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Paperless Dream

Digital classrooms are saving forests and fostering creativity among teachers and students.

At the beginning of the school year, Matt Zoph, the principal of Grandview High School in southwestern Jefferson County, Missouri, issued one 500-page ream of paper to each of his teachers. As of March, according to Zoph, not one teacher had come back to ask for more.

That's because the school has gone nearly paperless. Students do almost all of their work on Coby tablets the school distributed in the fall. Their devices tap into coursework and resources via Moodle-an online, open-source curriculum management system hosted by the state-and open-source digital textbooks from CK-12, a nonprofit foundation working to reduce textbook costs. The results have been significant, starting with about $20,000 a year in savings on paper, according to H. Michael Brown, superintendent of the Grandview R-II School District. He also sees other benefits: shorter school weeks, with students telecommuting on Fridays, and home-schoolers and kids with long-term illnesses able to participate in classes held at school via the Internet.

According to Brown and Zoph, there are significant educational benefits inside the classroom. "We've gone away from teachers sitting in front of the room talking or writing on the blackboard or putting it on the whiteboard," Brown says. "The kids, you throw a topic out, they do their research online, then we get some feedback that way. And the teacher more or less facilitates, or keeps the class going."

When Empire High School was built in the Vail School District, on the edge of Tucson, Arizona, six years ago, the district decided it would operate entirely without textbooks. The savings from not having to make this significant initial investment, plus profits from a land swap, paid for an Apple laptop for every student.

The move challenged the district to go further than some of its counterparts. "A lot of schools were doing one-to-one, but opening a school with no textbooks forced our teachers and our curriculum department to do things differently," says Calvin Baker, Vail's superintendent. "So many schools that are one-to-one, if you go visit them, you'll find classrooms where teachers are still teaching like they were twenty or thirty years ago. They're still using the books, but kids do some work on their computers. We had to completely break that paradigm."

So the school district created something called, appropriately, Beyond Textbooks, which has become an online repository for largely teacher-created resources.

The district's teachers and curriculum department looked at all of the state standards for each grade level and each subject, identified the most essential ones, and mapped them onto the academic calendar, Baker says. "If you follow the calendar, by the end of the year, you will have taught, and kids will have mastered, all of those essential standards."

Beyond Textbooks has proved popular enough that other districts across the state have signed on to use the repository (they pay a fee for the privilege), and it is effective enough that it has earned the district kudos from the state. "Last year, the Arizona Department of Education rated us as the top-performing academic district in the state," says Baker. "Not that our students were the very, very top, but that we were getting the best results."

Innovation, Connection
Perhaps just as important is the creativity Beyond Textbooks has prompted from the district's teachers, says Ann Flynn, director of education technology and state association services for the National School Boards Association. "They took the state standards and said, ‘Okay, teachers, here's your road map.' Often we hear things like, ‘Standards constrain teacher creativity and innovation.' They took the opposite approach. They said, ‘Here are the standards. Go find the content to teach them.'"

Technological improvements should not change the teacher's role as the central figure in the classroom, says Flynn. "Paperless doesn't mean you've become teacherless," she says. "You still have the core of the classroom: The most important person in that classroom in terms of tying all of these rich technology resources together is the teacher. The technology resources are allowing teachers to finally start down that road of delivering a personalized learning experience for each child."

Steve Katz, a teacher and technology integration specialist at the Korea International School, outside of Seoul, would likely agree. Katz, along with fellow TeachPaperless blogger Shelly Blake-Plock, organized a worldwide effort in 2010 to get teachers to pledge to go paperless in their classrooms for that year's Earth Day. This year, he went paperless in all his social studies classes.

A typical strategy: posting the day's warm-up question for his class on a wiki. "The kids would go in, look at the wiki, go to the class chat room, and discuss that question," he says. "So instead of writing to complete the assignment and get the points, they were actually discussing the topic-sometimes in heated discussions. Basically, it's the same activity, but significantly better without paper."

Indeed, what was most remarkable to Katz was how normal it seemed. "I started writing a reflection at the end of last year about my feelings about being paperless for the whole year, and in the end I never published it because it just didn't seem to be such a big deal. For me, it was just a better way of doing things, a better way of teaching."

Blake-Plock, a longtime teacher and the co-executive director of the Digital Harbor Foundation, which is working to establish nonprofit community tech centers in Baltimore to serve public schools, expressed similar sentiments. "If I went back in time, I would change the name of the blog from TeachPaperless to TeachConnected," said Blake-Plock, in an interview conducted via e-mail. "Because that's what this is all about: the ability to have the Library of Congress in your pocket, the ability to ask questions to NASA scientists, the ability to talk live with people on the ground halfway around the world in the midst of a revolution while it is happening. It's about extending learning beyond the static confines of a textbook and four walls."

A Two-Stage Transition
Going paperless starts with devices in the classroom-tablets, laptops, smartphones. "It's unreasonable to ask anyone to go paperless if each student doesn't have their own device," Katz says.

A scanner and reliable backup capacity are also crucial equipment, says David Andrade, a physics teacher and education technology specialist in southwestern Connecticut who contributes to TeachPaperless. He advises a slow, prudent approach. "I tell teachers when they're first trying to do this, ‘Keep paper copies of everything you print out. Don't start getting rid of anything until you're sure you have multiple ways of accessing the stuff if something does happen.' I have two backups-my phone, which can access the Internet through its own data plan, and a laptop with 3G on it."

If the first stage in the transition to paperless necessarily focuses on devices, the second stage turns to Web 2.0 programs. Apps such as Moodle, wikis, and Google Docs provide a platform for sharing and editing documents and administering tests (which can be automatically graded and corrected); they can even be linked to virtual grade books.

"In the last four years, we've had a big push toward Web 2.0 technologies. That really was the tipping point," says P. Erik Gundersen, superintendent of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, in Montvale, New Jersey, which is eight years into a one-to-one program. "The laptops were doing a great job, and we were doing a great job of having students develop content and gather information off the Web. But Web 2.0 brought us forward and really helped us integrate technology into the classroom."

Homework for English class, for example, might be to read a passage and then answer a question about it on a wiki or class blog. Students have already begun their collaboration and discussion outside of school, says Gundersen, "so when they show up to class, they're talking about their feedback, and spending that much more time engaged in live discussions."

Like a Fish to Water?
Both Andrade and Gundersen caution administrators to be cognizant of the learning curve. Some teachers are loathe to embrace even the most basic digital tools. "I still see teachers doing paper, even handwritten, lesson plans," Andrade says, marveling. "Not even typed up in a Word document."

And don't assume students' comfort with computers will translate immediately to the classroom. "Some of the students had a tough time with it," Gundersen says of the early days of his school's one-to-one conversion. "By the time they get to high school they have been trained to learn a certain way and rely on their teachers giving them the information. They just need to remember it and then regurgitate it back on a test. You always hear about digital natives and that students are great at picking up technology-but not necessarily the educational aspect of it."

That hasn't been Brown and Zoph's experience. They say their students are thrilled and teachers have not looked back. Zoph, the principal at Grandview High, says a recent survey of the school's teachers found that 80 percent "couldn't imagine going back to the old way of teaching."

Likewise, Brown, the district superintendent, brims with positive stories about the change. Even parents have jumped on the bandwagon. "I was at an event-a basketball game-not too long ago," he says. "And I had a parent come up to me and say, ‘Well, I guess you know that we're eating our night snack at McDonald's about three nights a week.' And I said, ‘Why are you doing that?' She said, ‘They have Wi-Fi.' They take them up to McDonald's and buy a sundae or something, sit in the corner, and let the kid do some work."

Indeed, in that community in particular, which has been hit hard recently by the closing of a nearby Chrysler plant, the new technology seems to be providing hope for the future. "You'd be surprised at the number of our parents who are learning from their kids at home," Brown says. "It's become a retraining program for a lot of our parents."

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