Three-ring binders, pens, erasers, textbooks--Trapper Keeper, anyone? Pretty soon, even the most classic of school supplies may be going out of style as education goes online. The virtual classroom streamlines the educational process, making college degrees more accessible to students--and a lot easier on Mother Nature. As we finally start trying to reverse the effects humans have had on the planet, it's not a moment too soon.

Online education is one of the most effective ways an institution can reduce its carbon footprint. Little research has been done on this topic in the U.S., but the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) and the UK's Open University Design Innovation Group (DIG) have released some relevant studies. Their work quantifies the environmental impact of the higher education sector and lauds the "potential of the Internet and other elearning methods to radically reduce energy consumption and emissions." The key finding of the UK study: distance learning courses consumed nearly 90% less energy and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions than conventional campus university courses. This has the potential to make a huge impact in the United States, where online enrollments grew 10% last year, bringing the total of online students to about 3.5 million.

"The production and provision of the distance learning courses consumed nearly 90% less energy and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions than the conventional campus-based university courses."

By logging on instead of commuting to a classroom, you are doing your part to conserve resources and make the world a better, greener place--and not just by conserving resources. By bringing higher education to a broader population, online degree programs also increase awareness of environmental issues and give students the skills to build a better future. Here are nine ways to save the world with your online degree:

1. Drive Less
The major factor in energy conservation is reduced travel time. Your home office or kitchen table is a lot closer than the classroom. Online education eliminates the campus commute, reducing carbon dioxide emissions dramatically. DIG registered a 92% reduction in "travel-related environmental impact."

Energy Consumption of Traditional Courses vs. Online Courses

2. Use Fewer Campus Resources
Campus energy consumption--the resources used to power and heat classrooms--accounts for another sizable chunk of higher education's carbon footprint. SEI estimates that the UK school system emits 9.25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. England's higher education sector alone spends the equivalent of $400 million per year on energy. Online education, by contrast, "involves very little additional impact compared to that arising from general living and consuming." The format uses existing facilities (your home office, for example) rather than depending on a separate educational infrastructure.

3. Use Less Paper
Online degrees save trees. Learning happens on-screen rather than on paper, using discussion boards, downloadable lectures and exams, videos, email, and more. Electronic reading materials replace those expensive textbooks. No paper needed: students take notes, write and submit essays, and complete exams online. DIG's study found that "electronic delivery of distance courses more than halves paper and print consumption."

4. Promote Large-Scale Conservation
The online format offers powerful economies of scale. Once an online class has been developed, it can be scaled to serve large numbers of students with negligible impact on the resources consumed. A single class uses nearly the same amount of server space regardless of whether one or one hundred remote students log on.

Transportation, Campus and Online Courses

5. Take On More Civic Responsibility
A college education opens students' minds and prepares them to become the leaders of tomorrow. Students graduate with the cultural literacy to understand world problems, the analytical skills to develop solutions, and the institutional power to make a difference.

An online college education can open even more students' minds--its flexible format increases access for nontraditional students whose schedules and resources might otherwise not accommodate class time. According to the Sloan Consortium, 73% of Chief Academic Officers report that online education reaches students not served by face-to-face programs, and cite improved student access as their top reason for offering online courses and programs. Online education has the potential to raise the overall level of education in the United States.

6. Explore More Options
Virtual education is not only more agile and forward-thinking, but it also has a broader reach. Students are no longer limited to college campuses within a fifty-mile radius. The online format offers access to countless specialty programs nationwide. Interested in pesticide biodegradation? Coral reef ecology? Chances are you can find a college course or degree that fits your environmental interests exactly. Access to remote environmental education programs may also make you eligible for an EPA grant. The National Environmental Education Act of 1990 (NEEA) administers grants and student fellowship programs to promote environmental education.

7. Create a Global Network
The virtual classroom builds global community. Everyone benefits from shared experiences. "Web-based collaboration tools enable people in far reaches of the world to share an educational experience," explains one online program coordinator.