Reality > Virtual: 100% Paperless isn’t 100% Digital!

I want to address something and dispel one myth that people seem to have about a paperless classroom:

100% paperless does not mean 100% digital. Let me repeat that: just because you eliminate the wastefulness of using paper in a classroom does not mean you are doing everything in a computer.

Making that assumption means that you assume that currently every single activity you do in a classroom is done on paper. If that is true, I feel bad for you… and especially for your students.

Most classes, thankfully, involve more than just reading books, writing on paper, and filling out worksheets. Which is a good thing, because there aren’t too many jobs out there that are comprised of simply reading books and filling out papers.

No, authentic learning requires more tasks than what you can do on printed page. There is a need for discussions, debates, speeches, skits, science labs and experiments, hands-on learning. This is true whether you are using paper or not. None of those things requires paper.

The fact of the matter is that modern technology can bring us closer to authentic learning than ever before, but even though we can do all of the old paper tasks on a computer now, that doesn’t mean we can do everything on a computer.

The reality is that we live in the real world — not a virtual world — and we have to remember that in our classrooms. As much as modern technology can provide us with wonderful simulations and virtual experiences, they don’t replace the real thing.

Anybody who has visited the Grand Canyon will be able to relate to what I am saying. You can see amazing photographs of the Grand Canyon. We can even visit a 3D representation in Google Earth, seeing the geological formations and enhancing it with immersive 360 degree panoramic photography.

But it doesn’t hold a candle to actually standing there, at the edge of this vast chasm that seems to go on forever, letting you know just how small you are in the universe and just how powerful the forces of nature are. We could look up the Grand Canyon’s weather and climate online and get an idea of how hot and dry it is in the summer, but that’s nothing like hiking down the endless switchbacks through the sparsely vegetated landscape in the hot, dry afternoon, seeing small critters who have adopted to the harsh environment scamper into the shade and shelter of desert brush.

Nothing captures the senses and the imagination like actually seeing and experiencing things in person. It may be tempting to send a kid to a website, or watch a YouTube video showing a science concept or experiment, but I think there’s something in us that can’t break through the suspension of disbelief — deep down, we know things on a screen aren’t reality. If you don’t believe me, test this theory out for yourself — show your students a science experiment on YouTube, and then replicate the same experiment in real life in front of them. I guarantee you will get more oohs and ahs from the real thing. Guaranteed.

So I encourage you to bring the real and the authentic into your classroom as much as possible. This is a big reason I have spent way more money than I should, out of my own pocket, to buy actual cool scientific demonstration objects such as aerogel, the least dense solid on earth, and a surprising metallic element I am going to use in a surprise lesson for my students (Sorry, I can’t give away the secret because my students have probable found this video.)

It’s also why I have been investing in antiquities and artifacts on eBay over the past year. Our 6th grade social studies curriculum is all about ancient civilizations, and sure, you can see pictures of the art and tools of those cultures in our textbook — or, in our case, e-book — but that doesn’t truly show you what it is like in reality. It doesn’t give you a sense of the size of it, the material, the durability or fragility, etcetera. For that reason, I am creating a small Calistoga Antiquities Museum exhibit of artifacts from thousands of years ago, most of them real and authentic, some of them replicas of artifacts that demonstrate important milestones and evolutions in the history of human culture. Students will have an opportunity to investigate and explore these archaeological finds and use authentic processes of research and deduction to understand more about the cultures from which the came. For example, one activity we recently did involved students investigating a mystery artifact — an ancient cylinder seal, but where did it come from and what purpose did it serve? This activity involved visual analysis, measurements and mathematical calculations, and an art simulation in which students actually rolled out an impression using these replicas of real artifacts. All of this was further enhanced and supported by use of technology, documenting the artifact and doing online research to deduce information based on the clues, but even though this project was 100% paperless, it was not 100% digital.

Next week, we will be exploring the mummification process of Ancient Egypt — by actually making a mummy! We will be desiccating Cornish game hens, going through the same process and ritual that Ancient Egyptians used, to get a deeper understanding of both their beliefs and the science behind it. Just like the Mesopotamian cylinder seal activity, we will be using technology to enhance — not replace — the experience. We will learn the mummification process through interactive simulations, and we will document and share the experience with the world through Google Presentations and a Google Sites web portfolio.

We should also recognize that sometimes real and authentic means we should be using modern technology. Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • Models and dioramas. Models are not real. They are a representation of reality, to help give a sense of reality, but they are not reality. As such, if you are having kids build models out of paper, or clay, or popsicle sticks, or sugar cubes, the question is… why? What purpose does that serve? Do you know somebody who builds popsicle stick or sugar-cube models for a living? I don’t. So why are we teaching kids how to do these tasks? What purpose does it serve? Why not have them explore and demonstrate the same knowledge by building 3D CAD models? This saves money and resources, because nothing is needed except a computer, and if the argument is that it’s better to have an actual, physical 3D model well… guess what? People now use 3D printers to achieve that purpose, not popsicle sticks. Not only does this teach students authentic skills valuable for STEM careers, but it also increases the accuracy and precision of the models they create. Last year, my students created a scale model of The Parthenon, based on actual measurements and floorplans, and then printed a 3D model of it on a MakerBot replicator.
  • Manipulatives. When we talk about manipulatives, we’re really talking about another form of model — a concrete visual tool to model abstract ideas. This area is tricky, because research shows there can be some benefit to using manipulatives. For example, a recent study showed that kids using a phyical 3D model for a math problem were able to solve a similar problem both in real 3D form and in virtual form on a tablet, but the opposite is not true — when they only learned the skill virtually in the tablet, that knowledge did not transfer well into doing the task with an actual 3D object. This means there is a time and a place for physical, non-virtual manipulatives. On the other hand, I fail to see how moving some flat 2-dimensional objects — say tangrams or fraction bars — around on a table with your finger works any differently than moving those same flat representations around on a tablet with your finger. So this means a vast amount of resources and time can be saved by using virtual manipulatives.
  • What about speeches and performances? I’m as much of a fan as anybody is for live theater, but the fact remains that you can reach a much larger audience by recording performances, whether that means simply pressing record on a speech and sharing the talk online, or creating a fully-produced movie. Is it better for students to have an audience comprised only of a couple dozen peers, or an audience comprised of the entire world? Which one better represents the reality they will be facing when they graduate into the real world?
  • The same can be said for doing artwork or paper worksheets. What is the end goal? Aren’t these just symbols or simulations themselves? Paper products are not reality… they are used to write down words or print pictures that represent reality. There are some cases where computers may not be the best way to do this. For example, I wanted my students to get a feel for the authentic tools and techniques used by early humans to create cave art, so I gave them charcoal, had them use roughly-textured paper to simulate rock, and had them use blow pens to do hand outlines with blown pigment like the cavemen did. These are tasks that couldn’t have been done with a computer.However, if the end goal is to create a diagram or illustration, couldn’t we have students do that using the technology that modern graphic designers and illustrators use? This is not to say that traditional art media have gone away, but you’d be surprised just how much is now done on computers, even for art forms that used to be done completely on paper (show Dilbert creator Scott Adams video, and Adobe video.) Even traditional media and techniques can be simulated with art software, while saving a lot of time and money in the process and avoiding the headaches of buying, storing, cleaning up, or otherwise managing art supplies. My students recently learned pointillism while making still lifes, and we did it the same way in our tablet’s Fresh Paint app that we would have done it with markers or colored pencils.

So, as you can see, authentic learning can also mean using the real tools people use in modern society to solve problems, and many times that means using the computer. Other times, authentic tasks simply aren’t possible due to the logistics of time, money, or resource constraints. In those scenarios where you simply can’t take a field trip, a virtual field trip is the next best thing. If you don’t have the budget, materials, or time to do an actual science lab, a virtual simulation is the next-best thing.

I would say the priority order of value when doing educational tasks is this:

  1. Real / authentic
  2. Interactive simulations or virtual reality
  3. Multimedia presentations (such as videos)
  4. Static presentations (photos or textbooks)
  5. Nothing at all

Simulations and virtual experiences can be great surrogates when the real thing is too costly or difficult to achieve, but there’s no replacement for the real thing. So I encourage you to bring the real into your classroom and, when you can’t, use modern technology — not boring old paper — to get your students as close to reality as you can get.

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