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

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.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

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.

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