Variquest proves it's OK to use paper sometimes

Regular readers will know that I'm a pretty big tree hugger. I'm not quite as militant as my wife, but anywhere I can use technology to eliminate the use of paper, conserve resources, or otherwise migrate educational "stuff" (whatever that might be) online, I'm there.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Regular readers will know that I'm a pretty big tree hugger. I'm not quite as militant as my wife, but anywhere I can use technology to eliminate the use of paper, conserve resources, or otherwise migrate educational "stuff" (whatever that might be) online, I'm there.

Thus, when I received an email from a vendor with Variquest, a company that largely makes printing products, I was pretty skeptical. However, I'm usually happy to meet with vendors to keep in touch with the state of the art in various facets of educational technology and the sales rep seemed mighty nice, so I scheduled a demo.

Before I go any further, I need to give a bit more background. My experience has been in higher education, private industry, and finally in high school before I became the district technology director last summer. The only thing I knew about elementary education was what I managed to absorb having a gaggle of kids who had been been (or actively were) in elementary school.

This year, when I started interacting with pre-K through 12 teachers and understanding their needs a bit better, I was really astonished at the demands placed on primary ed. More than that, all of the touchy feel nonsense they had to deal with to engage kids was completely foreign to me. You want posters on the walls? Why? Pretty pictures? Stickers for good work? Awards and certificates? Charts and graphs for the kids that can't be done in PowerPoint or Excel? Are you nuts?

Yet these teachers all made their classrooms homey and inviting and actively engaged kids in learning with a variety of materials on their walls, on the kids' desks, through art projects, and through a variety of other hands-on, eyes-on means that never would have occurred to me. Let's just say that there isn't enough money in the recent stimulus package to get me to be an elementary teacher.

So back to Variquest. My sales rep pulled up in a minivan pulling a trailer and I started to get worried. We stepped into her trailer and she fired up a generator and my trepidation grew.

Mobile showroom

Mobile showroom

When she actually began the demo, though, I couldn't help but be impressed. Not only could the equipment quickly and cheaply generate touchy-feely stuff that I could easily envision in an elementary setting, but the sales rep was making a variety of materials that would be right at home in high school and higher education.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here, though. Briefly, there are five key products included in the Variquest line. The first is a scanner combined with a large format thermal printer. Using thermal paper that you purchase from the company, this printer can make up to 36" single-color posters in moments. To change colors, simply swap out the paper (and it is a simple process); because the thermal hardware, there are no ink or toner cartridges.

Posters can be made directly from the built-in scanner or the printer can be connected via USB to either a Windows computer or to Variquest's Design Center (a standalone PC with a touch-screen and all software built in). The software itself has countless customizable designs and, because of microchips embedded in the rolls of paper for the printer, is aware of both the size and color of the paper in use, allowing for automated resizing and on-screen previews. Designs range from motivational posters to multiplication tables.

I'll only mention the Design Center briefly. To be honest, this was the one item in the line that seemed difficult to justify. $3000 buys you an all-in-one, touch-screen computer (it's $2000 if you buy it as part of a package). It's a Windows PC with fairly minimal specs (the demo unit had a Celeron processor) that simply has all of the software pre-configured. However, the software comes free with any of the other units you purchase and can be installed on any PC.

This was the one low point, though, as the rep moved on to some more really useful hardware. The next item in their line is called the Awards Maker 400 (I won't hold their names against them). This small printer uses a variety of interchangeable color ribbons and sticker rolls to make everything from small stickers to bumper stickers to award plaques. In the latter case, Variquest will sell you packs of wooden plaques (or you could partner with a tech ed program or woodshop) onto which you can attach metallic stickers that look remarkably professional (she made one for our Drama Club who just produced Oliver!).

Interestingly, aside from motivational stickers and award plaques, she noted that many schools printed bumper stickers for fundraisers. At around $1 per printed bumber sticker, some schools took the printer and a laptop to sporting events and sold bumper stickers to both teams.

This brought up what I thought was the most intriguing part of our conversation. If a single school in a small district like ours purchased the equipment, a marketing class (or some other business-oriented or graphics art class) could run the various tools for the district, subcontracting for fundraisers, teachers, and other individuals with non-standard printing needs. They could, for example, provide visual aides for all of the elementary schools at cost (undercutting what the teachers would pay from most vendors) but then sell bumper stickers as fundraisers for clubs and activities.

The next piece of equipment was a cold laminator. Because it doesn't use heat (replacing the normal laminating process with adhesive sheets), a simple crank can make large, reusable posters. One example was a large graphic organizer to help students develop essays and then erase and reuse the sheets when they were done.

The final product is the CutoutMaker 1800. Guess what it does? That's right, it makes cutouts. OK, a little cheesy, but the product is incredibly cool. It is essentially a large format die cutter that also attaches to a PC (or their Design Center) and cuts construction paper, card stock, and standard bond paper to make everything from cutout letters for posters to perforated 3D models that students can fold to make geometric solids. The software automatically resizes, minimizes waste, and allows teachers to reuse scraps of paper from previous cutouts. Before she left, I had everything I needed to create a billboard for the next drama club production in June, complete with graphics and bubble lettering.

None of these things come cheap (although the package prices are largely in the 4-digit range), but if a district considers what it spends annually on visual aides, posters, and "culture-building" tools, they just might make sense. Better yet, letting students run the tools provides them with exposure to business skills as well as modern graphics arts tools. It's pretty rare that I'll recommend a product that encourages paper use, but I have to say that I was impressed not only with the products themselves, but also with the potential use cases at all levels of education.

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