In this time of resolutions, there’s one goal I ask you NOT to adopt:
Perhaps that’s surprising from a tech advocate like me. In fact, I probably said “going paperless” was my own goal at one point. Most of my students’ work is completed on the computer. Nearly all my grading and feedback is done on the computer. You couldn’t pay me to go back to the stacks of paper haunting me from my teacher’s bag.
But let’s be careful here. What is the purpose of “going paperless”? Too often, I hear or read of teachers proclaiming their goal to “be paperless,” but I have to wonder what their purpose is. And if paper is getting an unfair reputation.
This all started a few weeks ago in a fairly-heated Twitter chat about paper. More specifically, about the copy machine and worksheets. Let me be clear: I’m okay with anti-worksheet rhetoric. I’m certainly not a fan of handing out worksheets, grading them, and handing them back the next day (or a few days later.)
However, many people are equating paper with worksheets. If an assignment uses paper, then it must automatically be poor teaching. Even more dangerous, I fear that some teachers may be equating technology with strong teaching. The truth is there are great teachers out there who are technology novices, and there are tech-savvy computer-brained teachers who are poor teachers.
We need to be careful not to vilify paper. First of all, those evil worksheets are just as evil when they’re PDFs on the computer and result in feedback days later, when the student has forgotten all about it. Second, paper still comes with huge benefits:
1. Paper can spark creativity. While staring at a white document on a computer can leave me stumped, I feel much more relaxed with my pen and journal or notebook. It’s low-stakes. I don’t intend on anyone else looking at it–and that helps me release my creative juices. When my college comp students are struggling with writing, I suggest to them the same: grab a pen and paper and write longhand for a while. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for many of them. That’s why I allow students to work on either the computer or on paper during idea-development sessions: I’m meeting the needs of all learners.
2. Writing and doodling can enhance our thinking. Research has shown that typing notes during a lecture results in less retention than writing notes longhand. Add in doodling and visual art, and retention grows. This can be seen in the popularity of sketchnoting.
3. Simplicity. Sometimes technology can be too much of a hindrance. Once I created an analysis assignment where students highlighted the different parts of an argument on a Google Doc. I showed the students how to use the highlighter tool and also how to use an add-on highlighter. After several minutes of this, students started analyzing the argument. Well, they started highlighting it. But then they’d forget to switch a color. Or they couldn’t get the add-on to work. Finally one student stated the obvious: “Can’t we just use regular highlighters?”
Looking back, I wish we would have. At the end of class, what stuck with kids? The frustration of using the digital highlighter, not how to structure an argument.
4. Tactility. Some people simply enjoy working with their hands. In this digital age, the joy of creating with your own hands–a piece of art, a board or card game, a hand-written poem–cannot and should not be overlooked.
Let’s look at the goal of “going paperless.” If you’re considering it, let’s reanalyze what you want.
- Is it to be more efficient in feedback and avoid dragging home papers? Then look into students using phones or iPads to take an image of their hard copy work and submit it online.
- Is it to allow students to be more creative? Great! Show them the infinite number of apps and opportunities for students to create digital work. Even require work to be digital sometimes. But not all the time. Let students have the choice to make a hard-copy product occasionally.
- Is it to integrate more technology into your teaching? Then I really applaud you! And there are hundreds of teachers on Twitter to support you–including me! Take a look at your lessons and find ways that technology could give feedback faster, or provide students more choices, or open your classroom beyond the walls to a global audience. Find a mentor if you don’t know where to start. If you feel overwhelmed, don’t sweat it. Choose one thing. Once you’re comfortable with that, try another. Tech knowledge has this crazy way of building on itself, and you’ll become more creative and innovative with it in a matter of months.
Let me emphasize. I. Love. Technology. You will tear my laptops (yes, I own two) away from my cold, dead hands. I will never, ever give up the quick feedback and personalization that technology provides. Technology is changing education for the better, and technology is what keeps me passionate about my job because it allows me to spend more time with my students and less time doing “paperwork.”
In short, technology has made me a better teacher.
But let’s end the “paper is the devil” argument. Paper isn’t the devil. It’s the choiceless lessons and meaningless assignments that are the devils in education. Instead, resolve to use technology to improve feedback to students, to allow them more creativity, and to make our classrooms more global.