Along with technology comes the question that accompanies many new opportunities, that is, “How far can I take this?”. Some see this question as an exciting challenge: Let’s see just how far technology can take us and how we can harness it to achieve our goals. It’s a great question and often leads to new discoveries and tools.
We certainly have not answered this question yet and we may never discover the limitations to what technology can do for us. Some educators have chosen to pursue a “paperless classroom” as one extension of this question. Their goal is to present content, provide practice, assess learning, record grades, and communicate all of this digitally.
While it’s certainly an interesting challenge, I believe the pursuit of a paperless classroom is misguided at best and actually harmful to students at worst.
1. Unless every student that you teach has access to a device and wi-fi in school and at home, it’s not going to work. Teachers must accommodate families without devices and internet connections by providing a hard copy of every homework assignment, newsletter, and note. And in the classroom, you need to have 1-to-1 devices. If not, you’ll have rotating groups, some of which will have to be using paper and pencil. You then have one foot in each camp, paper and paperless, trying to meet the needs to two opposing systems.
2. It’s impersonal. Many students need interaction with their teacher rather than learning over an interface. While there are certainly excellent interactive programs available – I’ve used many – they still lack the personal, specific give-and-take that you can only get when a student is with his/her teacher or another student.
3. It’s only as reliable as today’s internet connection. If you put all of your eggs into the technology basket, when technology fails, so do your lessons. Lack of IT support is a huge stressor in the classroom. Having to prepare a back-up plan for every lesson can significantly increase a teacher’s workload.
4. Research shows that the physical act of writing makes more and better brain connections than typing does. The act of writing by hand is slower and allows the student to think about the topic more deeply, where typing can lead to mindless transcription.
5. Research also points out that it is more difficult to develop “cognitive mapping” on e-readers. Some paperless proponents do not include hard copy books in their goal. Other teachers want to access all of their texts through devices. With no physical books to page through, students lose opportunities to go back and forth in the text to find words and sections and to see the structure of the reading.
6. It’s unbalanced. Pursuing a classroom with only technology is just as unbalanced as pursuing a classroom with no technology. I hesitate to embrace extremes. Extremes in anything tend to discount at least half of the population involved. In a paperless classroom, you lose the opportunity to address the varied and wide-ranging needs of your students.
I suggest to teachers who are struggling with the paperless question to pursue their goal through the other meaning of “paperless”: instead of “no paper”, try “less paper”. Your school system has probably already eliminated a great deal of paper by having a digital record-keeping system for attendance and grades. Assuming you have adequate devices, learning to use learning platforms such as Google Classroom can significantly reduce the papers required for practice and assessment. I hope, though, that teachers never lose sight of the power of the hand-printed word, the influence of holding a book in one’s hand, or the impact of a lesson personally taught by a teacher.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!