Paper Less but not Paper Free

For any readers of this blog or for anyone just browsing, its quite obvious I use a lot of technology in my teaching. I use technology to simplify certain aspects of my work, to engage students more, and to reduce paper. Teachers use a lot of paper, and I always feel bad for the earth every time I press print or copy.

This semester, I switched to an entirely paper free method for distributing, submitting, and grading all major and many minor assignments. Nevertheless, I found myself printing out worksheets or asking students to bring printed copies of their work. Despite my move towards a paper free classroom, I found that it is not only impossible to be completely paper free, but it is not desirable either.

With careful planning, any worksheet could be easily converted to a Google Doc and distributed to students so that they can access them in class on their smartphones or tablets. Of course, this could only work in a perfect world. As I have written before, getting students to access a document is a tedious exercise in patience. URLs get mistyped, files can’t be found (because students are looking in the wrong place), QR codes can’t be scanned, batteries die, the connection drops, screens are too small or too cracked, etc. etc. In comparison, a paper worksheet is simply handed out, completed, and discussed. Not dealing with actually giving the document leaves a lot more time for conversation, practice, discussion and feedback. With paper documents, students can easily refer back to documents I have given them in the past. You can’t easily flip back and forth through papers with a smartphone or tablet. Nothing compares to just thumbing through a folder and spotting what you need. I also think there is tactile pleasure it writing on, marking up, and completing a worksheet which an electronic document can’t reproduce.

Even when I offered certain documents online, I also gave a printed counterpart. For example, for my advanced composition course, I gave them a small printed book with a number of articles that we would read throughout the semester. I also offered these through a Google folder. However, each medium (paper, electronic) had a different focus. The Google documents were to be used to highlight specific words or phrases and make comments in order to ask me for clarification or meaning while students were reading articles for homework. Also, if students lost their book, they could access the documents (and then had no excuse if they didn’t read it). Contrary to the Google Doc, the printed book was much more important in class. At the beginning of the semester, I taught students how to interact with text by dividing it into sections, summarizing it, checking vocabulary, making notes, asking questions, making comments, etc. When I saw someone with a book that was highly marked up with their own writing, I would stop and show the class the book as an exemplar of what it means to be a close, interactive reader. Yes, this is all possible on a portable device – if you have the right size screen, a stylus, the right app, the dexterity, and the patience. But, it doesn’t compare to doing it with a minimal amount of effort and a minimal amount of tools.

Of course, there is a time and a place to use technology. I will still have students write papers, access syllabi, and read short additional material on Google Drive. It saves time, paper, and contains no cognitive or educational deficit. However, when it comes to truly learning something, rather than using technology for technology’s sake, its important to consider how much attention students will need to pay to something and the benefits the medium of presentation will bring.

It turns out that paper-based may actually be better for the mind (if not for the earth). According to research (Carr, 2010; Jabr, 2013), reading something on screen instead of paper may negatively effect our experience, attitudes, and most of all, comprehension. It’s the last one I want to talk about. Most research agrees that paper-based reading allows for better comprehension of text. Some research claims there is a large difference, while others claim the difference is small. Nonetheless, there is a difference. Paper-based reading allows for better concentration (including less distraction and multitasking), less physical strain (no bright screens shining in your face), and keeping knowledge in long-term memory (and thus truly knowing it instead of just remembering it). So, if paper-based textual activities give students advantages, whether small or large, then this seems to be the way to go.

These facts make me wonder about the push to move to digital textbooks in primary, secondary, and university classrooms. How will the knowledge these students learn measure up to those who still use paper textbooks? The added interactivity that digital textbooks offer is great. However, does it simply promote our lack of ability to simply concentrate on a single text? Do they allows us to skim and scan instead of deeply read something? Will we be less likely to revisit and reread prior pages because it isn’t as simple as flipping pages in a book? Will any of the research change once a new generation of learners – one that has no preference for the physicality of reading because they always had ebooks and digital textbooks – come of age? Or are we taking risks with their education by riding the technology bandwagon?