Going paperless isn’t that easy

“I buy gadget therefore I am” by MIKI Yoshihito. Used under cc license.

I was making a metric ton of copies yesterday because my class is reading an issue of a comic book as well as an essay and I only personally have one copy of each. As the copier was chugging along rhythmically, I started to wonder if there was a better way to do this. After all, an average short story/essay unit often requires reams of papers because I am not a fan of simply assigning things from the 10th grade English textbook. I want things that are interesting, more contemporary, more diverse, or fit whatever themes we are exploring, so sometimes that involves finding a piece and making up to 60 copies for student use.

Apparently, Lisa Nielsen has the answer. I should go paperless. My attachment to paper is making me irrelevant and i should, in her words, “Get over it.” she’d probably also say that my attachment to things like assigning work and having content knowledge and expertise are also making me irrelevant, but that’s another issue altogether.

Anyway, I’m not going to argue that there is an obvious economic benefit for phasing out paper within a school–I certainly encourage my students to submit papers and projects online if they’re able to–and while I personally have not run a cost-benefit analysis on converting to a paperless school, I’m pretty sure there are long-term benefits.

Unfortunately, she makes her case in such a petulant manner that I cannot even be sure that she understands what going paperless actually means and why it has become such a hard things to do. Is it, as she says, because people are just too attached to the feel of paper? Not necessarily. Going paperless actually requires a logistical and cultural shift that in order to work, probably needs to take place more organically and therefore slower than she’s probably willing to accept.

Let’s start with the downside to the benefits of technology such as the $300 Chromebooks that she mentions. Yes, they are a great tool, but her argument assumes that such devices are treated well once in students’ hands. Aside from the initial investment of taking a school and making it 1:1, which is cost prohibitive for districts that don’t have that money available or constantly need to seek out grant money for technology initiatives, therefore making it difficult to sustain them, the durability of student technology can be a major issue. I don’t have statistics at hand, but I wonder how many Chromebooks and laptops don’t last very long because of cracked screens, damaged keyboards, and malware. Furthermore, Nielsen claims that the life cycle of such devices would be about three years. is this cost effective or cost prohibitive?

I’m not sure. Buying new sets of Chromebooks every three years might actually be less expensive than reams of paper and textbooks. But schools, especially those under constant budget constraints, will extend the lives of both technology and textbooks as long as possible. The English textbook that I barely use was published in 2000. To my knowledge, we’re not adopting a new one (though to be candid, we’d rather spend that money on other things) and school laptops are becoming the equivalent of the beat-up Honda Civic I drove for 13 years–sure, it worked but it was falling apart and becoming a burden. So, logistics can get in the way of “getting over it” when it comes to paper.

Who’s also to say that we will have access to the materials we want to use if we go paperless as well? I have a fair amount of literature at home and also have access to a book room, school library, and public library. Being able to grab a book, make copies of a story or essay, and pass it out, while a bit tedious, is actually easier than locating an online copy. I also wonder who will then control the content. I have had students tell me, “We should read ____” and either I track down the story or book or they give me a copy and we use it. The ease of having a paper copy here is also low-cost or free. If all reading was paperless, it would more than likely require an authorized app on a tablet or laptop and that would seriously limit the availability of content and put us at the mercy of the content provider (for a good example of this, go “Streaming Only” on Netflix and see how your options are severely limited as opposed to renting the DVDs). It also might wind up costing students more. Again, it may not, but it’s a logistical issue that I’m not sure she considers when applying what she clearly knows is good for the individual to a bureaucracy.

Finally, there is the cultural shift I mentioned earlier. We obviously use paper because this is how the way things have always been done and I admit I loathe that rationale. But as I have seen with other “this is the way we’ve always done it” scenarios, making that change is incredibly complicated and requires something that many in a community are not willing to have happen: short-term losses for long-term gains. It also requires that we go “Excuseless.” Having my students submit student work electronically has eliminated the “My printer ran out of ink” excuse that was rampant in years past. Now it’s, “My Internet was down,” or “I emailed it to you … didn’t you get it,” or “Well, I didn’t see/hear the announcement.” I constantly check my district’s online announcements and Twitter feed for news of what’s going on at my school and my son’s school and hold myself accountable if I miss something. So can I hold my students accountable for missing something or not following my class Twitter feed or not looking at my website or not knowing how to properly use their smart phone’s calendar app? When a parent comes to be at the beginning of the year and says, “Well, we were never informed about the summer reading assignment,” can I stop giving them leeway because it’s been on the guidance department, English department, and my websites since the beginning of May?

We have become so used to print and paper in our school culture that the majority of parents expect that continue and will bristle at a change to a completely paperless system. Districts often do not have the backbone to combat such shortsightedness in the community and the culture of accountability for teachers dictates that the technological ineptitude and lack of responsibility on the part of students and parents is the teachers’ fault. Our quest to provide “every opportunity” and fear of numbers going down has resulted in this stagnation, especially in districts whose funding streams dictate that we do not allow for any attrition lest we are forced to face a penalty of restricted funding or loss of accreditation.

So we should go paperless. But we need to do it intelligently and realistically with the knowledge that such things take time and may result in loss and stress before the benefits are fully realized.

That requires a lot more than simply getting over it.