Paperless yet? I wish!

Paperless yet? I wish!

Summary: Schools are the least paperless of any institution and yet they have fewer excuses than any other.


As part of ZDNet's Great Debate Series, I had the chance to go head to head with Chris Jablonski on the topic of the paperless society. His take? We're right on the edge, with virtually ever segment of our society either already paperless or getting there quickly. I disagreed pretty vehemently, perhaps because of the amount of time I spend working with our public schools where, with rare exceptions, paper use is extraordinary.

There are plenty of areas where paper reigns supreme and, as I argued, a pretty massive cultural shift needs to take place to get away from our dependence on dead trees. For this post, though, I'd like to just think about our school systems which, in fact, have fewer excuses for "paperlessness" than virtually any other institution. The ways in which schools can integrate technology that cuts or eliminates the need for paper (textbooks, copies, handouts, flyers, parent messages, notes, you name it) astounds me every day. Here are just a few tools that schools have at their disposal if they choose to make the right investments (instead of, for example, buying the next round of ludicrously expensive paper texts or renewing their contracts with copier manufacturers):

  • Robust learning management systems: From Moodle to School Town, outstanding web-based tools make it easy to share paperless information with students, parents, and the larger school community.
  • Student laptops: Chromebooks have dropped in price to nearly trivial levels. Netbooks can be had for a song. Full-sized laptops, even, are remarkably inexpensive. Mobile thin clients leverage growing infrastructures in schools. You get the idea. Even if students simply use their own computers at home and labs at school, access to a computer that can be used in countless ways for instruction and educational materials is fairly ubiquitous. True ubiquity could be achieved with minor subsidies for lower income students and the right partnerships with Internet Service Providers.
  • Tablets: Tablet prices are dropping rapidly and, even if we still haven't sorted out good ways to push content to student tablets, all of them can access web sites and applications that contain necessary documentation, web apps, and any number of other educational tools.
  • Online groupware/productivity: Google Apps and Office365 for Education are powerful tools that promote collaboration, allow storage and presentation of every type of content that might be of use to students and teachers. All of this information can be made private or public-facing and is just a web browser away.
  • Wikis, blogs, and other Web 2.0 tools: Whether using education-specific web tools like edublogs or leveraging more general services like Wikispaces, the sheer numbers of communication and collaboration tools that are easy enough for every educator, student, and parent to use are overwhelming.
  • Virtual classrooms and social networks: Everything from Ning to WizIQ to Facebook (for the more progressive districts) to Adobe Connect allows for real-time (or near real-time) interactions and information sharing and are available inexpensively to educators.

And yet, students take their notes on paper (if they take them), get handouts from PowerPoint slides, take home notes to their parents about functions at the schools, and are handed printouts of electronic texts and materials.
Schools should be at the forefront of the paperless movement, teaching students to take their paperless habits out into the world. Instead, it's only the most progressive, well-funded of schools that are taking advantage of the readily available tools that support paperless education.
Nope, we're not there in society at large and we certainly aren't in education. But we should be. The technology is in place...we just need to see fit to invest in it and use it.

Topics: Tablets, Apps, Browser, Collaboration, Google, Hardware, Laptops, Storage, Enterprise 2.0

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Paper is recyclable.

    Paper is recyclable. The energy that it took to make and sustain this web page is NOT. Unless your 100% solar.There is just So much oil,there is just so much Coal. Ya need Oil or coal to produce nuclear energy.Ya need Coal or Oil To make the solar panels. And paper last far longer then paperless.

    Just when are you people going to get your heads out your A$$#@
    We should be hounding our governmentent to manufacture solar panels. Why are we not able to buy a panel For ReasonableBlE COST" or 2 top say run our elect heat? Or an Air conditioner? Just think of the cost saving and the money that could be spent on Our Economy
    • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!

      @Stan57 Have you ever considered how much energy it takes to make the paper or to recycle it? There is a $$ and energy cost to everything.
    • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!

      @Stan57 "Paper is recyclable."

      Even recycling uses energy.

      "The energy that it took to make and sustain this web page is NOT. "

      What's interesting is that I've lived in states that use hydroelectric dams and wind farms. IMO we will eventually get there.

      "Ya need Oil or coal to produce nuclear energy."

      Ya need to re-read your physics books.

      "Ya need Coal or Oil To make the solar panels. "

      No Ya don't.

      "And paper last far longer then paperless."

      I seriously doubt many students are buying acid-free paper for archiving their notes.

      "We should be hounding our governmentent to manufacture solar panels."

      Too lazy to buy your own?
      • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!


        No, they are too expensive right now for the average person, mainly because the government hasn't gone 'all-in' with encouraging solar panel development and innovation with tax dollars.
    • Re: Paper is recyclable.

      @Stan57 Recycled paper is not recyclable. Did you know that? When you put out paper for recycling, do you separate out the recycled paper and toss that in the trash? Because if you don't, you're creating extra trouble and expense for the recyclers, and just helping to make recycling even more uneconomic.
      • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!


        Yes, it is. Contrary to popular belief, recycled paper IS recycleable, according to the printed paper that the recycling company in my area gave us.

        So are most plastics up to number 10 (I didn't think they went that high, in all honest) and common 'unnumbered' plastics.
  • Consider the costs...

    When I was teaching and sat in on budget committee meetings, I was always horrified that the majority of our local school budget went to paper and copies. Too bad we can't get a good picture of just how much money could be used in other ways if we followed the excellent advice here!
  • It always comes down to money, for schools AND parents

    When a school hands out papers to kids, they can take the paper home for parents to see. If they expect the kid and/or parents to view this information electronically, it requires the parents to have a computer and internet connectivity. Sure, they could run to the library every single day to use the public computers, but that isn't even close to realistic. The bottom line is that many parents can't afford computers let alone an internet connection. Some can't even afford dialup (which should be illegal it's so pathetic). Some in more rural areas can't access the internet at all. For now, paper is going to rule outside wealthy, urban school districts.
    • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!


      Does it? Ever heard of a 20 dollar 32GB USB flash drive? That could hold a few YEARS of a child's homework and other things on it.
  • Two words: Math Classes

    Two words: Math classes.

    Problem is, there's really only one platform that could've done well in a math class, and it was the tablet with the stylus. You could write down an equation easily with a stylus, and Office 2010 even added handwriting-to-equation support.

    But now that thumbs are supreme instead of styluses, there's very little to support math equations anymore. Typing in equations manually, no matter how good the equation editor, is a pain. It's much faster to use a stylus.

    Outside of that, yeah schools can go paperless.

    However, there is another problem: Schools aren't mandating teachers use the electronic systems, even if they are available. At the last college before my graduation, it was a very mixed bag on who would use the online system for their materials and who wouldn't. So yeah, big cultural gap. And it doesn't help that many of these teachers are getting tenure, so they can effectively say "screw the regs, you can't fire me anyways."

    "And yet, students take their notes on paper (if they take them), get handouts from PowerPoint slides, take home notes to their parents about functions at the schools, and are handed printouts of electronic texts and materials."

    This is where OneNote really shines. Some of my profs did make the PowerPoints available the day before, and I'd be there taking notes electronically on the imported presentation. It was great.

    It's great if you have the right technology. It's great if you have OneNote, it's great if you have Office 2010 with the handwriting-to-equation support, it's great if you have a tablet PC with a stylus.

    Tablet PC (with a stylus!) + Office 2010 (a version that contains OneNote) = 100% replacement for the notebook in the classroom, including math classes.

    But alas, that combination is rare. Today's tablets suck for handwriting, thanks to being finger controlled rather than stylus controlled, and you're recommending online services that frankly are inferior to OneNote 2010 and don't have handwriting to equation support.

    Sometimes I do wish that we stuck to styluses. Multitouch is cool, and is fine for reading books, surfing the internet, and watching movies, but sometimes I do in fact want something that supports handwriting and is more precise. Going to imprecise, grubby fingers actually feels like quite a step backwards.
    • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!


      Two words: CALCULATOR STANDARD! Meaning that no math class even in elementary school cuts out calculators, unless they are a very backwards, stuck in the past school.
      • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!

        @Lerianis10 That's the worst idea for math. That would simply guarantee that your students can't do basic arithmetic and multiplication when they graduate.
  • It's a fair debate

    But championing change trumps sanctioning it by decree any day, more so when the issue at hand comprises something (anything) of a non-critical nature.

    [Reprise from Jablonski's column]
  • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!

    There are many reasons why education isn't paperless yet and many of those are just excuses. The author has spent enough time with public schools that he should know some of the fundamental problems with going paperless: cost to the institution and availability/use of internet in homes.

    Utah is probing the possibility of going to one-to-one computing. A deep review of the venture (including research into current one-to-one school districts) reveals that my district would have to hire (at least) seven people just to maintain the thousands of new student devices. In our nation's economic and political environment that kind of funding is NOT going to come our way. And that does not cover the cost of training, additional wireless access points, software to manage the devices, etc.

    Another issue is the backlash from parents when we have tried small paperless initiatives such as electronic midterm grades and back-to-school notices. A small (but not insignificant) group of parents demand that paper copies of everything be sent home or mailed. And it costs more (in office time and money) to print things piecemeal. These are parents who cannot or choose not to have the internet in their home. As a public institution we cannot ignore those customers, or put in place rules that a private school can.
    • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!

      @reichart67 <br><br>Even a very low income family should be able to afford 10 dollars a month for 768kbps internet access, like is offered by Verizon in my area with a 50GB's limit.

      We could even require Comcast/AT&T to have a 'free' tier of internet service (as part of their governmentally mandated psuedo-monopoly) of 78Kbps up and 368Kbps down with a 10GB limit.
  • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!

    i live in a school district where about 85% of the children qualify for free lunch. that lunch for many, is probably the only and best meal of the day. most of the kids have no computers, let alone getting internet. our school district's technology budget is nonexistent. never mind the issues of students for whom english is not a first language (as well as the lack of a scientific basis showing that a paperless educational approach is at least noninferior to paper for nonenglish speakers, as well as children with special needs) Technology is certainly an important tool in education - -but it's just that, a tool. powerpoint and fingerpoint can coexist.
  • For crying out loud. Paper is tremendously useful and practical.

    Wood pulp and cotton are renewable resources. There's absolutely no reason at all for a jihad against paper. Unless you're an ignorant tool of the environmentalist movement.
    • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!


      Wood isn't as renewable as you think. It takes 100 years for a tree to get to the size where it can be cut down and used to make paper in some cases.
  • RE: Paperless yet? I wish!

    [i]"We???re right on the edge, with virtually ever segment of our society either already paperless or getting there quickly."[/i]

    I'd disagree with Chris' assessment that "virtually every segment" has gone paperless or getting there quickly. Lets use some examples.

    [b]Retail:[/b] Still using the same amount of paper in their day to day interactions with customers (receipts) that they were 10-20 years ago. If anything, receipts have gotten larger because they include links to websites and online surveys. Back room accounting is probably using more paper if my limited experience is any indication. Small stores used to get the job done with a ledger that you bought and kept for however long it took to fill out. Now, while the accounting is done in software and spreadsheets depending on your sophistication, you see copies of summaries, analysis, tables and graphs everywhere you go in an accounting department.

    [b]Engineering:[/b] Certainly NOT using less paper. Now that you have fast plotters and can make multiple copies and update production copies quickly you're sure as heck not using less paper. You're using probably 10x more than ever. The automated shops are saving the same amount of paper now that they did 20 years ago when they were carrying disks from machine to machine and loading the data. Now they're just beaming the data via wifi or using USB.

    I could go on. But, everywhere that I go and hear the concept of "paperless" being talked about it is usually as a joke and certainly not a reality.
  • Simple reason, we're not a business

    Businesses have processes that can be defined and an organizational hierarchy that can mandate change (like going paperless). In education, each teacher's classroom is its own fiefdom and no amount of "mandates" can change that. That reason alone is the failure of many an educational project/approach/program and why administrators have to have considerable "buy in" from staff to get any project off the ground.