Nudging faculty toward paperlessness

I was included on an email sent recently by the VP of our school’s student association regarding the newly implemented pay-to-print policy. The student association is not happy with the policy, and their reasons were good: it’s not so much that students want to print, but instead that their professors require them to print. The email was a reminder to me that, at least in this particular area, it’s not students who are resisting change.

On this note, I’m planning some faculty development for the spring semester related to the idea of paperless teaching. I need to do some brainstorming as to what this means. So here goes:

  • Readings that have, in the past, been photocopied and distributed, should be distributed electronically. There are some procedural challenges here, though. Digitization itself is increasingly easy. More and more, I think faculty members are getting things from online databases, so that no digitization is needed. When the original is on paper and needs to be photocopied, more and more of our copy machines have scan-to-PDF functionality. So faculty need some guidance on using this functionality.

    Where to upload things for distribution? This is one area where Blackboard has some real advantages. For one, Bb courses are set up automatically, and so there’s no real setup on my part. Access is limited to those enrolled in the class, which is (lamentably, perhaps) required by copyright considerations.

    In cases where faculty members use Blackboard to distribute readings to students, it should be made explicit that printing is not required. A brief discussion early in the semester regarding the readings and how best to approach them is a good idea in any class, and considerations of paper vs. non-paper reading could be part of that.

  • Assignments comprise another class of tree-killers. Faculty who adopt wholly online assignments like blogs and wikis for the pedagogical benefits get paperlessness as a bonus. More traditional assignments – essays, journals, and the like – can be collected electronically in a variety of ways: with a Blackboard Assignment, Turnitin (or SafeAssign or whatever it is in Blackboard 8), as attachments to email, as postings to a blog or discussion board (where privacy is not an issue). Faculty members might need a little bit of help dealing with the different kinds of file formats coming in, but many will already be used to downloading and viewing various kinds of documents.

    Grading these electronic assignments can be a little bit trickier. I personally like grading papers with the Track Changes feature in Word or Record Changes in or whatever. The big downside of this is that, in order for your students to be able to read your comments, they’re going to need this particular software, or at least a compatible reader – which is a dangerous supposition when you use commercial software like MS Office at a demographically diverse public university like ours. Tablet computers offer an alternative, especially for those faculty members who like to mark papers full of circles and arrows. The problem with tablets is the overhead, though – they aren’t cheap.

How are you trying to move away from paper in your teaching, or in your faculty’s teaching? How do you convince individuals who have been trained to use paper over their entire careers that there are practical benefits to going electronic? Is it even possible to move our current kinds of curriculum, which are so deeply rooted in paper, to the digital realm? Or will the change only happen when the course materials and assignments move away from the old paper metaphors?

9 thoughts on “Nudging faculty toward paperlessness

  1. Jason B. Jones

    I went (mostly) paperless for assignments several years ago, mostly because it’s easier for me to comment legibly on student papers. Also, without being too weird about it, student papers are a disease vector. (Dorms and such.)

    Paperless readings are harder. Esp. in a discussion-based lit class, one usually needs a copy of the text that one can hold and mark up. Also, it’s a little hard for me to imagine being sufficiently organized to scan small impromptu handouts in advance.

  2. Boone Post author

    I’m torn on the subject of readings, Jason. As a technologist (and someone who cares about not wasting too much paper), I say that reading on the screen is good enough for most purposes. But as a teacher and a reader, I appreciate the value of a paper book, both in terms of the ease of note-taking and the sheer readability. There may one day be a paperless technology that reproduces this combination of factors, but right now all I see are splintered formats and clunky machines. And even when such technology comes to exist, only when it becomes as affordable as paper will it be reasonable to expect every student to use it instead of the printer.

  3. dance

    [from the teaching carnival]

    I actually showed my students how to open PDFs *not* in the browser and that macs could take notes right on them, and my syllabus suggests this and has links to some programs that allow PDF note-taking. I’ve haven’t seen any student purchase on this notion. (Also, I realized that I distribute as PDF some primary source excerpts that use columns. It’s painful to read PDFs of columns).

    But with handouts, etc, I think there’s a real issue that students read things on paper, or that the paper serves as a reminder to read it–eg, I’ve shifted a lot of syllabus stuff online, but I still need to keep a table of contents for it in the paper syllabus.

    With grading, there’s a real issue that I grade differently using Word’s track changes–on some assignments that matters in a way I don’t like. (Also, I’m decently tech-savvy, I instruct my students on file formats and I always get files I just can’t open)

    But the problem you mentioned is solved by returning assigments as PDF–print to PDF is built in on all Macs and I think is also free for recent versions of WinOffice (may need plugin installed) and OpenOffice (built in?).

    PS. How much spam do you get on this blog that you need to force authentication? Which I *would* not bother with if I hadn’t already written a long comment thinking there was a rational “fill in your info and go” policy in place. “Enabled” doesn’t communicate “Required”.

  4. dance

    Just testing your comment policy—if this goes through, then it’s including my website that made it insist on also signing into my OpenID.

  5. Boone Post author

    Dance – I also feel like I grade differently when I do it with Track Changes, though I hadn’t really thought too much about it until I read your comment. Because I feel much better typing than writing longhand, I think it opens the floodgates a little bit – my comments end up being much longer than they otherwise would have been. This is sometimes a good thing, but it can often get out of control, since there is likely a point after which additional feedback actually decreases the benefit to be gleaned. To put the same point another way: just because the amount of effort for me to leave the comment goes down does not mean that it is automatically worthwhile to increase the quantity of my feedback. I wonder if others change in the same way.

  6. dance

    Sorry, posted that before reading your response, but it just gives more about the “difference”, and a friend I quote there had the same experience as you—comments too long. I *don’t* write comments longhand, but I staple a typed sheet to essays (which lets me cut-and-paste common comments)—using yet more paper!

  7. VIrtualProf

    First time visitor here — found you on the education carnival.

    I started going paperless about ten years ago when I was teaching on campus (I teach full time online now so paper is not an issue). Once I started requiring all assignments be sent electronically, my grading time was cut in half. Rather than use track changes (which requires a few extra mouse clicks and therefore more seconds – a real time waster), I just type directly into the text of their documents. I taught an on campus course again a few years ago at a local university (a one-time deal by my choice — I seriously do not like going to class) and they were shocked when I asked them to send all assignments electronically. I told them simply that “I don’t do paper.”

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