Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Early Thirsty: Can a Paperless Classroom Work? From Alex Outside Allentown.

I'm sorry to say I've invested the past 13 weeks trying to make a completely paperless classroom work, mostly because my college has mandated it. No paper. No copying. No printing. Everything online through a large and powerful course management system.

And it's been a nightmare. I've always been tech-y, so a lot of this was familiar to me. But what I cannot seem to do is guarantee that my students have SEEN, TOUCHED, or READ any of the pertinent material I distribute, which goes from a syllabus to assignments to lessons. I'm a little document-heavy, or so I'm told, so it adds up to about 50 pages of stuff I've made available over the first 90% of the semester.

Never have I had so many idiotic questions about due dates, policies, or criteria. I'm constantly reminding them of the CONTENT section of our CMS, re-sending links. If I tell them to read something, I can SEE that they've not logged in an accessed the file. It's NOT the same as handing them a piece of paper in person, pointing to a paragraph, circling a date.

And I know I should make them responsible, and I know that in the end they must want to access this information and benefit from it.

But far too much of my time this semester has been spent begging them to read the distributed course material that is designed to help them. I'm very curious about your experiences.

Q: Can a paperless classroom work? How do you increase the chance the "available" material gets used and read?


  1. No, it can't, and if the material is digital only, the only way to ensure they will read it is to have in-class "reading time" during which you order them to read whatever document, then twiddle your thumbs until every last soul has read it.

    Sorry, they just have too much digital stuff going on to pay any attention to more digital stuff. Why read a course document when you can be taking selfies or texting song lyrics to someone you briefly knew in high school?

    In fact, one of the proffies here recommended that the only way to get the snowflakes to do the reading and other work is to go all-paper, no digital, no answering e-mail, no Blackboard, nothing. Just do it all on paper and force them to come to office hours with questions instead of e-mailing at 11:30 p.m. on a Sunday night, then using a lack of instant reply as an excuse not to attend Monday morning class.

    1. That is really a bad graphic! The new RGM is really fitting in! :)

    2. Thanks, Reg! There is a large repository of images of course, and several standard ones that are used, but I thought I'd try a new one.

  2. Just as a member of the community, let me say that I fought back on the mandatory paperless. I make things available on paper when I KNOW they need to be in the possession of the student. And, I know that Alex's story is probably the same as others here.

    Welcome, Alex! I hope in the morning some more readers see your excellent question and give some advice.


  3. In my experience, a paperless classroom is more likely to work if the class is explicitly an online or hybrid class (expectations are clear) *and* the students are not first-year students.

    I agree with Patty that all-or-nothing may be the way to go. In my f2f class for first-semester students, it's a never-ending battle to get the students both to print out/read/bring required materials for class *and* to access, complete, or upload stuff in the LMS. They do one and forget the other.

    The papers are the worst. They are supposed to turn in hard copy for grading and upload to the LMS for originality checking. (I have a lot of other online grading and need a break from it; also, I want the students to read my comments, a little more likely when I give them said comments in a physical form.) 1/2 the class will bring hard copy to turn in as required, but half of those forget to upload to the LMS. 1/4 of the class uploads to the LMS as required but don't bring hard copy. Then I spend the next two weeks reminding people to do whichever element they forgot. Unless it's a special situation I've discussed with the student in advance, I withhold grading a student's paper until both elements are in place, but too many of them don't care enough about their grades for that to be any kind of penalty.

  4. I would put the document up on the screen and point out the information there, going over again how to access it. The first few times. Then, I would send the student who asked for information they have already been given to the computer center to look it up (and let them know that their absence to go do this is unexcused). You can give reading quizzes on the material they were supposed to have read, and make those quizzes a large part of their grade. You can send people who obviously have not read the material home, telling them their absences due to being sent home are unexcused (put this in your syllabus). All this will result in lots of students failing your class. If you do not have tenure, this could result in your not getting another gig with the college. If you do, this could result in your getting yelled at by your Dean or Department Chair. If enough of the faculty do it, then it could result in the college changing their policy back to allowing paper.

    You could also do what the RGM does and just make copies anyway. I bet a lot of your fellow faculty do this.

    For what it is worth, here's a related story: we went to paperless student evaluations about five years ago. Now, none of our students do student evaluations (like 1-3% in a semester). We have been threatened. We have been cajoled. WE have been "required' to make the student evaluation completion a "for credit" assignment (as in: the admin told us to give the class five extra points on something if 85% or more did the evals). At one point, I actually tried to get them to do the online evaluations! I walked them to the computer lab, stood in front of the class and read the handout explaining how to access the class/professor evaluation link, and then stayed at the front, watching them do something on the computer for fifteen minutes, their screens of course not facing me as I would never try to see what they were writing when they are doing evaluations!! After class was over, I went to my office computer to see how many evaluations had been completed for that class: none. N.O.N.E. Those little fuckers were reading email, gambling, looking at porn while I stood up there watching them, making sure they did not leave while they were supposed to be filling out evaluations telling me what a shit I was. That was it! I don't even mention the student evaluations any more, not to one student.

    Our college actually has the WORST completion rate of any college in our state system. But none of the colleges and U's have an even "good" rate of completion. And you know what? This year, they made an announcement at the state level: we are going back to paper evaluations.

    1. I was going to add a similar student eval story. We went from 75% response to about 10% response. Useless.

    2. I'd like to thumbs up the reading quizzes. It doesn't even have to be a large part of the grade - all my quizzes averaged together are 10%, and about 90 percent of my students regularly do all the reading. I also let them use notes taken on the reading on the quizzes. Only about a third of them do that, but when you have a third of the students who have read carefully, it makes a big difference in subsequent discussion. Some of my readings are downloads, others are books. If the stats show they aren't accessing the downloads, I give extra pop quizzes for bonus points (like one) on the regular ones.

    3. We did online. Dropped to about 10%. Went back to paper. Up to 60-80%.

      Guess what this year's NEW POLICY is? Yup, online. To improve response rates.

      I do not get it.

    4. Can we make this its own post/open thread? Wait 'till you hear the email on this topic we got from my administration . . .

    5. We withhold their grades until they complete the online evals, even though they do have an option to check something along the lines of "I don't wanna fill this form out at all so no comment."

      I am not sure if we get full compliance as they will eventually release the grade even for those who don't complete the evals, but it will be like a month after the semester ends, and most are too impatient to get their grades to omit completing the evals.

      Paper evals did get more like 100% compliance, but we ended up having to digitize all that paper anyway and it got expensive in terms of paying temps for data entry.

    6. Hi! I put it in as a post. I am not sure if its still interesting though!

  5. What would be the pedagogical benefit of going paperless? Is there one?

    Batshit U tried to make the office I'm in paperless - saved a bit on printing for a while, but things are pretty much back to where now.

    One hotshot in the foreign language dept got a grant to do everything via i-pad (or something like that). The project tanked (massive attrition and failing grades) but the hotshot moved to somewhere that liked his work.

    To be honest, I'm really not how sure how a face to face class could be made to work paperlessly. There's a lot to be said for sometimes putting material in front of students live and having them work with it in situ.

  6. I will confess to, in my younger days, having been an enthusiastic uncritical dupe---OOops, SORRY, I mean eager adopter of technology in the classroom. I got over it. Whenever you require students to use ANY technology more complex than pencils as part of a class, they immediately turn into all-thumbs Luddites. I'm not so sure that even pencils are immune to this effect: just LOOK at what students can do with technology as simple as STAPLES.

    Being a professor already requires me to do too many other jobs already, including teaching, researching, writing, managing, fund-raising, recruiting, etc. It took me several years of this before until I realized that being a 24/7 tech consultant will be another one, with the more technology you use in the classroom. So I have phased OUT as much as I can.

    Yes, the paperless classroom is yet another dream that administrators like to foist on us, whenever it comes back into fashion. Heaven forbid they even THINK of a paperless ADMINISTRATION. That's rich!

    There’s a lot to be said for technology that runs on a human scale, and at a human pace. I liked computers a lot better when they were indispensable tools for research in the physical sciences, and not much else. Use them to do simple things that humans already do well, such as read a book, and there are so many distractions that deep, sustained attention for anything more than superficialities gets drowned out. But of course, NO ONE listens to this argument.

    1. Have you noticed that when students get to choose between reading something on paper and reading the same thing electronically, they most often opt for not reading it at all? Learning mathematics in particular benefits from a low-tech approach. I won't let my students photograph my whiteboards because they never really look at the images, and so never really see the equation. When they need to copy them into their paper notes longhand, they DO see them.

    2. Hand writing notes has been demonstrated to help the writer retain information in a way that typing never does. Also for some disciplines like computer programming, typing wastes a lot of time, because you are constantly hunting around for non-ASCII symbols and trying to type the professor's whiteboard notes which are all over the place, like flow charts and logic gates and whatnot. And that's leaving aside the fact that a large portion of students will not actually be taking notes but surfing the Web.

      I just think of what I do to remind myself of something important, given that I receive 50-100 e-mails per day. I print it out and tape it to my bathroom mirror. I can't risk entering it into my "dumb", ancient mobile phone as it already dings when I get a text message so another ding wouldn't stick in my mind the way, for example, putting my housekeys in my shoe or taping a note to my bathroom mirror does.

  7. That proffie has no leverage. And when there's no leverage, then all that proffie can do is bluff. And when just one student calls that bluff, then all the other students know it, and the proffie is fucked.

    Fucked. Fucked. Fucked.

    And begging someone to stop fucking you will only make it worse.

    There's just too much bluffing in higher ed today. It's a goddamned house of cards.

  8. I've run a nearly-paperless classroom for just shy of ten years. It's worked pretty well.

    Some things really need to be done on paper--e.g., hard copy turns out to be vital for first-year-comp in-class peer critique sessions, and I can't imagine how I would've learned any calculus without writing it out by hand--but in my field of Hamster Communication Studies, we've been going toward web-based writing for the last few decades.

    Sure, we still teach our students how to create hard copy documents--after all, the FDA requires those little fold-up papers with every bottle of Dr. Starchus's Patented Hamster Squeezings--but we Hamsterwriterologists have few practical problems with taking our classrooms paperless.

  9. Like Mindbender, I've been nearly-paperless for years, not because I'm required to be, but because it saves trees and saves the department money (which goes straight into the travel budget, from which I and all contingent faculty, as well as tenure-line faculty, benefit) and saves my back (paper is very heavy, and a surprising amount of it can accumulate in an average-sized backpack over the course of a semester) and saves the aggravation of carrying around backup copies of multiple handouts, syllabi, etc., etc.

    Since it *has* been a long time (and since I was making students retrieve their own readings from the library databases even before I went paperless in other ways), I'm not sure I can measure the effect on student reading of readings, handouts, etc., but I didn't see a huge difference. It may be relevant that I made the transition when my school had a lot of one-computer-per-student classrooms (plus some very large open-access computer labs), and I was teaching almost exclusively in those classrooms. We've now made the transition to bring-your-own-device, but even that doesn't seem to be a major problem, even when I require a device with a screen at least the size of a book/journal page (so, a tablet or laptop rather than a phone). We don't have a wealthy student population, but we don't have a terribly impoverished one, either, and employment is fairly high in our area. One of the upsides of the fact that our students work too many hours for pay is that they can afford their own devices, and realize that they really need devices they can carry with them so as to fit in school work whenever and wherever they can. They're still not doing as much work outside the classroom, or engaging inside the classroom, in anywhere near the way I'd like to see, but I'm pretty sure that they'd be even less likely to carry around, and keep track of, a bunch of textbooks and handouts and other papers. This way, they can at least consult the course calendar (or even -- gasp -- the syllabus) from those ubiquitous phones, as well as more appropriate devices.


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