Yes, we can go paperless...so what's the cost/benefit?

Yes, we can go paperless...so what's the cost/benefit?

Summary: Regular readers know that not only am I something of a tree-hugger, but I've recently become convinced that social media (not MySpace and Facebook, but the wide variety of Web 2.0, collaboration, and communication tools available to us on the Web) can have a very important place in education.

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TOPICS: CXO, Browser, Hardware
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Regular readers know that not only am I something of a tree-hugger, but I've recently become convinced that social media (not MySpace and Facebook, but the wide variety of Web 2.0, collaboration, and communication tools available to us on the Web) can have a very important place in education.

It is the maturation of these tools, as well as the dropping cost of computer hardware, that leads me to believe that we can, in fact make our schools largely paperless to the benefit of students, teachers, parents, and, well, trees.

The time is ripe for some actual research on this matter, allowing me to either prove my point and create some best practices for the integration of social media and 1:1 computing into a school or convincing me that social media and computers in schools are basically a distraction from real learning.

Intel, for example, has reported considerable success using their Classmate PCs in classroom settings, providing software that allows teachers to direct learning and minimize distractions (controlling and/or blacking out student screens, for example, or pushing content to all student machines at once). My goal, however, is somewhat more ambitious, although considerable smaller in scale than Intel's efforts. I want to know if devices like the Classmate, when incorporated with appropriate hardware and software on the back end, plenty of bandwidth at home and at school, and a suite of Web 2.0 tools can positively change the way we function as a school ecosystem and, at the same time, drastically reduce the resources we consume.

So how do we find out? Here's what I propose, but please talk back below if you have suggestions on other implementations, questions, or avenues of research.

I just happen to have an elementary school in my district with a small number of students (about 140), solid internal network infrastructure, aging computer equipment with too few terminals per kid, and the highest per capita paper consumption of any school in my district.

  1. Provide every student, kindergarten through sixth grade, with a Classmate or other similar device (the new tablet Classmates and Eees coming soon would be ideal to replace the average spiral notebook, among other things).
  2. Provide all teachers with a full-featured multi-media laptop suitable for content creation and management.
  3. Implement a software stack and student and teacher machines such that teachers can control and direct learning; include polling and quizzing capabilities similar to those of interactive response systems as well as classroom management systems like Moodle.
  4. Implement a server infrastructure supporting the storage and sharing of all documents and, wherever possible, electronic texts and supplemental classroom materials.
  5. License the use of e-textbooks wherever possible and appropriate; task teachers with creating electronic repositories of useful supplemental materials regardless of the presence of an electronic text.
  6. Create a robust wireless infrastructure both in the school and in common gathering areas in town (the town is fairly rural and geographically quite large, meaning that broadband penetration is not yet adequate to serve all students).
  7. Expand the existing website to become the repository of all school information and tie into Google Apps for Education, providing all students, teachers, staff, and parents with access to the facilities within Google Apps.
  8. Given the lack of broadband penetration, consider pushing announcements and parent materials to each student's laptop to be shared with parents as needed.
  9. Provide ongoing professional development (and, as a result, develop an appropriate "going paperless" curriculum) for teachers so that they can fully leverage the technology in class.
  10. Leverage additional Web 2.0 tools to facilitate collaboration and sharing within classrooms, within the school, and within the community.
  11. Solicit feedback on "the good, the bad, and the ugly" of the effort via teacher, student, parent, and administrator contributions to a going paperless blog.
  12. Use standardized testing data over multiple years of this program to more objectively assess the impact educationally.

There's obviously a lot of arm-waving going on here; this would require a concerted effort by teachers, staff, and technologists to make this happen and ensure that teachers are prepared to deliver and receive content electronically. However, it should provide some broad strokes regarding the direction I'd like this research to take.

So if that's the plan (in a nutshell), what are the costs and benefits? Obviously, this will require some cash. Even at $400/kid, we're looking at $56,000 just for the computers. It's easy to imagine needing to replace these every 3 years. The servers capable of storing large numbers of documents and data as well as handling networking functions and serving up Moodle-style classroom management apps are another $10k. Adding additional broadband into the school, training time, wireless, etc., and a number somewhere around $100,000 every three years starts sounding conservative but realistic. That is not a small number.

It's a number that just might be worth it, though if we can show a direct benefit to students. Do students achieve more because they always have access to materials and the help of peers and teachers using the same social networking tools emerging in business? Do parents feel more connected to their kids' education? Are parents becoming involved with their children at night, sitting around the netbook at the kitchen table and reading the daily announcements? Are kids easily able to determine their homework assignments and quickly submit assignments to their teachers? Do kids learn better with frequent assessment and feedback via interactive quizzes and tests administered in class on their computers (there is already considerable evidence to suggest that frequent and immediate feedback directly increase performance and retention)? Do kids begin to think more critically and logically if they are taught programming and computer science from a very young age (as in, as soon as they can write and understand basic math operators)? Can kids leave elementary school viewing social media as a tool for getting work done, rather than a giant distraction encompassing only MySpace and Facebook?

I think the answer to each of these questions is actually yes. However, it will take research to get past what I think in my geeky little head and move on to real answers. I don't have $100k sitting between the couch cushions, but as my thoughts on this crystallize further, I'll be taking it folks who just might have cash or equipment that could use some testing in this context. It seems as though Dell, or HP, or Intel, or Sun (or any of the other usual suspects) would have a vested interest in trying to justify significant initial costs to "go paperless" and, hopefully at the same time, to revolutionize the way we use technology to educate our kids and connect our school communities.

Topics: CXO, Browser, Hardware

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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96 comments
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  • paperless

    yes lets go paperless another 100+ people out of work, great idea
    Monosdeja
    • They should get degrees so they can work real jobs then

      Technology does not destroy jobs, it just changes the landscape of what jobs are available and in demand. The office printer killed the typist job, but it created a need for engineers to design printers, printer repairman to fix them, and help desk support people to answer the phone calls for repair requests. It also opened up the market for printer ink which created a whole host of new jobs.

      Upgrading to more advanced technology always involves the development of more infrastructure and new products and resources. Delivering, marketing, selling, and maintaining all these things will always require employees.

      There are always people who insist that technology will eliminate jobs, yet with every advancement the exact opposite happens.
      T1Oracle
      • This is what happned to the American auto ...

        ... industry. Automation was born in the 1960s & 70s but out of fear of job loss (translation: fewer dues-paying members), unions pressured automakers in the USA into putting off automation. Today, autoworkers working for American companies are laid-off for weeks at a time every year. All the while, their non-union counterparts are working for Toyota or Honda in a nearby state in automated plants under better working conditions for better money and benefits.

        Guess whose cars people are buying? Yep, those Japanese cars made in America by American workers!

        Meanwhile, GM, Ford, and Chrysler are turning to Canadian and Mexican factories to reduce their production costs. Go figure.
        M Wagner
    • Putting people to work doing mindless ...

      ... non-productive things is not necessarily a GOOD thing. Modernization need not displace people if efforts are made to provide opportunities to retrain people for more productive work.
      M Wagner
      • Which is why I never date...

        After all, every company wants somebody with [i]experience[/i] but is unwilling to bring in those fresh from the diploma mills because they lack it.

        Training is one thing, but if everyone demands "3 ~ 30 years experience", eventually there comes a time when, obviously, nobody will be able to fit the qualifications (many of which require ridiculous degrees considering their low low pay in return).

        In short, I fear America is eating its young or whatever the bumper sticker says.
        HypnoToad
    • costs

      In your list of things to do, I would place creation of Public Domain texts at or very near the top of the list. That could reduce the cost enormously. Essentially any educational material created with the use of tax funds or tax funded equipment should automatically be Public Domain. After all, it was paid for by the taxpayers. We should certainly have the right to use it without charge.

      After all, We do not have, or at least should not have changes in history. The only changes that occur are for political purposes and these should be refutable with the original text. Current practice hides the original text. Nothing new turns up in most of this, except opinion changes, and those could be added with a new footnote. Mathematics is a fixed, non-changing curriculum. Only the sequence in which it is taught changes. New discoveries are very rarely added to courses below college level.

      By placing all text books into Public Domain, the teachers could resequence the course to meet the needs of their students.
      Update victim
  • Have to have some paper.

    In reading this, my thoughts went immediately to the poorer neighborhoods around where I live. Going paperless, sending e-books and netbooks home with these kids to parents who barely have an idea how to turn a computer on would immediately anger and alienate them. Paperless is a good idea in more affluent, educated neighborhoods, but I don't think all parents are ready for it. I can easily see a drop in parent participation in homework, as just one example.

    It's a good idea, one that's been around a while, but until people catch up with the technology, it's something that should be implemented in stages. Not everyone is ready for it.
    clfitz
    • Preconceived notions....

      I strongly disagree with your views.

      I work with inner city kids in Atlanta, you'll be amazed how connected thses kids are and how knowledgeable they are when it comes to computers and technology in general. The benefits is enormous when they're able to bring knowledge home, EVERYONE in the family learns. Parents who were intimidated by computers before learned what great tools they could be when they could have personal experiences with them. So please, let's toss out these antiquated notions how technology or really anything sophisticated wouldn't benefit the poor. It's these notions that help perpetuate illiteracy and poverty in our population.
      nothingness
      • They're not preconceived notions.

        I've lived and worked here my entire life, and those thoughts are anything but preconceived. They're reflections of almost-daily observations. I know people who refuse to even try to learn anything about technology, and I know people who become angry when their children display more knowledge than they have. I know one man who depends on his wife to know his mailing address and phone number!

        Atlanta's one thing, rural West Virginia is another. There are some people here who are geographically isolated, who will never have more than dial-up access to the Internet, and some who believe, literally, that computers are tools of Satan.

        I'm sure that these situations are mostly unique to where I live, but I believe that people like them will be found everywhere, and those people need to be accommodated, too. I agree, kids learn and adapt to new technology much faster than adults, but if those adults refuse to allow a computer in the home, there will have to be paper.
        clfitz
        • Good Points

          I do believe you have some good points there. My wife taught elementary school in a low-income (/no-income) area, and the students that came to the school would move around about every three months. For starters, that'll change your total cost a bunch. Furthermore, while I don't think that we should count poor families out when it comes to adopting technology, I do believe that illiteracy is a tremendous and very real challenge with substantial implications. In addition, the social situation (drugs, etc.) often turn parents into "caretakers" that are more hindrance than help to their children's progress. While that'll be an inappropriate description of the whole group, you will have a good number that are like that. You have to be prepared for it, and have a strategy ready how you're going to address it. I wouldn't discount the experience of the guy from Atlanta, but I don't think we can blanket-apply it to everyone no questions asked.
          dunraven
        • No your situation isn't unique.

          Here in Idaho, I've seen just that. Once you get out of the large citys. there are places where you don't get cell service for hours. There is no internet, except 56k.If they had a computer. A few towns I've been to like Atlanta (Idaho). Don't even have continous power. i.e. they are not connected to the Grid.

          I worked as an installer for Dish network, and I went to a lot of places like this. Where the only "communication" to the outside world was TV, an phone.

          And when the generator was out you didn't have any of that.
          Species8472
    • Some people have to be dragged ...

      ... kicking and screaming. Education for parents may be as critical as education of their children but every kid from a poor neighborhood who is not exposed to the available technology early in their education will remain disadvantaged later when they move out into the workforce and lack those skills they are expected to have. The effect is to perpetuate their poverty into adulthood.
      M Wagner
      • According to your theory

        I shouldn't be a programmer. I learned without having been exposed to technology at an early age. We just had a black and white TV even though color models were available. I also learned how to do math on an abacus even though calculators were available at the time. None of that has prevented me from learning how to use the current technology or stopped me from being able to program. Learning the basics at an early age is far more important than learning how to type on a keyboard or surf the web.<br><br>
        When I go to a bank teller and they have to take out a calculator to make simple change then something is definitely wrong. If I give you $10 for $9.46 then you shouldn't have to use a calculator to figure out that you owe me 54 cents.
        alaniane
        • You shouldn't be a programmer. You beat the odds.

          Urban and wealthier kids these days tend to be very sophisticated with computers, social networks, multimedia, authoring, etc. from elementary-middle school. It's not about understanding computers, it's about relating to other people and the world through the new communications contexts.

          I'm a programmer too, and I've been programming since I was 8. However, I still don't naturally IM, I hate texting, I hate being interrupted by my cellphone, and I rarely post to my Facebook Wall. All this stuff became commonplace after I was young enough to pick it up, like a new language. While I'm still good at my job, AND I write facebook apps for a living, it really has left me out of many of the corporate cultures that I've worked in. I don't feel comfortable being constantly connected in a multi-modal reality. Which puts me way behind kids coming out of school right now. It's only going to get worse in the future.

          School is about more than the basics -- it's about adapting to the reality outside of your house, so you can compete and contribute. Keeping some kids from technology while others have it really does put them at a disadvantage.
          vineel1
          • Not if they learn the basic principles

            If you know how to solve a logarithm by hand, you can easily learn how to solve it with a calculator. If you know how to compose a business letter by hand, you can easily learn how to use a wordprocessor to do it. I still have to guide the "supposedly" computer literate youngsters through simple problems. They know how to click a button to get an answer, but they don't know how to verify if the answer they got is correct. If the calculator told them that 2+2 = 5 they would accept the answer without questioning whether the calculator was functioning properly. The problem I see with introducing technology too early in the classroom is that it's easy to skimp on teaching/learning the basics. If you sacrifice learning the basics just to expose kids to technology then you set them up for failure.
            alaniane
          • Agreed

            It is great to introduce children to technology even in a school setting. However high school would be a better place than grade school.
            Teaching a student how to learn, think, solve problems, research, etc will give them most of the tools they need to adapt to any situation. If you are not smart enough to read a book and understand what you have read, you will never understand the underlying tech of Facebook. A monkey can click a button to receive a banana. It takes a human to design the cage, the delivery system, put the banana in the system, and imprison the monkey.
            mr1972
    • sending e-books and netbooks home

      This just might get some of these parents interested in learning themselves. They could certainly learn along with their children and this just might make them feel better.

      There will of course always be some "know it alls" who will reject anything that they do not understand even to the extent of refusal to learn. These people truly harm their children.
      Update victim
    • Excuses to expand the rich-poor gap...

      Your posting sound like an excuse to expand the rich-poor gap... "paperless is a good idea in more affluent, educated neighborhoods", yeah, sure. Do you mean "richer neighborhoods"?

      I'm sure that when the first generation of literate kids went to school, their illiterate parents felt alienated or something, but maybe they also felt comforted by the idea that their kids were having a chance they didn't have.

      If you are really worried, please don't. Parents will become interested or they won't, and the computer won't be the main reason. (My opinion).


      Regards,

      MV
      MV_z
    • Absolutely correct

      There's a lot of low-income/no-income families in this small MI town. They don't have a computer, can't afford a computer and wouldn't/couldn't connect to the Internet if they did have a computer. High-speed Internet is something they've heard about but never expect to see. Their only option is dial-up, which connects at 26.4 if they're lucky.

      There's also a very large population of migrant children that enter the school in the fall and are back in Mexico by Christmas. Approximately 75 percent of those migrant children can't speak, read or write English. Their classes focus on teaching them very basic skills in English and they don't have access to the Web at home. They need paper, not computers.

      Going paperless has been discussed as a concept here and it was shot down, primarily by teachers/educators who were completely paranoid about "privacy issues." That doesn't count the teachers who simply don't think they can be effective teachers using computers to teach in the mainstream. A perfect example: my son's teacher last year was a technology advocate. She took her laptop to work, kept in touch with parents via email as often as needed and communicated almost entirely by email and attachments. My son's teacher this year doesn't think email is an effective communication tool, never communicates electronically if she can prevent it and prefers all communication to be in writing.

      Take a lack of decent Internet speeds, little or no command of the English language, paranoia about privacy and archaic attitudes and it's no wonder schools can't/won't go paperless.
      Phoenix666
      • We shouldn't worry...

        about accommodating children of illegal workers, especially at the expense of the legal children. The short time the illegals are going to be in the classroom causes more of a disruption than giving them any real education.

        One problem I see with supplying kids with netbooks is them getting lost, broken, stolen, or if they or their parents have drug or financial problems, selling them to get money for other things. That cost could escalate quickly. I grew up in New York and remember well the things that went on around me in the ghetto area. I'm glad I got out. Back then, the kids who came in with no English learned it pretty quickly because they weren't "accommodated" and coddled. You learn a lot faster when you're forced to. Around here, everything is in English and Spanish, so you find a lot of people that have been here for years that still can't speak and read English very well. But, the people that come here from Russia learn English quickly because they don't have the luxury of not having to. My ex-girlfriend came from Russia and her mother came over after we were together. Her mother was in her 50's, and in 6 months she knew enough English to communicate pretty well. Meanwhile, the people next door who came from Mexico 5 years ago could hardly communicate at all.

        Same with technology - just because some people don't want to learn it or think it is a tool of Satan, doesn't mean you have to make everyone else suffer because of their ignorance. Let them live in it, but don't make my kid do without over it.
        TucsonGuy