Why Going Paperless Shouldn't Be Your Goal

Stacks of paper—Why Going Paperless Shouldn't Be Your Goal
Contributed By

Kellie Ady

Director of Instructional Strategy, Schoology

Why Going Paperless Shouldn't Be Your Goal

Posted in Evolving Ed | August 29, 2017

It seems we hear a lot about the “paperless classroom” when exploring integration of technology solutions—whether it’s about hardware, digital curricular resources, learning management systems, etc. And there’s no doubt that there is a ton of waste that happens when we take a look at paper consumption and use in the educational arena (around 40% of all waste in schools is paper). Hence all the blog posts, articles, and tweets that are full of advice about going paperless.

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However, a recent tweet by Alice Keeler (@alicekeeler) during the ISTE Conference brought up something that I’ve been pondering for a while:


I think we need to shift the conversation to how we are intentional about using tools for learning, regardless of their medium. Paper can be pointless, but it can also be purposeful. And guess what? So can technology.


4 Times When Paper Makes Sense

#1 Ensuring Equitable Access 

Yes, we are seeing more and more devices in classrooms and in the hands of students, but we still have a significant digital divide in education. Technology can be very powerful, but if the inclusion of technology means the exclusion of some learners, we need to rethink it.

We have plenty of schools who aren't in 1:1 situations, so being very thoughtful about how we maximize learning with technology will serve us well.

Are you doing an activity that can also be done on paper with little variance in learning impact? Great, go with paper. But if you have something that demands technology, be strategic about leveraging the technology access for that. Device access might be a precious commodity in your situation and that should be taken into account.

#2 Keeping Tasks Simple

Even in 1:1 classrooms, there are times when a technology tool or approach isn’t worth the instructional time it takes to accomplish the same task that could be achieved in another way. This is especially true for teachers who only have so many hours in the day.

I remember working with a teacher who wanted to try using polling software for a simple activity, and when we both looked at what the setup would entail, it just didn’t make sense for what the instructional goal was. When planning how to best impact learners, we must also be cognizant about where our time is best served. There’s nothing wrong with doing what makes the most sense for you and your students, even if it involves paper.

#3 Enabling Learner or User Preference 

Reading habits are something that you’ll hear quite a bit of debate about. Some people just prefer paper or hard copy. Personally, I love my Kindle—and I use it for highlighting and everything else I can do with hard copy.

My husband, however, likes the Kindle only when reading for fun. If he’s diving into something that requires cognitive processing, he much prefers hard copy. He knows himself and knows that he will have a much better learning experience when it isn’t digital.

Brainstorming is another area where the learner should decide what works best. As much as I enjoy digital mind-mapping tools, I still find myself using paper and pen when I really need to sketch out ideas. Ask your students what they prefer. You might be surprised how many would rather not work on a device.

#4 Considering Brain Research

If you need to remember and process information, brain research indicates that taking notes on paper or by hand is more effective than taking notes digitally. A study done by Pam Mueller (Princeton) and Dan Oppenheimer from UCLA found that “taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy ‘mental lifting,’ and these efforts foster comprehension and retention. By contrast, when typing, students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.”

This finding may shift as stylus and touchscreen technologies get closer to mimicking what happens now with paper and the brain, but until those are ubiquitous, it may be more advantageous for learners to take notes by hand for long term storage and retention.  

That being said, having students write things down that don’t require cognitive lifting is ill-advised.  If you save paper for when it is really needed for deeper understanding, students will benefit from the intentional approach.

4 Times When Paperless Makes Sense

#1 Collaborating and Creating

If we look at the 4 Cs identified as 21st Century Skills (Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, and Critical Thinking), using technology obviously impacts the work that students can do, especially with creation and collaboration. I still find the collaborative aspects of Google Docs completely magical, and I’ve been using the GSuite for just over a decade.

While art and music absolutely don’t require technology, it often allows for amazing things to happen that are not possible with paper.

#2 Simply Consuming

If you need to give something to students or colleagues that requires no interaction beyond perusal, printing is pointless. I cringe every time I see a printed agenda that could have been sent out digitally—or a syllabus that’s handed out on paper. 

I know that there are teachers who want to see a parent signature, but I wonder if that could be accomplished in some other way as the information is static. Having a spot (such as an LMS) to host those types of static or consumption-only files makes sense.    

#3 Reducing Cost

Budget dollars are always a consideration, and there can be significant cost-savings by reducing paper usage. In fact, Project Red’s research on financial impact from technology initiatives (specifically 1:1 programs) identified decreased printing and textbook costs as part of their findings.

“When transforming learning through a 1:1 implementation, and operations through a district digital conversion," Project RED researchers explain, "the need for printing should be reduced. This should reduce the expenditures for printers, printing supplies, and copy machines, as well as copy machine and printer maintenance as noted below.”

But this is also the case in non 1:1 environments, if printing is purposeful vs. pointless. In my previous district, our CIO determined that simply by cutting our paper costs in half, we could have had the budget to go 1:1 as early as 2013.

#4 Getting Students College and Career Ready

This is another obvious benefit (like creation & collaboration), but we would be hard pressed to find any career or college experience that doesn't rely upon technology in some capacity. Depending on the field of study, omitting technology from instruction does a huge disservice to our students. But, we still need to be sure we are selecting the correct technology tools for the job.  

I visited a classroom in one district where students were using MS Word to construct blueprints for housing structures. While students were using technology for the task, CAD software would better prepare students for what they will use in the industry.  

The “paperless classroom” conversations have yielded some great suggestions for teachers on using the right tool for instruction; however, as we look more closely at both pedagogy and productivity, the “purposeful classroom” is a stronger fit for the needs of teachers and students. We should avoid pointless printing and embrace purposeful paper.

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