By Teachers, For Teachers
Remember the good old days of waiting in line for the copy machine? Or carting stacks of books back and forth to class? What about shuffling thousands of student papers from the classroom, office, car, home and back again?
These activities were staples of the paper era, a time that may be nothing more than a fond memory as we transition into the paperless age.
With the increase of integrating technology in the classroom, in mobile device usage and 1-to-1 programs, schools are rapidly becoming equipped to enable paperless interactions. Coupling this educational benefit with a healthy reduction in cost and time is certainly a win-win scenario for the system as a whole. Integrating technology in the classroom also may present additional conveniences when workflow—both with the student body and administrative purposes—can be orchestrated through electronic devices.
There is an undeniable improvement in speed, organization, and learning potential in moving towards an ed-tech rich school environment, but you’d be falling short if that’s all you thought it would do—there’s also an element of convenience. Instead of having to create, print, and copy every sheet of paper I want students to have, I can simply convert it to a PDF and post it online. This in itself is cause to celebrate, as the time I save adds up quickly.
It’s convenient for students, too. Papers are so easily lost or damaged—crumbled in bags, eaten by their dogs, tossed away with the recycling, it’s a miracle that any papers survives today. If your kids need another copy, they simply go online and retrieve another. Sharing notes and collaborating on projects becomes a breeze as well.
I’d be lying if I said losing papers is a problem only my students have; having a digital classroom saves me the heartache of losing materials myself. Instead of relying on an entirely paper system or obsessively checking and rechecking the backup copies I have on discs and jump drives, I can save them online to access anytime, anywhere.
Although modifying my documents into PDFs and making them more accessible for students was a great first step into the paperless realm, I knew there was more room for growth. When the transition began, most of my efforts simply substituted physical copies for digital ones. Students were still producing and submitting their completed work on paper, whereby I would provide written feedback and return.
The next step I’m taking—and will continue to refine this year—involves getting students to become paperless themselves. Instead of typing and printing out their work, they now have the opportunity to create and submit their entire assignment digitally. With apps like Google Docs and Google Drive, students can share their work with me (and with one another) instantly. I don’t have to ask them to print out their work, and I don’t have to chauffeur their papers around town, which means I can actually fit my golf clubs in my car.
Nowadays, I provide feedback to my students digitally. Other learning management system platforms, like Schoology and Turnitin, offer similar feedback opportunities. My class gets feedback from me much more quickly, and since there aren’t any margins to wrestle with, I can be more thorough with my edits—even leaving voice comments if I’m ambitious. If I wanted to, I could even provide students feedback on their drafts and works-in-progress. These are possibilities previously unimagined when paper was king.
And when it comes to reading, it’s much easier to share and store texts. Students can carry dozens of books in the palm of their hands, and annotation options are increasingly available, making comment additions, discussions, and healthy debates a breeze.
I don’t want to pretend that there’s nothing I’ll miss about paper. I think there are some advantages to it that we should at least consider before sending it along the road to exile. It might not be something our current students consider, but I will certainly miss the tactile feel of paper. There’s just something about turning a physical page that makes the reading experience special. The same could easily be said about having brainstorm sessions in-person for group work. Although collaboration certainly exists in the digital classroom (and quite efficiently in fact), there are some instances where a face-to-face discussion cannot be replaced.
While we don’t have to meander through and pine over these differences, it is important to note that a new medium is not perfect, it’s just different. And we want to take these differences into consideration so we can better understand what we’re able to accomplish.
Many educational technology leaders have stated that there’s a difference between shifting away from 8.5" x 11” paper and shifting from the 8.5” x 11” paper mindset. We have spent well over a generation integrating paper into our educational system, and our minds have conformed to this size expectation. But there is room to grow. The digital realm of creation and communication does not have a size limit, and therefore how we use these paperless tools is as limitless as our imaginations.
So as we enjoy the initial conveniences afforded to us in the dawn of a new age in the digital classroom, we want to begin thinking through the next set of steps forward to fully maximize the possibilities of a truly paperless environment.
How close are you to going paperless? What are the benefits or detriments of what you’ve seen so far? Tell us your story in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.