pages of paper, as students can pick and choose which information to print.

“Students can take the content and use it as they see best. In terms of accessibility, by having a document online you can use whatever strategies work best for you,” Owen said. “And how much paper just ends up being thrown out at the end of the year with traditional resources, you can produce less by using them [online].”

Associate professor of English Laura Murray said she’s using online learning systems for the first time this semester.

“I have 250 students and it’s a pain to hand out paper,” she said. “If I put it online, they can get it whenever they want. In some ways, that was the provocation. It was just logistics.”

Murray said she doesn’t use Moodle in place of textbooks.

“I use Moodle to improve communication between me and the students and to enable some extra things. I use the message feature to send reminders to students about events on campus,” she said.

While clearly useful, Murray said online resources may not be the ultimate green initiative.

“I’m a little skeptical about the claim that using computers is more friendly to the environment. I think we have to think twice about computers as a green alternative,” she said.

“Sure, it’s nice to not use paper but in some ways the priority is to save money for the department and help me have communication with large classes”.

Murray said nothing can replace students having paper in their hands to study.

“I’m still waiting to see about whether [digital resources are] as good as for circling things, underlining things, etc. in a low tech manner.”

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