It's time for the 'paperless' university

I just read Paperless classroom arrives in TN and I have to say that this is a great idea.  It is an idea which my university has been moving toward for years -- but which is still a long way from being fully realized.

I just read Paperless classroom arrives in TN and I have to say that this is a great idea.  It is an idea which my university has been moving toward for years -- but which is still a long way from being fully realized.  Why?  More on that later...

Unlike public public schools, private schools such as the one in Tennessee are often reasonably well funded and, more importantly, many have the vision to establish life-cycle funding for their IT infrastructure (in fact, for all of their infrastructure.)  For some odd reason, public institutions don't seem to have that foresight.  Perhaps it's because their budgets are under the control of politicians, not administrators. 

Whether public or private, universities are funded in much the same way as private schools.  Life-cycle funding is the norm and one time money for special projects always comes with an awareness that, down the road, life-cycle funding will be required for any successful project . 

In a recent post (Buy a server, save a tree), I pointed out that over it's lifetime a $2,000 printer will consume $40,000 in paper and toner.  One has to ask...  How many textbooks could be digitized and placed on a central server for that same $40,000?  And, how many more students could be served by that information compared to those who will be served by the output of that $2,000 printer?  Add to that the fact that once digitized, the contents of those textbooks is not lost through wear and tear and the advantages become clear. 

Sure, you could just send your students out to the web (where the digitization had already been done) but that does not help them learn how to package the information that they find in any meaningful way.  Nor does it provide the educator with the opportunity to present the materials in a manner suitable to the needs of the course.  The digitization of course-specific materials enables the educator to prepare materials geared to the needs of their students and the needs of the subject material.  Oh yes, and it saves a few trees along the way! 

At my university, a large and growing volume of material is being made available digitally.  A robust infrastructure makes it possible for students to gain access to much of their class material 24/7 via the web.  Eighty-five percent of our students own their own computers and even those who live off-campus have VPN access to our internal network.  So why are so many of our faculty still telling their students to print out these materials and bring them to class on paper? 

A clue lies in the article about Battle Ground Academy in Tennessee.  To gain classroom access to these materials, Battle Ground Academy provides carts of tablet PCs to their teachers.  These carts are are managed much like any other audio-visual equipment, of years gone by.  During class, each student has a tablet with access to the text being studied and the tools to manipulate that text, as if it were on paper. 

And there's the rub ...

While a great deal study material does not need to be brought into the classroom -- a lot of it still does.  Battle Ground Academy solved that problem by providing tablet PCs to its students during class -- but in a university setting, this is simply not always practical.  Unlike secondary education, university departments are autonomous -- with autonomous budgets (some disproportionately large, and some disproportionately small).  Insuring that each student has a tablet PC -- and thus the ability to study and manipulate text while in the classroom is a great deal more difficult.  You could mandate that all students bring a laptop or tablet PC (or even a PDA) to class but few academic departments are willing to do that. 

To their credit, a growing number of faculty are still saving their students hundreds of dollars per year by making class material available on-line instead of asking their students to buy textbooks when only a portion of the material in that textbook will actually be used.  Even if their students are paying printing fees, this still represents a remarkable savings to the student -- and it saves the department the expense of preparing course packets for its students.  Still, a great deal more could be done to reduce dependence upon printing when those dollars could be much better spent on hardware and software to provide all students access to to the collected works of the human race -- most of which are now available somewhere on the web (if they could only find it.) 

Whether in the public schools or in higher education, many of our educators are still woefully unprepared to embrace new ways of disseminating information to their students.  All too often people under-utilize emerging technology by applying it to old ways of doing things.  New technology opens the doors for new, previously unforeseen, paradigms.  The sooner old paradigms are abandoned and new paradigms embraced, the better for our educators and our institutions -- but most importantly, the better for our students.