Friday, October 10, 2014

Is the Paperless Classroom Coming?

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.


  1. All of what you say is true. I would add that the biggest problem with "eBooks" is that you don't have any right to ownership of a download. All you are paying for is a user fee to rent a book for an indeterminate amount of time, kind of like checking a book out of the library, but the library doesn't charge you a user fee. User fees have always been the "wet dream" of libertarians to replace libraries with instead of taxpayer money, but it's obvious it's a lousy idea. EBooks simply aren't a substitute for real, tangible objects like books. I don't like the idea of companies pushing for them and forcing us to be renters and never own anything.

  2. This situation will continue indefinitely until ed-tech reaches a consensus on an inexpensive but sufficient platform for kids, dictates to the industry what they are going to buy, and sticks with it for a decade. That we seem no closer to this than we were 10 years ago, and probably further away than when I was a kid (Apple IIe's for everyone!), is a big reason I've lost my enthusiasm for "ed-tech."

    The breakthrough will be when every kid can have a uniform device for literally zero additional dollars per student. It should be possible, but first it would have to at least be the goal, which it manifestly is not right now.

  3. Tom, so true. Equity of access is not the goal. Standardization and control to maximize profit is the goal.

  4. This is Matthew Gudenius, and FYI, there were a few things "out of context" in the article (as is often the case in journalism!) -- namely, the "handwriting" bit; I did, in fact, say that and a mother did respond that way. What is not mentioned is that we were running short on time, and as I was going through the slides -- one of which I had created SPECIFICALLY to talk about handwriting -- I made that comment, sarcastically, to bring attention to the subject.

    In fact, I do believe there is a place for handwritten work... it's why I specifically chose devices that come with active digitizer stylus pens, which are precise, pressure-sensitive pens that can write and draw directly on the screen just like paper (not many devices have this -- for example, they are no available on any device made by Apple)... you can see my video response addressing this fact -- and the fact that we ARE, indeed, entering (or even currently in) a paperless age -- here:

    Would love to be more involved in this discussion, but I can tell you this: I have been teaching for 12 years, and my classroom has never been so productive and so efficient as it is this year, paperless. (This is not to say there are no challenges -- there are, but as you mention, there are also challenges with the OLD technologies. In fact, the challenges and glitches we have to overcome in the paperless classroom are far outweighed by the efficiency we have introduced, and the challenges of old-school classrooms that we no longer have to deal with)

    1. Thanks for checking, Matthew. I'm going to go ahead and wait until some other time to be shocked that Time's writer sacrificed accuracy for a good hook.

      I am glad that there are places that are making this work. I can envision it. I can see the little paperless classroom in my head, and I've been in the front lines in my district to get there. But I just don't see it happening in my career.

  5. Paperless Classroom teacher Matthew Gudenius again... I thought I would check in and provide an update, because we now have some objective/empirical data (rather than just anecdote) to measure how well the students learned in my paperless classroom last year. The short version is: they did rather well on the CAASPP! (California's standardized end-of-year assessment)

    Our paperless 6th grade outperformed every other (non-paperless / more traditional) grade level in the school, and also surpassed the average 6th grade performance for the entire state of California.

    Even though we ditched cursive and read e-textbooks*, only 6% of students scored "standard not met" (versus the 28% who did not meet standard statewide); our math curriculum was 100% online, including digital lessons/textbook and auto-graded, computerized homework. Using these tools, 26% of my students EXCEEDED standard (advanced) and only 15% did not meet standard. Statewide, only 15% exceeded, while 36% did not meet standard.

    And this was not achieved with privileged students. Our school has a high-risk, underprivileged population: 86% free-or-reduced lunch (low SES), 80% Hispanic, 77% EL

    [You can refer to the official CAASPP website for more details: ]

    * Even though all in-class work is paperless, and we use digital textbooks, I do agree with a point made above that the logistics of ebooks is difficult. (a) It is difficult to share or reuse them; (b) they cost nearly the same -- or sometimes even more -- than a printed book. I refuse to spend the same amount of money for something that doesn't have printing or distribution costs, and can't be easily shared and reused. For that reason, we assign printed novels for at-home reading.