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Elin Eriksson's class gives students a clearer picture of how they use energy in their everyday lives. (Photo: Håkan Lindgren)

Saving energy online in everyday life

Published Sep 17, 2014

How much energy is actually consumed when replaying a cat video on Facebook? Two teachers in Media Technology went directly to the everyday lives of students when teaching Sustainable Development. And recently their pedagogic performance has been rewarded with a science prize.

At the international conference “ICT for Sustainability” this year, the distinction “Best Paper Award” went to Elina Eriksson and Daniel Pargman for their article ‘Making sustainability relevant in higher education’. This selection came as a surprise to Eriksson, since the conference was in other respects very much focused on technology.

Daniel Pargman

“It was a bit surprising that they chose an article on teaching, but of course it was gratifying at the same time since both the nomination and the prize show that the educational issues are vital ones,” says Eriksson, researcher and teacher of Media Technology and Interaction Design at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

The article that received the award gives an account of all their efforts to include the subject of sustainability in the Master’s programme in Media Technology by way of the course “Sustainability and Media Technology”. This was a considerable challenge since the subject was only allocated a course of 7.5 hp (ECTS credits). Nevertheless, the theme of sustainability will set its stamp on the Master’s programme as a whole, according to Elina Eriksson.

“In those degree programmes that concern energy technology, biology or environmental technology, the subject of sustainability fits in more self-evidently than for our students who study interaction design,” she says.

 “This also means that many students may believe that such a course is not relevant for them, that sustainability is someone else’s problem instead”, Pargman says.

Replaced electricity with energy slaves

So what approach should one adopt to get through to the students? The approach was to use their own everyday lives as the starting-point.

“Merely to watch a cat film on Facebook involves quite a high energy cost. But since it’s hard to have a relation to electricity, we replaced electricity with human energy slaves,” Eriksson explains.  With the aid of muscle power they had to generate the energy required. How many slaves are needed, for example, to show the answer from an Internet search?

The result was that the students acquired a much clearer picture of energy consumption, Eriksson says. But at the same time the insight gave rise to frustration. The students soon sought more sustainable ways to develop everything from new apps to ICT services.

“One student went so far as to question the future of more energy consuming apps,” she says. “That may be taking things too far; but it nevertheless fits into my attempt to redesign the degree programme so that the goal becomes that of creating a sustainable society. To ensure that everything the students do in their education will lead to a more sustainable society.”

Engaging board game

Another method was to use the board game GaSuCo (previously called Carbonopoly). 

The game aims to discuss concepts and issues in sustainable development and to challenge the students’ own values. It has been used in many other courses. “What we did was to replace a quarter of the questions there with issues for discussion connected with ICT, media technology and the media industry.

Even if measuring results was difficult, it was easy to see how the game engaged the players, Eriksson says.

“Most of all, they were affected by the specially written questions, to such an extent that certain students did not want to leave the classroom when the playing time was over.”

“A special research article is set to be written on the game’s possibilities within ICT and sustainability,” Pargman says.

Hoping the prize brings academic reward

Amongst the conclusions of the article, emphasis is placed on the need for further pedagogical research and development where the teaching of sustainable development is concerned. Eriksson also hopes that the prize award may act as a significant levering tool in her professional career.

“As a researcher, I get my work published to increase the chance of obtaining good, permanent jobs. But pedagogical experience must also be assessed in a different way than it is at present.”

“The conference organisers showed that they really take education seriously. But I don’t know today if this distinction will play a significant role for me in future,” Eriksson says.

Magnus Pahlén Trogen

Pargman and Eriksson have previously contributed the article: “'It's not fair!' - Making students engage in sustainability”. Daniel Pargman has written about it on his blog.