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The fact of the matter is that paper was invented over 2000 years ago, and by this time it is obsolete.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

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