Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Four Elements of Paperless Learning



My journey to the paperless classroom started years ago. Even then there was both excitement and criticism around the concept of eliminating paper from our learners' academic experiences. Now that we are in an era where technology is a given, and no longer something special, is "going paperless" still worth discussing? What does "going paperless" really mean, anyway?

Here's my definition:
Paperless Classroom: Students and teachers use all available tools to access resources, record and organize information, communicate among themselves and with the outside world, and create original products as evidence of learning. As with all other resources and materials, paper is only used when the learning process or final product requires paper as a necessary element. Paper does not drive the process.

There are obvious economic reasons for going paperless:

  • Economy of costs: Paper is a significant percentage of every school's budget each year. If teachers and students use less of it, then schools save money.
  • Economy of time: Teachers use big chunks of their prep time standing at copy machines waiting for packets to assemble and appear in the output tray. Distributing and collecting paper worksheets also takes time away from learning during class time. Instant digital distribution and collection eliminates these time sucks.
  • Economy of convenience: It is quicker and easier to find, curate, and send resources to students, parents, and colleagues using paperless means. For instance, it is quicker and easier to send an email home with links to missed readings, videos, and activity instructions than it is to pull together a folder of class work and deliver it to a family.
While these are the reasons some educators have started on the path to going paperless, the truth is that a paperless learning environment can be truly transformational. Even if some teachers make the leap for the three reasons above, they should be moving toward these four game-changing elements of the paperless learning environment:

1. Open Doors to Open Education Resources

About a year ago I wrote an piece for EdSurge and said that Open Education Resources (OER) were one of 4 top trends for the coming school year. OERs are more than a trend. OERs can fundamentally change they way teachers design their students' learning experiences. What's more, they help students understand that they, like their teachers, can feel empowered to find their own high-quality sources of information. OERs include primary sources, documentary videos, audio podcasts, lesson and project plans, hands-on activities, infographics, artwork, and a whole lot more. Why not unlock all of the potential that OERs make possible for your students? Committing to a paperless method can help lead your teachers and learners away from prepackaged curricula and texts. Encourage them toward the instructional design and powerful potential that OERs make possible.

2. Smoother Collaboration

There is more to collaboration than co-writing a Google Doc. So much more.

Ask yourself and your students, "How can technology bring us together and help us connect with the people we want to learn from?"

3. Create More and Varied Final Products

The funny thing about all the tests we take in school, both in K-12 and higher ed, is that they are the only tests we take in our lives. Once gaining my licenses and certifications at the end of my schooling, I have never taken a test since. Instead of measuring learning with a test, why not invite students to create like they will as professionals? Here are a few ideas:


If my students and I can dream up those projects, imagine what your students will do when you give them permission to be creative.

4. Practice and Refine Real World Skills

As you might be thinking already, students are using many real-world skills to create the products listed above. They have to clearly define their questions and goals, research pertinent high-quality information, organize the data, make a plan, problem-solve when things don't go as planned, give and take constructive feedback from their teacher and peers, and then figure out how to best share their final work.

These are skills professionals in all industries at all levels utilize daily. When we give students experiences like these, we are preparing them more thoroughly than any test could.

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A digital worksheet is still a worksheet and going paperless should not happen for economic reasons alone. These four elements can be a guide to help shape your conversations with students and teachers about why paperless should still be top of mind. If your school or classroom is going to go paperless, why not leverage the opportunity and transform the way learning happens?