Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Paperless Classroom

There’s been a lot of talk about the paperless classroom. There’s been talk about it ever since the beginning of the personal computer era. And now that we’ve got ecological concerns, we’re hearing more and more about the paperless classroom, and paperless assignments. Be “green,” don’t give your students individual handouts anymore, put them online, where they can’t lose them, and can always refer to them (provided the connection is up and running).

But there are a few problems with this scenario. Aside from the obvious courses like art and music where it’s still pretty hard to be paperless at this point, there are problems. There are questions.

The first is whether going paperless really helps the environment at all, or just pushes the problem somewhere else in the system. On the one hand, we think of all the paper saved, and all the trees not cut down. That has to be better for the environment. But I’ve known a Forestry student or two (“Stumpies” we called them around here), and I know that for things like paper and Christmas trees, trees are treated like crops, and are planted and harvested systematically for those purposes. It’s not like they’re hacking down the Black Forest to make printer paper. If we’re going to worry about the environmental effects of planting and harvesting wood for paper, then shouldn’t we start worrying about the environmental effects of planting and harvesting corn, wheat, potatoes, etc.

Related to this is the issue of whether or not going paperless solves a problem or just pushes it somewhere else in the system. What does it take to build all those computers and to create the infrastructure that allows them to send documents all over the world paperlessly? What are the environmental effects of producing all those batteries and other electronic components?

The second question is whether or not going paperless really helps the student and the teacher. The answer to this is a definite “sometimes.” On the one hand, the assignments that are handed in to me electronically are the assignments that don’t get lost.

On the other hand, there’s the whole issue of handouts. I’ve tried working on my computer from an online manual, and unless that online manual is on my laptop and I’m trying to get the work done on my desktop, it just doesn’t work. Flipping back and forth between screens on the same computer is a disaster for me. Flipping back and forth between screens on the same computer has shown itself to be a disaster for my students. Sometimes you just need a piece of paper with the instructions sitting on your desk for you to keep referring to.

Even when I’m grading quizzes, which come back to me in email, I need a piece of paper to compile the results before putting them into the electronic gradebook. Once again, it’s that back and forth between two screens thing. Being able to jot it all down on a piece of paper and then quickly transfer the results to the gradebook is so much easier and faster.

Perhaps, rather than trying to go totally paperless, we should focus our efforts on eliminating the waste that comes when users don’t pay attention to what printer they sent their job to. Or the waste that occurs when students print out tons of the most inane ephemera - like posters on Pastafarianism.

The paperless classroom may arrive one of these days. But for now, as for me and my classroom, despite the fact that they’re available online, I’m giving out handouts again. My students will thank me, and their grades, which I’ll jot down on paper first, will go up.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting piece that you wrote here. I must take some issue however with your position. Let us just concentrate not using paper in the classroom. It should not be about saving tress, but about saving money. A very low estimate of a ream of copy paper is $3.00 a ream. Since schools buy in bulk let us drop that to $2.50 a ream, heck let us say $2.00 a ream. If you save 1 ream of paper per week in every class in the school and in every office in the school it begins to add up in real dollars. Dollars not spent on paper can be spent on many other things. Add in printer ink and you really start to save. Take away all of the staff and teacher time spent maintaining the printers and copiers, plus the leases for the copiers and the dollars continue to pile up. I will leave out the law breaking that goes on at the copier or printers in the classrooms. It should not be about Tree hugging.