Best Paperless Device: Hybrid / Convertible

The main 1:1 paperless device considerations I addressed in the previous post were:

  1. eBook accessibility
  2. Affordability
  3. All-day battery life
  4. Document creation
  5. Multimedia (photo/audio/video) production
  6. Access all websites
  7. Handwriting / drawing capability (notes, artwork)
  8. Compatibility with peripheral devices

The needs of my classroom — a self-contained, multiple-subject, 6th grade classroom — are varied and run the gamut from reading, writing, and research to science labs, art projects, and video production.  I need a device that can be used for typed documents and standard “computer” purposes, can access every online educational resource available to us (including Flash or Java ones), but in going paperless I also need one that allows for writing, drawing, art, and multimedia production. In other words, I need a device that can do it all. I want my students to be able to have their cake and eat it, too.

This is where hybrid or convertible devices shine. With touch screens, accelerometers, built-in cameras — and sometimes active digitizer pens, as well — these devices allow you to get any of the benefits of a tablet, but they also feature full-fledged operating systems that allow for the unrestricted website access, productivity software, and keyboarding capabilities of a laptop or desktop computer.

But even in the subcategory of hybrids/convertibles, there are a lot of different options: some are touch-screen ultrabooks with larger screens and full-powered processors; others are netbooks (“netvertibles”), with smaller screens and less powerful processors, but much better battery life; while others primarily take a tablet format, with long battery life and built-in cameras, but keyboards must be added or attached separately.  There are even different operating systems available on these devices, but the vast majority are running Windows 8.

After researching and trying out several devices, the one I chose to best fit the needs of my classroom was the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2:


  • Very slim, lightweight, and portable
  • Rugged, rubberized casing with strong screen (Dragontrail glass)
  • Durable, capable, natural-feeling keyboard (sold separately)
  • Decent front and rear cameras (2 megapixel and 8 megapixel)
  • Capacitive touch + active digitizer for accurate writing/drawing
  • USB, HDMI, SD storage, and SIM card slot
  • Supports the greatest range of peripheral devices (anything that works on Windows via bluetooth or USB)
  • Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
  • 10 hours of battery life (even with non-stop use)


  • Separate keyboard must be used
  • Lenovo’s keyboard is expensive ($100+) — but you can use any bluetooth or USB keyboard
  • Weaker processor and graphics than laptops/ultrabooks

My first inclination was actually not to use a tablet-format device. Because online research and typed document creation are such essential parts of the 6th grade curriculum, I felt it would be preferable to have a device with keyboard attached (while still including touch-screen tablet and writing/drawing capabilities.) There are actually very few options in this configuration; most of the devices that have active digitizer pens are in tablet format.

However, there was one very intriguing option: the CTL 2go PC NL4, which is a device built to spec as an Intel Classmate PC:

This is a “netvertible” (convertible netbook that can also be used as a tablet) that was designed from the start to be used by children and schools. As such, it has lots of classroom-friendly features, including ruggedized casing, spill-resistant keyboard, and installed software apps for IT management, teacher administration, and classroom activities including camera applications and art/drawing software. There’s a lot to like here, and I love the idea of the Intel Classmate PC: a device that “does it all” and specifically addresses the needs of students and teachers in a classroom. Unfortunately, the execution and hardware decisions involved in architecting this device prevent it from being a viable choice for my classroom, due to sub-par built-in camera (less than 1 megapixel resolution) and, especially, insufficient battery life (4.5 hours).

Various other options were contenders, as well — all of which are versatile devices, but each of which has some important drawbacks to consider…

Other Contenders

1) CTL 2Go NL4 – Intel Classmate PC (Win 8)

As mentioned above, the first — and most tempting — device for a 1:1 paperless classroom was the CTL 2go Convertible netbook/tablet PC. Previous generations of this device used a resistive touch screen instead of a capacitive one — this worked well for writing, but not for finger-touch interactions or multi-touch gestures.  Additionally, older versions of Windows (before Windows 8) were rather clunky and not ideal for touch-screen formats. Finally, the older 2go PCs had weak Atom processors which were barely sufficient, and struggled to handle some tasks (including art and drawing apps that used the pen!)

The newest iteration, the NL4, has fixed many of these issues, due to now using a capacitive touch screen (good for fingers) combined with active digitizer (good for writing and drawing), as well as a more powerful processor. Unfortunately, the Celeron processor it now uses has meant a sacrifice of several hours of battery life, for not much of a boost in performance (3.4 Windows Experience score — compare this to 3.2 for the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 which gets 100% longer battery life on a single charge.)


  • Rugged, child-proofed design: built-in handle, durable casing, spill-resistant keyboard.
  • Slightly more powerful processor (Celeron)
  • Camera swivels to be used front- or rear-facing
  • Includes Intel Learning Series Software Suite of educational and management applications
  • Capacitive touch screen plus active digitizer stylus
  • Built-in keyboard
  • Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
  • Lots of input and output ports: audio, USB, ethernet, HDMI, VGA, SD Card


  • Only 4.5 hours of battery life
  • Celeron processor is still not very powerful
  • Low-quality camera

2) SAMSUNG ATIV SMART PC 500T (Windows 8)

The Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T is a very similar device to the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, with many of the same benefits and drawbacks. The pricetag of the Samsung was more attractive — especially when considering the cost of keyboard. However, the build quality of the ThinkPad has received much higher marks and better reviews than the 500T, which has had some reports of various issues and questionable durability.


  • Very slim, lightweight, and portable
  • Less expensive than competitors, and comes with keyboard
  • Decent front and rear cameras (2 megapixel and 8 megapixel)
  • Capacitive touch + active digitizer for accurate writing/drawing
  • Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
  • USB, HDMI, SD card
  • All day battery life


  • Questionable build quality
  • Weaker processor than laptops/ultrabooks
  • Not attached to keyboard

3) Microsoft Surface Pro (Windows 8)

It would have been nice to have a more powerful processor for full-fledged computing capabilities without lag or limitations. One device that would make that possible (while still offering tablet capabilities, keyboard, and active digitizer) is the Microsoft Surface Pro.

The Surface Pro essentially has the exact same hardware as a full-fledged laptop or ultrabook — it features a Core i5 processor, the same chip found in a Macbook or Mac Mini. But it also works as a touch-screen tablet, and has an active digitizer for accurate writing and drawing with pen.

The more powerful processor has also translated into a higher pricetag (though still more affordable than a Macbook, and on par with top-end iPad), and more importantly, low battery life. However, looking into the future, the next generations of Surface (or similar device) may be the ideal classroom solution, because the newest processors (such as Intel Haswell line) will be full-powered chips with much better energy efficiency, resulting in all-day battery life.


  • Powerful Core i5 processor
  • USB, HDMI, SD card, etc.
  • Can serve as laptop, tablet, or drawing/writing tablet
  • Access 100% of websites, including Flash, Java, Silverlight, etc.
  • Run all of the full-fledged productivity Windows software
  • Active digitizer with over 1,000 levels of pressure sensitivity


  • Pricetag
  • Surface “keyboard” is not as good as larger physical/mechanical keyboard (however, any bluetooth or USB keyboard can be used)
  • Insufficient battery life (about 4 hours)

4) Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (android)

The Galaxy Note 10.1 is an Android tablet like many others, but a big difference is that it includes the S-pen active digitizer which opens up opportunities for precise, accurate, and natural writing and drawing, similar to this above devices. In this way, it is similar to the ATIV Smart PC 500T, but running Android instead of Windows.


  • Less expensive than some of the other options listed here
  • USB, HDMI, SD card, etc.
  • Capacitive touch screen plus active digitizer (S-pen) for more accurate writing/drawing
  • Can be used with either bluetooth or plugin keyboards
  • Android OS can be more secure than Windows in many ways
  • OS may be easier to use for students
  • Many more touch-apps than Windows 8 / Metro
  • Long battery life


  • Flash is no longer “supported” on Android, making it harder to install and use (but it can still be done)
  • No Java, Shockwave, or Silverlight websites can be used
  • Processor is not as powerful as Surface Pro or ultrabooks
  • Unable to run Windows apps, or to access any peripheral devices that require Mac or Windows drivers

5) Apple iPad (iOS)

The iPad was one of the first — and also one of the most popular — tablet devices being used in schools. For this reason, and because there are many apps available, it can be a tempting choice for a 1:1 classroom. You could certainly try a paperless classroom with iPads — it will likely work better as a paperless solution than a standard netbook, ultrabook, or Chromebook would, due to lack of any writing/drawing capabilities at all on those devices. However, there are several limitations that make it less than ideal and cause some tasks to be difficult… and others impossible.


  • More educational touch-screen apps than Android or Windows
  • Pretty secure and intuitive OS / interface
  • Has a lot of support resources (like teacher blogs, websites, recommendations, and lesson plans) available on the web
  • Newer models have better processor than Atom (which is on par with A5 chip in iPad 2)
  • Long (all-day) battery life
  • Decent-resolution front and rear cameras


  • Pricetag (although smaller and older models — iPad 2 and Mini — are more reasonably priced)
  • Not as powerful as ultrabooks or Surface
  • Lack of USB port; much more limited choice of peripherals
  • Google Docs/Drive works better on other devices
  • No active digitizer means writing and drawing cannot be done in a precise or natural way — even the best stylus pens lack pressure sensitivity and do not have a fine-tip (some mimic a fine-point by surrounding it with a clear pad that must push/slide around, making for an unnatural experience)
  • Cannot access 20% of websites (even higher percentage for interactive educational sites); Does not support Flash, Java, Shockwave, Silverlight, etc., so cannot access various educational websites, resources, and games (BBC, Scholastic, NatGeo, PBS Kids, Colonial Williamsburg, SumDog, etc.)

8 Hardware Considerations when Choosing a 1:1 Device for Paperless Classrooms

Choosing the best device (or set of devices) to meet all of the needs of a paperless classroom is, perhaps, the most critical piece of “going digital.”  As such, it requires some serious due diligence, homework, and consideration of all of the possibilities — and limitations — of the myriad technology options out there.

The first thing that should happen, like with any scenario of trying to choose the proper tool to solve a problem, is:

  1. Identify the problem(s) that need to be solved. This is also known as a “needs assessment.”
  2. Identify a list of possible tools you could use to meet those needs, and evaluate each possible solution to find the one.

I’m going to present these 2 steps in reverse order, by showing all of the possible options that exist and then whittling them down as we go through the list of needs for a paperless classroom.

Possible Devices / Solutions

The variety of available technologies to use in school has never been greater than today. There are various types of devices that meet different needs: not only desktop computers, but now smartphones, tablets, laptops in a variety of formats (ultrabooks, netbooks, etc.), and even hybrid/convertible devices.

Of each type, there are many manufacturers, form factors, and configurations, but the most important thing is to recognize the types of devices and what they can and cannot accomplish. So, let’s look at the basic overall choices we have:

smartphone A pocket-sized computer with touch-screen and cellular service for phone calls and internet; usually iOS or Android
desktop computer Usually Mac or Windows PC, in a range of options, power, and price
laptop computers (ultrabooks) Generally now called “ultrabooks” but this is more or less a marketing gimmick. They are essentially the newest generation of laptops; they tend to be thinner, lighter-weight, and longer-lasting than older laptops, but “ultrabook” is essentially the same as “laptop”
netbooks Just like ultrabooks (laptops), but are smaller, inexpensive, less powerful, and have longer battery life
Chromebooks Chromebooks actually have the exact same hardware as ultrabooks or (more often) netbooks, but have more limitations due to running ChromeOS
tablets These often run iOS or Android operating systems, though they can also run Windows or other operating systems. They can have important differences, so we should differentiate between them: iPad, Android, or Windows RT tablet
hybrids / convertibles These devices come in a few forms: some work primarily as tablets that can also attach to a keyboard and be used as an ultrabook/netbook, while others are primarily ultrabooks that have additional tablet features (such as capacitive touch screen.) Most of these hybrid / convertible devices run Windows 8

Assessing the Needs of a 1:1 Paperless Classroom

Despite the fact that I just went ahead and listed the variety of possible devices you could use for 1:1 computing in your classroom, it is not a good idea to choose a device first and then figure out how you are going to use it.  What sense would that make?

plumbing tools?

All right, I’m ready to fix that toilet!

You wouldn’t go to Home Depot and say “Oooh, that’s a shiny, expensive chainsaw right there… I think I’ll buy it! I don’t have any trees or anything I need to cut, but I’m sure I can find some way to make use of this thing!”

Of course not; it would be a waste of money, and if you were trying to build a deck, you would be better served by a hammer or electric screwdriver or table saw, or all of the above. On the other hand, would you buy these tools if you were trying to repair your toilet?

Technology is a tool, and when we select a tool, we start by knowing a problem that we want to solve, and then we look for a tool that will provide a good solution to that problem (and when such a tool doesn’t exist, we tend to invent one…) So let’s look at what needs we have for a 1:1 classroom — and, in particular, for a paperless environment — and use that to whittle down the options listed above:

1) eBooks

One of the biggest buzzwords and most-touted features of 1:1 technology in classrooms has been the ability to use eBooks. Personally, I don’t think eBooks should be the main focus; to look at new technology and simply think of how it can give us a digital version of the older technology is limiting. “Paperless” does not just mean “eBooks”, because reading is not the only thing students do in a classroom. However, eBooks are one important piece of the paperless puzzle, and they do provide many benefits over printed texts: built-in reference and organization tools; multimedia video, audio, and animation supports; even quizzes and checks for understanding. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that they may be more affordable, require no physical space, and are easier to keep up-to-date.  Having said all of that, the good news is this: eBooks will work on any and all of the above devices! You don’t need a special brand name or type of device to use digital texts. Programs like Amazon’s Kindle Reader, B&N’s Nook App, Follett Shelf, and Scholastic Storia provide plenty of options for eBooks and digital texts, and can be used on Mac, Windows, Android, or iOS.  [Although tablets may give a slight advantage here because the touch-screen and portrait-mode orientation can make for a more natural transition from printed books to a digital one, due to the reading habits we have and what we are used to.]

2) Affordability

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, one great benefit of a paperless classroom is that it can actually save you money (or, at the very least, pay for itself) in the savings you reap due to not purchasing textbooks, Xerox machines, paper, pens, pencils, paints, art supplies, etc.  However, this is only true if a cost-effective device is selected.

Keep in mind, technology devices do not last forever; regardless of type or brand name, laptops and mobile devices last only about 4 years before they should be replaced either because they have worn out* or simply grown obsolete. So the cost per device always should be an important consideration. It’s difficult to state an exact price point, because it may depend on individual circumstances and needs at your school. Generally speaking you can find a device that does everything you need in a classroom for $600 or less (unless you need a powerful, specialized computer, such as for HD video editing, professional music production, or creating 3D graphics and animation), so that seems like a reasonable cap, although spending less would be even better.

With strained budgets, programs being cut, teachers losing jobs or gaining furlough days, and class sizes growing, it is imperative that we be as frugal as possible. Staying under $600 would eliminate the most powerful ultrabooks and computers from our list, but also culls other expensive devices: iMacs ($1000+), Macbooks ($1000+), Surface Pro ($900), high-end iPads ($700 for iPad Retina 64 gb), Chromebook Pixel ($1300)

3) All-day battery life

Most classrooms at most schools were not designed for modern technology, and do not have the electrical infrastructure and power outlets distributed effectively around the room, enough for each student to plug in an entire class set of devices. Thus if you want to have a true 1:1 paperless classroom, right now the only real solution for many teachers is to obtain a class set of portable, battery-powered devices that can make it through the entire school day (6.5+ hrs) without being plugged in.

This really narrows the options: desktop computers are out of the question, as well as most ultrabooks, which have processors that use more power and end up providing only about 4-5 hours of battery life. Currently**, this really narrows our choices down to smartphones, tablets, netbooks, convertibles/hybrids, and perhaps a select few Chromebooks.  If you happen to be in a modernized classroom (or perhaps a lab) with plenty of power outlets, then lucky you! You may very well opt for a more powerful device than the ones here (those devices also tend to be more expensive… but not always. Touch-screen ultrabooks can be had for under $500)

4) Document creation

Document creation is important in school. It always has been, and it always will be. You can see evidence of this all the way back to the days of ancient Greece. Despite the new advances in technology that allows for media literacy and production, there are some things that visuals, audio, and video just can’t convey.

There will always be a place for written words because, unlike concrete images/movies, words have the power to be symbols of vague, ambiguous, complex, or connotative ideas. This was all taken into consideration and is why, despite adding elements of media literacy, the Common Core standards still have an enormous focus on writing.

This means any 1:1 device will want to have decent document creation software students can access. For a long time, the standard has been Microsoft Office… you can also download and install a free version of MS Office tools called OpenOffice. Many schools are now opting for cloud computing to do this, using Google Docs/Drive. This can be a great solution, but requires the school to have significant internet bandwidth; it is also more limited on iPads.

They have also placed an emphasis on using technology to do that writing. Students are expected to create typed documents using keyboarding skills… starting in 3rd grade! The implication of this is obvious: keyboarding is an important skill to have, and being able to create typed documents is essential in a classroom.

Having a virtual, touch-screen keyboard does not replace the need for a physical keyboard; studies by Google and Opinion Matters have shown that using touch-screen keyboards both slows down the text input and is the #1 cause of frustration for tablet users when trying to type longer documents (500 words or more).  The implication is clear: all students (other than those in primary grades, K-2) need access to a physical / mechanical keyboard. 

The best keyboards will be those for desktops, laptops, ultrabooks, and some convertibles. Tablets also can benefit from separate keyboards (wireless bluetooth ones or, preferably, USB-connected ones); however, this does add an additional expense and also makes management more difficult as there are 2 devices to manage per student, whereas netbooks, ultrabooks, and convertibles have the keyboard attached.

5) Multimedia production

Typed documents are not the be-all and end-all of student production. Students can demonstrate knowledge, help other students, and make genuine contributions to society via authentic products such as artwork, websites, audio recordings (podcasts etc.), animations, and videos. This ability to create relevant, useful products and be able to publish and easily share them with the world did not exist 20 years ago, but now it is an essential 21st century skill for being real-world ready in our increasingly global, competitive, and collaborative environment.

Most computing devices will allow us to create multimedia products, but some may be more difficult and require additional peripheral devices like handheld cameras or microphones. This also complicates the issue of device management, so ideally a 1:1 solution would be one that includes a decent built-in camera that can be used not only for web conferencing (which is what front-facing cameras on laptops are used for), but also for digital photography and videography. In this regard, tablets have the advantage.

Netbooks and ultrabooks tend to require additional cameras to be purchased, and Chromebooks are even more limited, because the vast majority of Chromebook-accessible media production apps specify in their Terms of Service that they can’t be used by students under 13 years old; in fact, I haven’t been able to find a single decent video editing app that is allowed to be used by elementary-school students on Chromebooks. Chromebooks also require transferring very large video and photo files through the web to work “in the cloud”, which requires large amounts of bandwidth.

6) Access to a variety of online websites, resources, tutorials, simulations, and games

While the above devices — phones, desktops, laptops, tablets, and hybrids — all have Internet and Web access, they are not all created equal in this department. Full-fledged operating systems like Windows and OS X (Mac) can access far more websites than ChromeOS, iOS, or Android can.Of course, we want our students to have access to as much of the wealth of information and knowledge on the World Wide Web as possible. This includes not only standard text-and-image websites for research, but also streaming media like YouTube, Discovery Education, and Khan Academy, as well as various practice games, interactive simulations and virtual labs, and even cloud-based tools. Not all of these can be accessed on all devices.Mac and Windows desktops and laptops are capable of installing and running a variety of common (often standard) plugins that have been used in website creation over the past 20 years to enable things like animation, audio, video, games, simulations, and interactivity that were not possible with HTML, CSS, javascript, and other standard web browser technologies.

The tools that have been used to enable these advanced features include technologies like Shockwave, Java, Flash, and Silverlight. Of these technologies, Flash has been prolific: in some countries, Flash is required for 1/3 of all websites. Currently, the percentage of sites using Flash is slowly declining because the newest version of web browser languages (HTML5) has incorporated many of the same multimedia features that were not previously possible. However, Flash is still required for about 17% of all websites (Flash was used in 25% of websites about 5 years ago, so the percentage is declining… slowly. There are currently 1,000+ job postings on listing “Adobe Flash” as a required skill to get the job, so I guess it’s not dead yet…)  

The percentage of educational websites that require Flash is much, much higher. It is often required for the games, simulations, and other engaging educational activities on thousands of sites, like:

Although online sites and services will start to be developed using HTML5 and other device-independent technologies, it will take a long time to get access to as many good resources as we can currently find (most of them free of charge) thanks to more than 20 years of development.  [This will also be slow to change because Flash currently works on about 90% of all devices; most devices are Windows or Mac computers. Only about 10% of devices are currently Android or iOS devices. Source:]

This presents a major limitation for certain devices, but especially iPads. Chromebooks can access Flash websites, but not Java, Silverlight, or Shockwave; most Android tablets are capable of running Flash, but it is no longer easy to install since it has been removed from the Play store. (Click here if you’d like to learn how Flash can still be installed and used on Android tablets.)

There are “cloud browsing” apps for iOS, and these allow you to access Flash websites, but these are not good solutions for schools because the way they work is they actually connect to a server that provides a non-stop video feed — this will tend to be laggy and low-quality, in addition to causing Internet bandwidth problems:

7) Handwriting and drawing capabilities

The main thing holding classrooms back from going truly paperless is the simple fact that you can’t solve all of the classroom needs via touch-screen, keyboard, and cameras;

sometimes good old-fashioned handwriting, sketching, and note-taking are essential activities.  What this has led to is a paradigm in which schools and teachers are incorporating educational technology, but merely using it to supplement the existing books and (especially) piles upon piles of lined notebook paper and printed worksheets.  This is not a great solution, both from a monetary standpoint and an environmentally-conscientious one: These classrooms are actually creating an even bigger carbon footprint by using both paper materials and technology! Why supplement those materials when you can entirely supplant them?

Of course, the reason is because most devices don’t truly allow you to effectively use it as you would a piece of paper.  Some people are trying to make capacitive touch-screens (like iPads) work for this purpose, but it is not very effective because:

  1. The type of stylus pen you would use with this type of screen has to have a broad, rubbery tip — you cannot get a fine pinpoint tip like you would with a pen or pencil; this makes handwriting clumsy and unwieldy. It is the equivalent of trying to write with a rounded, unsharpened crayon.  While that may be okay for primary students, it becomes a problem as we need to write larger amounts, more quickly, and fit more words into a small space.
  2. In addition to lacking precision, capacitive stylus pens for iPads (as well as most, but not all, Android tablets) also do not have pressure sensitivity. This may not be required for many tasks, but it greatly benefits the natural, intuitive feel of “going digital” with various art media, such as using pressure sensitivity to control pencil darkness, airbrush/ink flow, and texturing effects.
  3. iPads and similar devices do not have a way of detecting when you are using a stylus; one problem that can arise is that your hand or arm touching the screen can count as “drawing”;  you can’t naturally rest your hand and write or draw like you would do with paper.***

All of these problems are solved by using a device with an active digitizer. An active digitizer is a type of stylus system in which a special layer under the screen detects the pen.

  • The active digitizer stylus has a fine tip like a pen or pencil, but never needs to be sharpened.
  • It can be used with pinpoint accuracy, and is usually pressure sensitive, up to hundreds or even over 1,000 levels of pressure sensitivity.
  • It can even have an “eraser” button on the back that is used just like a pencil eraser.
  • It is detected when it hovers above the screen; this, in addition to a clickable button on the pen, allows it to serve the same functions a mouse would serve, and opens up possibilities for efficient shortcuts and menus in the applications.

This technology is not new — in fact, here’s a video of the Toshiba Portege Tablet PC you could get with these active digitizer pens about 10 years ago (many years before iPad or even iPhone):

Some people might wonder: Why do we need handwriting and drawing at all, if we have more advanced tools that we can use to communicate, such as typed text, audio, and video?  The fact of the matter is that being able to manipulate handheld writing and drawing utensils allows us to very quickly jot notes, combine thoughts and ideas with images, and to create and label diagrams. You could do some of these things with a mouse and keyboard, and the final product may even look more polished; but it is a longer, slower process.

Examples of when handwriting and drawing prove invaluable are: observation journals,  science logs, and notebooks, where sketches and notes must be quickly recorded, possibly with drawings, diagrams, and labels to accompany notes. There are also certain tasks which are greatly enhanced by precise stylus control — including creating artwork, graphic design, and photo manipulation. Finally, using this system also allows for an easy transition to digital format, because teachers can use or reuse existing materials — they can simply download PDFs (many curricula provide these online), or scan their existing sheets and materials as a digital, virtual copy which can then be written on directly in the computer.

8) Peripheral devices

You may need to access a variety of other devices that could improve learning in your classroom. For this purpose, not all devices have the same capability. The best bet is to have a device with USB ports (the more, the merrier); these allow a variety of existing tools to be plugged in, including music instruments (like keyboards), professional-level cameras (such as Digital SLRs), or scientific instruments like digital microscopes:

Desktops and ultrabooks are going to be best for this, although Android and Windows tablets almost always have at least one USB port. iPads do not have a USB port; they can work with some peripheral devices, if those devices have been designed specifically for iPad, but that selection of peripheral devices is much more limited. Chromebooks have USB ports, but devices that require Mac or Windows to install software will not work.


As you can see, there are many considerations to weigh when choosing a 1:1 device, and it gets even trickier if you are trying to go truly paperless in your classroom. There is no single device that is the best solution for all of these needs — each has its strengths and weaknesses. Some classroom tasks (such as ebooks and digital photo/video work) are better served by tablet format, while other tasks (such as document creation, web browsing, and using peripherals) are a better experience on laptops.  A classroom is often a complex place, with many different types of tasks and purposes to fulfill — this is especially true of multi-subject classes, such as in elementary grades — and we want to ensure that we choose a device that can meet all of our needs.  This really limits the selection significantly.

In the next post, I will explain about which device I chose, why, and some other alternatives I considered.

* I own a 15-year-old IBM ThinkPad laptop that is still functional, but not in a practical sense (battery no longer holds a charge, and monitor screen has given out); I also have an 8-year-old Toshiba Portege which I still use, but it would not serve me well as a primary device.

** New processors are coming out very soon that are more energy-efficient versions of the current powerful processors, such as Intel’s Haswell chips. In the near future, we may just see devices that provide full-fledged computing power and all-day battery life, so if you can wait to decide on a device, it may be wise to hold off until summer of 2014.

*** Some apps do have “hand detection” but really all this does is prevent second or third touches from affecting things once you have already started writing or drawing with the stylus. Once you lift the stylus, or if your hand touches the screen before the pen does, it becomes a problem.

Why Paperless?

I will try to make this post as succinct as possible, starting with this statement:

We need to go paperless.

That may be a controversial statement, but I fail to see why it would be.  The only valid argument against going paperless is the one presented here:

The fact of the matter is that paper was invented over 2000 years ago, and by this time it is obsolete.  Paper should have already gone the way of the abacus. Let me explain why:

1) Paperless makes a classroom more productive. Computers can improve both the efficacy and the efficiency of communication, collaboration, and productivity in many ways.  If technology didn’t do this, we simply wouldn’t use it.  Here are some of the various ways modern computer technology — especially that which allows for paperless work — provides a benefit over old-fashioned traditional methods in school:

  • Parent communication can be expedited and made much easier and more timely through electronic communications. Posting information on websites allows parents to stay up to date anytime, anywhere, without asking the teacher for additional info (and can also be translated to other languages automatically); using email allows teachers to send information to many people at once, to communicate instantaneously and save postage costs, and to avoid playing phone-tag
  • Automated reports about grades, attendance, and/or behavior can provide timely information to both students and parents, without requiring any extra effort from the teacher. This timely formative data can quickly help guide students back on track.
  • Online polling, quizzing, and assessments allows the both the teacher and the students to get instant data and feedback, while improving accuracy (for example, students no longer can be influenced by peers raising their hands or holding up other responses) and saving time due to automated grading, organization, and representation of the data.
  • Storing and organizing lessons and student work becomes much easier. In physical format, paper is very limiting; if the teacher wants to retain records of student work, this means either the student/parent cannot have the work returned to them, or the teacher must make copies of it — and then file those away, and filing cabinets and classrooms run out of space. Using digital storage allows for easily categorizing, tagging, logging, and sharing work. Teachers can keep enormous amounts of lessons, resources, and exemplary student work — even amassing it from year to year — without running out of space or running into problems with relocating it in the future (as long as a good organization system is used — I will give practical tips for this in a future post.)  Student work can be accessible by teacher, student, parent, or even made available as an example for the whole world online — with minimal time and effort.
  • Students learn the 21st century skills required to be employable in today’s global economy.

2) Paperless is good for the environment. This is a controversial statement, but one I am going to stand by. One argument against going digital goes something like this: Computers are worse for the environment than using paper is, because they contain various heavy metals and toxic substances and the computers get discarded and replaced every few years, with limited options for recycling, leading to serious issues of waste.

This is a valid argument. However, the problems with this  are:

  • Using paper is not environmentally-friendly, either. Nearly 4 billion trees are cut down for paper every year, representing about 35 percent of all harvested trees. As we already know, trees not only contribute to wildlife habitats and ecosystems, but also help to create oxygen and regulate CO2.  Even if all of these trees came from tree farms, their removal impacts the environment, and replacing them at the rate they are being used does not seem sustainable.Even more concerning, however, is what happens to the paper after it is used. The options are limited — we can reuse it as much as possible (for example, I have always instructed my students to completely fill each side of their paper, and to use both sides — front and back. Then I also save used papers for any small scraps that can be used as scratch paper for things like math work), but the fact remains that the general destination of used paper is either a garbage dump/landfill or, preferably, a recycling center.  Unfortunately, people absolve themselves of environmental conscience by thinking recycling solves the problem. It doesn’t. Especiallin the case of paper.  Recycling may help save trees, as the basic building blocks of paper (the fibers) can be reused; however, there is a massive of amount of water, heat, and similar environmentally-unfriendly resources that must be used in the recycling process. In fact, recycling paper is less eco-friendly than recycling aluminum cans or plastic.  The carbon footprint for creating one ton of virgin (new) paper is 800 kg; by comparison, the carbon footprint of recycling one ton of paper is better, but still 428 kg! The moral of the story is: recycling helps, but it doesn’t solve the problem, and it is not a perfectly green solution.  There is a reason why the sequence of advice is: reduce, reuse, recycle.  Reducing usage is better for the environment than anything else; reusing is better than recycling, and recycling is really just a last resort. What better way to reduce paper usage than to eliminate it entirely?The 6th grade classrooms in my school used over 1000 sheets of paper — just in the first week of school! At this rate of usage, the carbon footprint is 3.6 tons of CO2 per year. And that’s if we only use 100% recycled paper!
  • Computers are not going away.  They improve efficiency and efficacy of our tasks so much that they are here to stay. Thus, we really only have two options:
  1. Purchase computer technology that is insufficient to go paperless, and as a result we will be contributing to the above ecological problems in addition to the ecological problems caused by creating, printing, and recycling paper.
  2. Purchase proper technology and use methods that allow us to use only the technology, and eliminate the use of paper (and all of the wastes associated with it)

Which one is worse for the environment?  Clearly, keeping all of the environmentally-harmful factors of paper plus adding the impacts of computer technology is a much worse solution than going paperless.  The only alternative would be avoiding electronic technologies altogether in our schools — in which case we are still damaging our environment due to the carbon footprints of paper production and recycling. Not to mention the fact that our students would be unemployable when they graduate.

Thus, while it’s not a completely green solution, going paperless in our classrooms is one of the best things we can do for the environment.

3) Paperless is good for the budget.  Now, a lot of people make this argument when they are angling to obtain various technologies (example: “Buying iPads is cost effective because they will allow us to go paperless!”) but then, in reality, they don’t truly go paperless — they still end up using paper for various tasks.  An example of this is the classroom that adopts iPads or laptops but then students still use paper pads, worksheets, and pencils every day to do most of their work. If you are simply going to add computer technology in addition to old-fashioned paper methods, then this will, of course, end up costing more — not less — than paper alone. [I will further address hardware limitations and requirements in another post.]

Furthermore, going digital does not automatically guarantee that it is cost-effective. Like anything else, you have to take into account the actual costs.  If you overspend on computer devices, then you are not going to get a good ROI (return on investment).

However, if done correctly, going paperless can truly end up being cost effective.  The fact of the matter is that we (schools, and society in general) are going to be using computer technology;  so if they are going to be purchased either way, why not get a device that will allow you to save money in other ways? Some people argue iPads do this because they allow for ebooks — and that also applies to pretty much any other device (Android tablets, netbook and ultrabook laptops, etc.)  The two problems with this logic are:

  1. E-books have not been nearly as cost-effective as they could be; in many cases, they cost the same (or nearly as much) as a printed version.  Hopefully this will start to change, and ebooks will represent a cost savings like they should have all along.
  2. Using ebooks does not truly eliminate the use of paper; far more paper is used in classrooms for student work and worksheets than what is used for printing books.  A printed textbook may require 300-400 pages, but will be reused for years. On the other hand, students write, draw, and work on lined paper and worksheets every day.

So, if you were to go truly paperless, you would not only save costs on textbooks, but also on the reams and reams of paper that are used for writing and drawing exercises.

Some people argue that the solution is to type everything; while I agree that keyboarding is absolutely critical — more important than handwriting these days — it is not the be-all and end -all. Computer keyboards do not allow quick and easy writing of various math formulas and equations or quick diagrams and sketches.

How much money would be saved? It really depends on how economical your paper usage is. Loose-leaf lined paper costs less than 1 cent per sheet, but most schools use many printed/photocopied worksheets with their students, and the cost of this printing/photocopying can range from 2 cents for black-and-white copies on high-end industrial machines all the way up to 20 cents per sheet for color copies on less efficient machines.  And this doesn’t include the thousands of dollars to purchase the machine and maintain it.

At my elementary school, the average student goes through 5-10 sheets of paper per day, for a total usage of close to 1000-2000 sheets per student per year. At a cost of 2-10 cents per sheet for even the most economical of printers/copiers, this means the annual cost of paper per student is $20-$200.  Every year. You can also add to this the cost of copying machine purchase and maintenance, as well as the cost of printed textbooks.  Over the course of 4 years (the average functional lifespan of current computer technology), this adds up to a cost of anywhere between $80 and $800 per student.

At that cost, going paperless can actually pay for itself (and then some).

Trapped in Paper

What is Paperless Mojo?

pa·per·less adjective \ˈpā-pər-ləs\

: using computers instead of paper to record or exchange information

mo·jo noun \ˈmō-(ˌ)jō\

: a power that may seem magical and that allows someone to be very effective, successful, etc.

Over the past several years (decades, really), computers and digital technology have grown by leaps and bounds, infiltrating nearly every aspect of everyday life. Personal (and, now, mobile) computing has allowed us to instantaneously send written correspondences; to share and collaborate from locations around the world; to sign up for a bank account, deposit paychecks into it, use that money to buy what we need, and to sell, trade, or barter when we no longer have a need for that item… all without leaving the living room. We can store, access, and instantaneously analyze vast amounts of information — amounts that would require vast warehouses if it were still recorded in analog or paper format. In fact, that’s an understatement; if you took the entire Internet and were to print that amount of data on standard-size A4 paper, that stack of paper would reach past the outer limits of our solar system!

And we can access that data from a button on a telephone that we carry in our pockets.



Technology is no longer optional. It is no longer a luxury. It is pervasive.

Unfortunately, many schools have been slow to catch on to this reality. The primary tools of most K-12 teachers are still pencils, printed texts, loose-leaf papers. Many teachers do not have a website. Some teachers still haven’t adopted email! (to give some perspective: the Queen of England sent her first email in 1976, before I was even born.) Meanwhile, the real world outside of the schoolhouse walls rapidly adopted these new technologies and ways of conducting business and of living life. This is a dangerous disconnect, both for the efficiency of schools, and for the preparedness of students as they exit our brick-and-mortar bastions of tradition and enter reality: a digital reality.

Five or six years ago,  Time Magazine ran a story that began with “a dark little joke exchanged by teachers with a dissident streak: Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred year snooze and is of course utterly bewildered by what he sees. Every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when finally he walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. ‘This is a school,’ he declares. ‘We used to have these back in 1906.'”

That joke isn’t funny anymore. And, sadly, not a whole lot has changed in the time since that article was written.

Fortunately, schools are starting to wake up and realize what many of us have been saying for a long time: Technology can improve education. (Note: this doesn’t mean that technology automatically improves education. It is merely a tool, which needs to be used skillfully to obtain results.)

But, despite jumping on-board with iPads and Chromebooks, many schools seem to insist on using technology in limited ways — for Internet research, for example, or for typing up a paper. Maybe for some practice games. Sometimes for e-books. These tools are being used as a side activity, as a supplement to the “old school” pencil-and-paper ways.  But why?

The reality is that, outside of school, I have almost never needed to use paper. Not just today, but for nearly the past 20 years this has been the case.

From the years 1996-2002, I rarely touched a pencil. My alma mater, Wake Forest University, was one of the first schools to wire the entire campus and issue a laptop (IBM ThinkPad) to every incoming student, included in the tuition. Lecture halls were equipped with power outlets, ethernet ports, digital projectors for the professors.  The world wide web was young (only about 4 years old), but it existed, and it was already proving useful. Professors allowed — even encouraged — the laptops in class (yes, the sound of note-taking was “clickety-clack”), and required students to type their work, and to communicate via email. My calendar, my communications, and my work were all done on the computer. And that was in 1996.

Upon graduating I took a job as a website engineer/developer in the booming heyday of the Dot Com era. During that time, I don’t recall ever seeing pen, paper, or pencil employed at work, except occasionally by the graphic designers. Nearly all work and communication was done electronically. This is not to say handwriting and drawing were thrown out the window; every wall in the office was a whiteboard, so we grabbed a dry erase marker if we ever needed to communicate something visually via notes and diagrams.

Throughout college and into the workplace of the real world, I never needed to use a pencil and paper… until 2002, when I became a teacher and was transported decades backward in time.

If it could be done 17 years ago — before the age of tablets, or smartphones (we did test out Palm Pilots…), and in a time when portable devices had only a couple hours of battery life — then why can’t it be done today? Why not make that 21st-century learning the main course instead of a side dish served up next to antiquated, petrified meat-and-potatoes?   The argument, for a long time, has been: because it’s not possible.  That is simply no longer the case.

And that’s where my project — an experiment, if you will — begins this year. This blog is where I will share it with you. It will not be the first attempt (nor the first success) at a paperless classroom, but I do believe the current wave of new technology allows that concept to be achieved better, more easily, and more efficiently than ever before.