In the new Time, Michael Scherer breathlessly announces the imminent arrival of the paperless classroom. Yeah, sure. And soon my students will arrive to class on their hoverboards and get lunch from the food replicators.
The piece opens with an anecdote of grumpy parents pushing back during an orientation session. The teacher, Matthew Gudenius, says that they don't really care about handwriting. A mother quickly replies, "Yeah, we do." But despite the resistance to a paperless, e-book classroom, Scherer is sure that the paperless classroom is just around the corner.
Last year, President Obama announced a federal effort to get a laptop,
tablet or smartphone into the hands of every student in every school in
the U.S. and to pipe in enough bandwidth to get all 49.8 million
American kids online simultaneously by 2017.
True enough. The federal government could also announce a federal effort to have every citizen driving a Lexus. But since "federal effort" doesn't mean "make money grow on trees," it doesn't really mean a thing. The saga of computing in the LA school district is a cautionary tale about how every single step in the cyber-conversion process can be botched-- and botched very expensively.
The transition to an e-classroom is hugely expensive, not only because of the initial investment, but because of the repeated upkeep. Promoters like to say that e-textbooks are great because they can be updated every year without the school's spending a cent; what they neglect to say is that the devices on which e-texts are viewed have a dependable life of only a few years. I have textbook sets in my cupboard that are twenty years old and still perfectly usable. Nobody is working on twenty year old computers.
The rapid and expensive obsolescence of computer tech is a huge issue for schools, but it makes schools hugely attractive to tech companies. Where else but in education can a vendor find a single customer who will buy thousands or tens of thousands of units, to be handed over to rough users who are sure to hasten the tech's inevitable demise? We're not just talking millions of dollars-- we're talking millions and millions of dollars every year, year after year after year.
Gudenius started as a computer lab instructor, but he saw computers as a tool, not a subject. Now he estimates that he saves 46,800 sheets of paper a year, "or about four trees." That's laudable, maybe, though if you want to save trees, stop eating fast food hamburgers. The trees that go into paper generally come from managed tree farms; the actual processing is more concerning than the trees themselves. I realize that's a picky side note, but as an English teacher, I long ago tired of the Paper Kills Trees discussion.
There is research that suggests serious pitfalls in education-by-screen, including some that suggests book reading results in greater comprehension. And Scherer does cite the ergonomic concerns-- eyestrain, neck strain, etc. But computers are so cool!
“The problem we have in K-12 is we are not engaging the kids because we
are not using the things they use outside the classroom inside the
classroom,” says Lenny Schad, who is overseeing the purchase of 65,000
devices for Houston-area high school students.
Maybe. But the things my students use outside the classroom are smart phones, and I'm not about to suggest that they can effectively read Huck Finn or write a paper on an iPhone screen. For many of my students, a tablet or laptop screen is almost as quaint as a paper book.
My school went one-to-one several years ago. We put a device in every students' hands, and there has been some interesting learning since then.
First has been the technology itself. We went with what seemed like a good choice at the time-- netbooks. At the moment we are at a crossroads because nobody actually manufactures netbooks any more; we've been limping along on new old stock, but it's time to move on. Again-- expensive, inevitable, speedy obsolescence.
The tech is not reliable. I mean, it's pretty reliable, and I argue that it's unreliable the same way a pencil or a pen is unreliable. But students get frustrated really quickly when tech won't do what they want it to. Maybe this is a good life lesson, but after many years of computers in classrooms, most of my colleagues would still say you're a fool to plan a tech dependent lesson without a Plan B in place.
Second, the tech has limits. We have some e-textbooks in use in the school. Mostly the students seem to hate them. I often assign e-copies of works of literature. It's frankly great-- as a teacher of American literature I could almost do away with the textbook entirely. But the first thing that many, if not most, of my students do when they surf on over to the online copy of the reading is print it out so they can use a paper copy. When they've written something they want to keep forever, they print it out.
E-reading has had ample opportunity to win over entire generations of readers; it's not happening. There's a reason that books have evolved and survived over centuries. They are a tested, tried and true technology, reliable and adaptable. I can interact with paper at almost any time in almost any setting. Just as pencil and paper are not the right solution for every situation, neither is a computer screen.
Finally, the new frontier of privacy. We spend a lot of time trying to teach students to be good digital citizens and to be mindful and careful about what data they give away about themselves. Then in many schools we turn around and plug them into platforms and online ecosystems that strip mine their data as effectively as Facebook. Yes, they readily give that stuff away in their online lives, but that doesn't mean schools should be complicit in hooking students up for data-hoovering. We can plug every aspect of students' lives into the internet. But that doesn't mean we should.
Almost two decades ago, yearbook publishers started offering digital books and digital supplements. If you purchased one of those, all you would need today is a computer that runs Windows 95 with a cd-rom drive and some software from a company that no longer exists. If you bought a paper yearbook, however, all you will need are your fingers and eyeballs.
The obstacles to a paperless classroom remain the same-- expense, utility, safety, and longevity. There are clear and definite benefits to computer tech in schools, but achieving the paperless classroom is not easy, definitely not cheap, and certainly not inevitable.