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Students Speak: Is 'Going Paperless' Good for the Classroom?

Kerry Gallagher

As I close in on the final weeks of the school year, I'm buried in research papers, projects, and data--yet I can't help but feel slightly nostalgic for the early months of the school year. It’s during those months--October, November--that I don't feel the rush to grade by a hard deadline. It’s during those months that I have plenty of the school year ahead to experiment with content and instruction.

In fact, back in the fall of 2013, I decided to try on one of the biggest experiments of my teaching career: taking the plunge and going completely paperless.

My school is not 1:1, so this past year, we relied mostly on students’ personal devices supplemented with only a few tablets owned by the school. Since we were using a variety of platforms--Droid tablets, iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, netbooks--I looked for tools that could work for everyone. Students kept paperless notes with Evernote and Skitch, and collaborated using Google Drive. They created animations and videos with Animoto, Educreations, Videolicious and ChatterPix. And most importantly, they published their work for me and the world to see on their own blogs with Blogger or WordPress.

This was certainly a personal and professional challenge for myself, but now that I look back, I wonder: “Did going paperless have a beneficial impact on the student classroom experience?”

Because if it didn't, none of it was worthwhile. But who would be the judge?

Kids are the experts on their own learning. So I asked them.

As part of some planning for an upcoming conference presentation, I asked a few of my 9th and 10th grade history students if they would be willing to write short reflections on how our paperless BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) model has affected their classroom experience. Below are quotes from some of their reflections.

Students Realized Their Phones Are Powerful Tools for Learning

"The use of technology is getting more and more popular, but what are we really using it for? When you look down at anyone's phone or iPad, you'll most likely see messages and social media. With such an amazing invention, we should expand what we can use these devices for, and bringing education into it is a great idea."

"BYOD hasn't been utilized as originally intended, but with Mrs. Gallagher's teaching methods, I feel as if we are reaching the intended purpose."

Students Feel More Organized

"After spending a year in a paperless classroom, I've realized that taking notes and doing activities on iPads is a cleaner and more organized way of learning. It's nice because all your work is right there in the click of a button; there's no need for endlessly looking for a paper in an overfilled binder."

"I now have the ability to digitally store my notes in "the cloud" and have my notes accessible to me wherever I go, making organization much easier for me."

Students Feel More Connected With Their Classmates

"This class has helped me immensely, getting through to my peers with the use of technology and sharing my thoughts and ideas. I know it is not the greatest thing to be hidden behind a computer screen, but through the use of new forms of communication with technology, I feel that I have gotten more comfortable with my classmates and can speak freely in front of them. We utilize programs such as backchannel and Google Drive to collaborate with other kids, making projects and presenting much easier."

Students are Having More Fun... and Learning More!

"The devices have allowed access to new things in class and we are able to use many different apps. Through the use of devices, students become more intrigued in their learning."

"Activities on iPads and computers are much more fun to do compared to just doing a worksheet for class, and you still get the information in your brain."

"I can honestly say that I have learned more through the use of technology in the classroom."

Room for Improvement

Sounds pretty good, right? Quite an ego boost for any teacher. But you maybe be wondering: Did every student love every paperless minute of every class--every day?

Yes…. I’m kidding! Of course not. In hoping for some feedback I could really use to improve my teaching, I asked all students on the last day of classes to post five-word reactions to their experience in our paperless classroom on a Padlet. Students from three of my classes posted their reactions here, here, and here.

After looking through the Padlet postings, I collected both positive and negative reactions to our paperless class experience. And while it is admittedly a little scary to share them so publicly, we teachers have to remember to listen to our students. They are the experts on their own learning experiences.

Here are some of the major points for improvement, based on student feedback:

  • My lessons were well-organized and helpful for many students, but some found that project instructions needed clarification.
  • I thought that by adding classical music to our work environment, I was helping students feel relaxed and focused, but one student found the music to be too loud and distracting.
  • Most students liked to demonstrate their learning by posting their written and multimedia creations on blogs, rather than taking multiple choice tests--but not when the blog posts were due on Fridays. I guess I can’t blame them on that one.
  • Students also wanted more feedback from me on their blog posts. I had one-to-one conferences with students on their writing trends throughout the year and gave very detailed feedback on bigger research papers, but feedback given was limited in reflection style writings.
  • Most liked having a cloud-based notebook because they could track their work from anywhere, and it was easier to organize. On the other hand, a couple of students expressed that they would have preferred to have paper assignments or rubrics every now and then.

Building that student-teacher relationship is the key to success in any classroom, paperless or not. We took on the paperless classroom challenge together and my students were able to show me their learning through incredible videos, edited images, and animations; they shared their questions and ideas at all times of the day with collaborative tools.

For my students and me, the paperless classroom was the right choice. I can still do it better, and I will--I have my students to thank for that motivation to reflect and improve during the summer.

NOTE: A version of this post originally appeared on the author's blog.

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