Online Learning and Energy Consumption

Great Thavapatikom
November 19, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2012

Online Education

Fig. 1: What if there are no school buses on the road during rush hours? (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

For the past couple of years, the most debated topic in education has been about online learning. With the rise of innovative online educational organizations like Khan Academy, Coursera and EdX, people have begun to see the promising future of the integration of online technologies into formal schooling. Even though more scientific evidences are still needed to see whether students will learn more in the online environment as compared to conventional "contained classroom," as Stanford University President John Hennessy asserted, the benefit of scalability online learning can provide with very low cost makes its mass adoption an irresistible choice. [1,2] It has been reported that the number of K-12 students enrolling in online classes is growing fast, and more states and school districts are now requiring online courses for high school graduation. [3] In this report, though, I will not be talking about how scalable online education can be. Instead, I will consider an anomalous but interesting question: "How much the adoption of online learning in K-12 formal education can save fuel energy?" The motivation is that most students (aged under 18) have to travel between home and school every school day and that these students amount to nearly a quarter of the US population. [4] Particularly, I will focus on public school transport system and approximate the corresponding fuel consumption to see its significance.

Fuel Saved Each Day

According to the National Household Travel Survey, more than 80 percent of students travel between home and school by bus or by personal car by the year of 2001. [5] The average fuel economy of an ordinary bus or a car is about 25 miles per gallon, which means that the car consumes 1/25 gallon of gasoline to traverse a mile. [6] If we know the total distance that all the students travel to and from school, we can calculate the total amount of fuel used up by the transportation. As it is impossible to find such total distance directly, I instead estimate the average distance from home to school for each student and will multiply that number by the total number of students to obtain the total distance. From the National Household Travel Survey mentioned earlier, about 60 percent of students travel 2 miles or over to school, and from this data I approximate the average distance between home and school to be roughly 5 miles. [5] This means that the round-trip distance would be 10 miles per day per student. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are around 55 million public school students (both elementary and secondary) at present. [7] If we assume that half of the population or roughly 30 million students go online at some point in the near future, we can then estimate the total fuel energy saved in a school day:

Fuel saved in a school day = (1/25 gal/mi) × (10 mi/day/student) × (30 million students)
= 12 million gal/day (= 0.286 million bbl/day)

This amounts to 1.5% of the oil consumption rate of the US, which "seems" to be not very significant. [8]

Significance of Energy Savings

From the previous calculation, one could say that the amount of fuel saved is not of importance. But remember, we have actually just calculated the amount of energy saved in only one day and compared it to the figure of the country that consumes fuel energy at the highest rate! [8] What if we compare the figure to the average rate of all countries? According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2012, the world's total oil consumption rate is 88 million barrels per day. [8] There are currently 192 countries that are the members of the UN. [9] Thus, the mean consumption rate would be 0.458 million barrels a day. This means that the amount of fuel saved in each day in the US alone could run an average country for more than half a day! If we extrapolate the calculation by saying that an academic year equals 9 months and students stay at home taking online classes 3 days a week (not including Saturday and Sunday, of course), it follows that in the next 25 years we will save the total fuel energy by:

Fuel saved in 25 years = (25 yr × 9 m/yr × 4 wk/m × 3 days/w) × (0.286 million bbl/day)
= 772 million bbl.
Fig. 2: An indirect cure for traffic jam? (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This amount of fuel can compensate the US fuel usage for only less than 2 months. However, it can extend the "life with gasoline" of an average country for 5 more years!


As we can see, adopting online classes in formal education can have a quite subtle but significant impact on the conservation of fuel energy. If other countries in the world like India, China and those in Europe whose daily school transport is omnipresent also begin to adopt formal online learning, the total amount of fuel energy saved will have even more significance. What's more, less school transport in the morning and after school means less traffic during rush hours in general, i.e. commuters will visit gas stations less often. Still, we have to keep in mind that going online means increasing demand for electricity. We are, nonetheless, fortunate enough that electricity - unlike oil - can be produced by using renewable energy such as wind, tides, waves and geothermal heat. Generating more eletricity to consume less gasoline with very low cost sounds like a good trade-off, right?

© Saranapob Thavapatikom. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Lashinsky, "Will the World's Start-Up Machine Ever Stall?," CNN Money, 20 Jun 12.

[2] J. Sener, "Why Online Education will Attain Full Scale," J. Asynchronous Learning Networks 14, No. 4, 3 (2010).

[3] K. Sheehy, "States, Districts Require Online Ed for High School Graduation," US News and World Report, 24 Oct 12.

[4] L. M. Holden and J. A. Meyer, "Age and Sex Composition in the United States," U. S. Census Bureau, C2010BR-03, May 2011.

[5] "Travel to School: The Distance Factor," U.S. Department of Transportation, January 2008.

[6] "Fuel Economy Guide," U.S. Department of Energy, DOE/EE-0603, November 2012.

[7] "Digest of Education Statistics 2011," U.S. Department of Education, NCES 2012-001, June 2012, pp. 17-18.

[8] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2012," British Petroleum, June 2012.

[9] "Permanent Missions to the United Nations," United Nations, ST/SG/SER.A/301, March 2011.