Paper cuts

Paper is a wonderful thing. We have enjoyed it in its various forms for centuries, and its history can be traced back to the papyrus of ancient Egypt. When Johannes Gutenburg came along with his wonderful 13th century invention, society was gifted mass produced text based communication, and suddenly, everyone needed to learn to read. Printed text quickly became the first medium of mass-communication. Paper and printing have certainly contributed a great deal to the world of education and learning. Now, living in 2010, time has moved on, but I'm left wondering if some people's minds aren't still mouldering back in the last century. I enter my office space this morning, and I am greeted with a mountain of assignments, half a tree's worth of wood, pulped down to make paper that contains the printed thoughts of my students. They are all bound neatly, labelled, and sit there waiting my attention. I am now expected to plough through this pile of paper in my office (the assignments are too numerous and too heavy for me to trog home with me) and eventually come down on some judgement as to the individual worth of each assignment. I have to write on the assignments with a pencil or pen to try to give feedback to each student.

Last year, I delivered a module for some of my first year teacher students, in which not a single sheet of paper changed hands in any direction. It was the first time I had done it. There were no paper handouts. They were all in digital format. All the transactions were conducted online through wiki, e-mail and blogs, and there were no paper based submissions either. All the assignments for that module were submitted online using our in-house submission system SCHOLAR. It worked reasonably well for a pilot, although there were some problems with unfamiliarity on both sides. The advantages were clear to see. Students didn't need to travel into the university to submit their assignments (many live quite some distance away from the central campus). I was able to see at a glance who had sumitted and who hadn't. I could check very easily for plagiarised work, and ultimately, it benefitted the students because I could colour code my remarks and attach them to their work so they had clear and instant feedback on how well they had done and what they needed to do to improve their work for future submissions. Everyone was happy.

Unfortunately there are colleagues who don't like the system, or are reluctant to use it. I see fellow academics struggling about with boxes full of stapled tomes which they intend to give their students as handouts. Full forests of paper disappear into the classrooms and lecture halls, where they are doled out dutifully to hordes of students, who generally glance at them, leaf through them if they are curious, and then in most cases - they file them under 'B' for bin. Some are inventive and use the shredded handouts to line the cages of their pet hamsters. There's another part to the equation: Some external examiners insist even now, on paper assignments. Are they dinosaurs? That's what they are used to, and that's what they require. Perhaps when selecting future external examiners, a demonstrable lack of aversion to new technoology could be one of the selection criteria.

I say, save the forests and let's go digital. Resources are easier to transport, easier to store and retrieve, and they can be shared more readily. Hernias will be eliminated and repetitive strain injuries reduced. I know there are objections from those who find it difficult to read digital text, or who like the idea that they can have something in their hands to write on, highlight, and file away. But we live in 2010, and technology can do as much for us now as Gutenburg's Press did for people back in 1450. Please, please, let's try to drag our education systems screaming into the 21st Century. Paper has its place. But there is so much more we can do to make our own lives and the lives of our students better if we migrate over to digital media.

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Paper cuts by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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wendyhjones said…
I am with you on this one. The advent of computers was meant to mean that we moved to the paperless office. There hasn't been much sign of this, in fact I would venture to say that computers have made the paper situation worse. It is so much easier to produce large handouts and print out more copies than will ever be needed. I take your point about about the difficulty for some people in reading digital text, however, there are software packages available which can deal with this. Lets start a paperless revolution
DavidR said…
Yes I agree that there are only a few places where paper is a better medium for reading than an electronic screen: outside in sunlight, the bath, bed .....

So for a long time I have been an advocate of electronic submission of assignments. At the University of Winchester I had tried it on a couple of my courses with some success. Then two years ago I organised a university wide pilot of electronic submission taking in several courses and several hundred students. This used the facilities for electronic submission in the Moodle VLE. On this scale it's different from an individual applying it to a single course. It becomes a question of meshing it into the university processes. So both academic and admin staff have to be convinced and then trained in how to use systems. The outcome was somewhat mixed. Some staff thought that this was a natural development; others thought that they could really not work in this way. Perhaps for academic staff the main reason for a lack of enthusiasm was that they could not see that this would make their life easier. Of course, as a survey showed, students were happy to take on these new ways of working.

So although many of us are long since signed up to the paperless university, to bring it about in practice for a whole university may take some time yet.

David Rush

Dialogue said…
I wish it was easier to write notes on a pdf though - those sticky notes slide around! Is there a better way for a student to annotate journal articles online?
MrDinHK said…
I've been doing a Masters since Sept at HKU and haven't seen a piece of paper yet. My last lecturer told me had hadn't marked a paper assignment in 5 years. I'm really surprised by your description of how things are.
TQE said…
What a thought provoking post! I admire your writing and above that the topic you have selected to highlight. "Paper cuts" are a major concern of education and I agree that going digital will help you and the forests from being destroyed to write assignments on and throwing in the "bin."
Lastly, I would say that there are people who are not used to read text from computer screen, there has to be a way out for them too. Think about it and together, we can find a solution to it to step in 21st century.
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rloew said…
We use a combination of both methods : students submit their results digital during the working periods and paper-based (and digital) for the final documentation. So we have the possibility of easy storage and searching using the digital versions and the more comfortable reading of the real paper. In addition we have a hard-copy for all legal things that could happen.
serendipitynz said…
Totally agree Steve, all my students' assignments are uploaded to Moodle, the final exam is the only paper marking on my courses. All handouts and assignment instructions have been in digital format for the last three years, and if I could do away with the textbook I would do that as well, actually I'm working on that at the moment:-)
Nick Sharratt said…
I'm an advocate for digital/virtual but paper is a tricky beast to replace as it provides such a rich user interface.

Not convinced? Well, here's some of the things I feel paper provides that we loose in the move to digital (currently):

* Paper allows us to use many other senses than sight to garner information about documents:
- We can judge how much we have to read by how heavy a document is.
- We can tell how far through a document we have gotten by the relative weight of pages either side of the open page
- we can tell if a document is really old by the smell/feel of the paper/colour of the paper etc
* Book spines have a rudimentary 'memory' such that they tend to remember pages which are commonly accessed and fall open again at those points easily (near enough)
* pages can be folded over to provide random access to content, and we have a feel for how closely linked such "bookmarks" are by being able to see how close they are physically
* we can hold open multiple pages in a document and quickly switch between them. With practice, this can be 5 or 6 different points, all with "instant" access and with a feeling for which is which that our muscle memory provides avoiding the need for concious thought interupting the main cognitive processes
* paper is easy to add notes to with a context through it's highly evolved partner "the Pen"
* paper is cheap. Not in huge volumes, and with an environmental cost too, but it would need to save a LOT of paper to offset the production/lifetime/disposal costs and environmental impact of say an iPad, let alone a more traditional laptop.
* Paper can be organised in a physical space giving an additional context. eg in a meeting, I can place "finished" documents to one side face down, or I can place 2 related documents side by side for comparison, or keep a pile of documents indicating those I need to refer to again after the meeting. These are all possible virtually, but the interface and work space that paper provides is highly intuitive and extremely flexible - able to be re-organised in seconds and re-invented for each meeting and each individual

...I could go on as I've podered this subject quite a bit over the years as I was taught all about the aspirations of a "paperless office" back in the 80's, where as I'm very aware that in IT, we've continuously provided more and faster ways to produce ever more paper instead.

As a result, I do have sympathy for those academics who are facing demand from students for the use of SCOLAR and electronic (quicker being implied?) feedback but who sub-conciously at least feel the loss of this rich UI with the abandoning of paper.

However - I think we're in a time of transition, and the UI of the virtual will eventually catch up. Until then though, I'm reminded of this YouTube clip:

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