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International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning

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Environmental sustainability -- Qualtative research, Environmentalism, Group work in education, Ethnography, Environmental sustainability -- Study and teaching -- Technological innovations


Americans spend upwards of 90% of each day in buildings that account for two-thirds of electricity usage. Because the supply of smart buildings will take time to catch up with demand, efforts are sought to develop informed and educated people to live and work in these “dumb” buildings. Additionally, energy efficiency alone may be inadequate to achieve major reduction in carbon emissions (Darby, 2006). Finding ways to intentionally change the lifestyle behavior in a household should have significant implications in reducing environmental impacts as fossil energy use in resident homes is directly related to the exploitation of natural resources and a leading cause of air pollution and global warming (Poortinga, p 71). This paper attempts to understand how visual monitoring systems can be used by communities to assist in identifying and modifying collective and individual behaviors that result in reduced energy use. Specifically, the paper is a case study of a community of undergraduates on a Midwestern US college campus who have experience with three types of equipment that monitor and display information regarding energy use. Understanding user experience within the Campus Resource Monitoring system at Oberlin College in Ohio, this study explores intentional lifestyle modification for sustainable behavior through the use of technology, complemented by competition and educational programming. The findings are threefold. First, the prime motivating factor for participation in the contest was not a prize, as might be expected, but maintaining social networks. Second, the technology prompted the students to be more concerned about their direct personal impact rather than their aggregate energy use. Third, several students replied that the technology influenced them to self-reflect, and in so doing, they changed their ideas about what it means to be an environmentalist.


Note: At the time of writing, Melissa Haeffner was affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Originally appeared in the International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, vol. 6, no. 10, October 2009. May be found at

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