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.