There is no consensus about paper-based and paperless education. Some studies have shown that taking notes by hand is better for long-term comprehension, so students should be encouraged to keep on using handwriting for note-taking as opposed to typing while in school.
But this is only a small part of the bigger picture.
When we talk about paperless schools, we also include printed textbooks and auxiliary materials, the tremendous amount of paperwork teachers and admins need to deal with, or PTA meeting minutes.
Most of the time, running a school – from administrative procedures that involve all stakeholders (students, teachers, parents, admins, etc.) to teaching, learning, and assessment processes – comes in with a lot of paperwork. Just think about the amount of paper used for standardized tests! Obviously, many schools have implemented computer-based tests, but paper is still the norm in many contexts.
But with all edtech progress, I think paper will be less and less used in education.
Making the case for paperless schools
Let’s tackle the paper-based vs. paperless issue from different angles and see how things have changed so far and how edtech can help us create a more environmentally-friendly schooling system.
Read more: The fallacy of the paperless classroom
Textbooks: print vs. e-book/digital/multimedia?
Digital textbooks, which are in fact complex multimedia educational tools, combine text and hypertext with images and audio-visual materials and are far more interesting for young students than conventional printed textbooks. We live in the Golden Age of image and visual culture, kids respond better to multimodal stimuli (texts, images, audio, and video), so it only makes sense to adapt teaching materials to the new reality.
Far from being the latest fad, digital textbooks are an excellent tool and will gradually replace the print version. But as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. So why don’t we give it a go?
Note-taking: paper-based vs. tablet-based vs. typing?
Note-taking is quite a sensitive topic when it comes to the implementation of more technology in schools or higher education. Studies have shown had handwriting seems to help students remember the information for a longer time. In other words, the information is stored more effectively in the long term memory if students take notes by hand instead of typing on their laptops.
On the other hand, Finnish schools have decided to phase out handwriting classes and focus more on typing. There is a way to have the cake and eat it. Tablet papers are great tools that can help schools adopt a paperless policy. Students can still use handwriting and benefit from the many advantages of such a tablet: conversion of handwritten notes into text, the possibility of taking notes directly on PDFs, etc.
Tests: paper-based vs. computer-based?
When it comes to tests, admins, educators, students, and parents seem to be more supportive of computer-based ones. Language tests have been at the forefront for a while. Other standardized tests have adopted the model. Students across the globe can take the TOEFL or the GRE if they want to attend graduate schools in the US. The same goes for other language tests, such as the Cambridge Language Test, IELTS. The SAT is also a computer-based test.
There is still room for progress, as many schools still use paper-based tests both for summative and formative assessment. Still, with confinement rules in place, everyone needs to adapt to the online (or at least hybrid) learning environment.
Admin: paperless paperwork?
Talk to any school admin anywhere in the world and they will complain about the amount of bureaucracy that schools have to deal with. With enough determination from the policymakers and other stakeholders involved in the education system, this should be easy to implement in almost any school. After all, there are fewer and fewer schools that lack access to the internet.
There are many tools that could bring any bureaucracy of any Department of Education in the world into the 21st century. Electronic signatures, digital keys, and tokens for access to specific documents and workflows could be implemented even in more centralized systems.
There is still a considerable amount of resistance among decision-makers and policy-makers, but paperless bureaucracy will make school administration a lot easier.
All in all
Paperless schools are something we should try: it makes sense from an ecologic point of view, and it might be the boost we need to innovate even more in all aspects of education (teaching, learning, assessment, admin). Edtech is mature enough to offer solutions that could be easily adopted. For all those who dream of a paperless school, the future could be near: “Imagine there’s no paper / It isn’t hard to do”.
Veronica is a University lecturer with years of experience in language learning, a translator and interpreter, and a life-long learner.