Notes on Paperless Teaching

Patrick Burns
Thanks for all the insightful comments and positive feedback on my talk at Tuesday’s meeting, Eliminating the Handout: Paperless Teaching and the Less-Paper Reality. One things that came through is that we’re in a transitional period and eliminating the handout probably isn’t entirely practical yet. But five years from now—perhaps sooner!—the volume of paper that many of us still deal with on a regular basis will seem extremely old-fashioned. As we embrace this transition, here are a few things worth keeping in mind:

Will having a paperless classroom make your life more difficult?
Paper is a tool and often a very useful one. While I might cringe a bit if an instructor regularly passed out stapled, 30-page, one-sided readings, the occasional handout is not going to hurt anyone. For me, it was a matter of making my teaching style fit better with the rest of my workflow and that meant avoiding paper wherever possible. It also meant that I had many other parts of a rock-solid paperless system already in place. Accordingly, wholesale change might not be practical when you have all of your other teaching responsibilities to take care of. For now, perhaps it would be best to simply become more conscious of your paper needs by asking yourself before heading over to the copier: why do my students need this and why do they need a paper copy?

Are you ready to make your classroom computer friendly?
Based on several conversations I’ve had recently, laptops and tablets are for the most part still an unwelcome guest in class. The main reason given is that they are distracting. It is hard to argue that a student who spends class time on Facebook, or texting, or playing games, or [fill-in-the-blank] is not going to be distracted, or worse, distract other students. That said, I have found that making the laptop or tablet a focal point for in-class work seems to reduce these temptations. (I’m not delusional—I said reduce, not eliminate.) Of course, if the technology makes you uncomfortable, the benefits of a paperless classroom are never going to outweigh the negative impact on your teaching style. Paperless teaching is not a goal in itself, but a strategy for making the best use of your time, energy and resources as a teacher. Make no concessions that do not serve the main goal.

Are your students ready for a computer-friendly classroom?
Of course they are, or so I thought heading into this semester. This one surprised me. I can’t imagine doing seriously work without my laptop and I assumed my students felt the same way. As it turns out, they are in a transitional period too. We are starting to see a handful of students in each class fully committed to taking notes on their laptops and reading articles on their tables, but there many more who instinctively reach for pen and paper. It appears that many of them are open to computer-centric study habits, but for whatever reason—perhaps the no-device policies of other instructors or anxiety about experimenting with a new workflow mid-semester—are slow to adopt them. I have no doubt that this will change and perhaps change quickly. In the meantime, be aware that despite your best efforts at keeping paper to a minimum, you may need to deal with some resistance.

Are you comfortable with online assessment?
With my intro and intermediate language classes, quizzes are the biggest paper burden and finding some other way for regular assessment and feedback is very appealing. I’ll be honest though—I’m not there yet on this one. Still I am willing to experiment. This semester, I’ve begun to administer quizzes through Blackboard. It is too early to report the results of this experiment, but I can say that so far I’ve been happy with two things specifically: 1. quizzes no longer take up valuable class time and 2. I no longer have to manage the non-stop administer-collect-grade-return cycle. I will jettison this experiment in a second if I think that my students are learning less Latin. Again, too early to tell. Look for a future post about what I discover.

I aspire to a paperless lifestyle outside of the classroom. Moreover, I’m at the point where my laptop and my phone are with me at all times. That’s where I do my much of my reading and where I jot down all of my notes. It would feel disingenuous to run my classroom with different priorities. My experiments are going well on the whole and I’m dealing with setbacks in turn. I think it is important for all of us to maintain an open discussion of successes and failures as we adopt the tools and strategies of digital pedagogy. Keep me posted on your own paperless progress in the comments.

—Patrick J. Burns