Letting Go of the Dream of A Paperless Classroom
Say goodbye to over-stuffed binders, long lines at the copy machine, and stacks of papers to grade. When students have one-to-one access to devices like iPads or Chromebooks, paper can become a thing of the past!
Not so fast.
For all of technology’s perks, there is something to be said for hanging on to analog learning activities. When students have the opportunity to learn and create products in the physical space rather than the digital one, it can lead to increases in engagement, comprehension, retention, and equity.
Writing has proven cognitive benefits over typing
It is easy to appreciate the tight conformity of working within a digital document: margins are aligned automatically, text is spaced perfectly from line to line, pages are added spontaneously, and mistakes vanish cleanly with a simple keystroke. Digital products are crisp, clean, and portable.
By contrast, paper can be messy. Students scrunch words into margins and erasure marks can make it difficult to discern a letter here and there. Tangible assignments can be damaged or lost.
That said, the unique characteristics of working on paper – the spatial organization, the tactile feel of wielding a pencil, the ability to hold a handcrafted finished product – provide an experience wholly unlike what students experience with touchscreens, keyboards, and the cloud.
For example, when it comes to taking notes, research has shown that writing by hand instead of typing leads to superior focus, better comprehension, and improved retention. By removing the speed and convenience of typing, students cannot simply race to type every word they see or hear; instead, students must be more selective with how and what they record. There is an added intellectual need to structure thoughts and creations within a physical plane. This extra layer of cognitive engagement increases the overall quality of the learning experience.
Paper promotes equity
Perhaps the most important benefit of paper is that it can be used as a classroom tool that ensures both opportunity and fairness for all students.
While many of today’s schools and classrooms give students unprecedented access to technology, students’ experiences outside of the classroom can vary greatly. There are certainly times where technology can provide amazing learning experiences; in the interest of equity, however, these should be reserved exclusively for class time.
When teachers insist upon students completing technologically-dependent tasks outside of classroom, they are promoting an achievement gap between those with reliable technology access and those without. In contrast, making paper-based resources available to all means that every student can engage with content away from school without worrying about finding a device to use or an internet connection to login to.
Furthermore, studies have shown that even in cases where technological access is comparable, students’ abilities to use technology effectively as a learning tool is often proportional to their socio-economic status. Assigning analog activities mitigates any preexisting disparity between students’ engagement levels with the technology itself, regardless of where the tasks are to be completed.
Break free from the screens
For our students, everything from entertainment to socialization, organization to curricular content can take place on a screen. That said, it doesn’t have to.
Offer students the choice to crack a book instead of searching a database, pen a letter rather than type it, or keep a notebook in place of a Google Doc. If they are anything like my students, you will be surprised by how many start opting for pencils over keyboards.
Your mileage may vary, but for students in many of today’s tech-heavy classrooms, having the option to return to a simpler time where education did not require a lithium ion battery and a district tech department may be a refreshing change.
For those of us in technology infused classrooms, fear not! This does not mean teachers have to abandon technology as a management tool. Students can still participate in digital classroom workflows like Google Classroom or Edmodo by taking pictures of analog assignments and attaching them as submissions.
Stakeholders can still have enjoy cloud-based benefits like submission timestamps, portability, and general transparency without unfairly hamstringing student work choices (just be sure there are analog feedback options in place for students and parents that may require them). At the same time, students can still reap rewards like increased creativity, stimulation, and focus by working with actual writing implements in their hands.
Most importantly, providing students with the choice to complete assignments without relying upon digital tools may be the difference between honest curricular engagement and a student having to make an uncomfortable excuse when either accessing or using technology becomes a barrier to learning.