The (Nearly) Paperless Classroom

I’ve been reading about people trying to implement a paperless classroom, and it occurred to me that there are plenty of things you can do to implement this type of classroom, without using a lot of technology. You don’t need a 1 to 1 laptop program at your school to make it a (nearly) paperless classroom.

First buy some whiteboard material from your local carpentry supply store. Cut it up and make pieces about this big. 

Student's working on a whiteboard

(image credit: http://whiteboardusa.com/ thanks to Frank for finding this picture)

Having some larger whiteboards on which to share instructions or information is useful. Instead of handing out sheets of paper to students, most of what you will share will go on these whiteboards. I used to write down instructions for a project, or practice questions, or discussion ideas up on a whiteboard before school and when the particular class came in, I would put out the appropriate whiteboard. Doing this will eliminate the worlksheets from your classroom.

Next, find 3 or 4 desk-top computers to place somewhere in the back or side of your classroom, or even better separate them around the classroom so that students can crowd around them when necessary. These are your research stations and the places where students will create permanent digital copies of their work. An organization like Free Geek can help you reduce the cost of purchasing these, or you may even be able to find corporation to make a donation. It is important that at least one of these computers is reasonably decent and has an Internet connection, but the other ones don’t have to be awesome. It is amazing how much utility you can get out of an old computer when it’s running a low memory operating system like Ubuntu.

Having a document camera, or a projector hooked up to the one of the computers in the room would be useful, but not critical. You can see from the picture above that the whiteboards are large enough that when students are sharing their work, they can just hold up the whiteboard and let everyone see it. Alternatively you can treat the sharing of work as a mini-fair where each group takes a turn looking at a few other group’s work.

It would also be a good idea to equip this classroom with at least 1 or 2 digital cameras. These can be useful to take pictures of the work the students have done on the whiteboards. You can designate one of the computers as your media storage computer and upload the pictures to this computer since you will want some record of the student’s work for later.

You will also need some notebooks for the students to record other work, particularly in writing-rich classes. In some subjects you may find that the notebooks don’t see enough use to be needed, but in others they will fill up quickly. This is where most of the paper you will use in your class will be. The notebooks will be the place where individual reflection will take place and can either be shared or not shared, depending on your preference.

Another piece of the puzzle will be a library of books on the back wall, relevant to your subject area. This way students can do "off-line" research. Yes, some of the books will be woefully out of date, but if you have a variety of books, you can help kids understand that they need to examine multiple sources, and not just accept the first thoughts on a subject they find.

Most of the work students will do will happen on the whiteboards and will disappear forever after it has been erased from the boards. Some of it will be saved on the computers as a picture taken of the whiteboard. Some of it will be transcribed to the computers as you and the students decide on what summative assessments you will include.

The type of work students will do will be collaborative. Most of your assessment will be formative as you move around the room to ensure both that the students are on task, but also that they are meeting your shared expectations. Your summative assessments will either be recorded in the notebooks, or on the computers. You can use workstations as a way to differentiate your work, and to ensure that not everyone "needs" the computers at the same time.

The (nearly) paperless classroom starts with the assumption that not every piece of work students produce is worth saving forever. Most of it is just them sharing their thoughts. Think of the notebooks and workbooks your students currently have, and the notes that they take. 99% of that work will never be looked again once it is completed. It is only as small percentage of work that needs to be immortalized on paper.

Change your mindset that the paperless classroom needs a lot of technology. It doesn’t. It needs a transformation of pedagogy from teacher centred and content focused to student centred and a focus on developing skills.

Please share any other ideas you have on implementing the (nearly) paperless classroom.

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10 Comments

  • Pragmatic and logical examination of rethinking our paper-bound pedagogy. Thanks!

  • Mr. Wees,

    My name is, Kelly Evans. I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I am an Elementary Education major and am taking EDM 310 with, Dr. Strange. I was assigned to your blog for the next couple of weeks. I will be summarizing my visits to your blog on my blog on, February 6,2011. Here is the link to my blog
    My blog
    and a link to the class blog EDM 310

    I have read your post regarding a (nearly) paperless classroom. You have some great ideas! My favorite being, the white boards. What kid does not love writing on those? Every child in my house has their own whiteboard in their bedrooms, hung on the wall. They use them for math work, writing, and other homework activities. I also have one in my home “classroom”. They are great tools and so much better for the environment. I also love the, back-of-the-room library. I’m sure that is especially useful for a different source of information. I wonder what the age of e-books could do for students in the future? The cameras are a great addition as well, but could be expensive if the cameras get broken or, if your students are like my kids and their friends, all I get are silly faces. Overall I think it is a great concept, I just don’t know if I am totally sold on the idea.

    Now, with saying that I need to add the following disclaimer: I am merely a student. I am not a full time teacher, yet. So the following comments are strictly my opinion and are just some thoughts that pop in to my head. Now that we have that over with, back to my post.

    While I like the whole idea and am a great fan of technology, I can’t help but wonder, is it really possible to run a classroom effectively without the use of paper? I see you take pictures of the student’s work and load it to a computer, but, what if the computer crashes and you lose some of the information, what then? As a teacher are you responsible for keeping some of your student’s work for verification of some sort? if so, how do you do that? Are the journals or notebooks that you have good enough for that purpose? Just a few things to think about.

    Kelly Evans

  • David Wees wrote:

    I actually have found that students are pretty careful with technology in the classroom, they recognize how rare (unfortunately) and valuable it is. I’d be much more worried about it going missing than it getting broken… so you would need to watch out for that.

    You will get lots of silly faces at first, totally true, just like you will get lots of silly faces on the whiteboards to begin with as well. However, once students get over the novelty of this type of classroom, and you’ve managed to motivate them with some interesting projects, I think you’d find the students would mostly use the tools appropriately. Obviously with every tool comes a learning experience.

    You really can run a classroom pretty much paperless. I had at least 4 classes last year where I made maybe 20 total copies of anything for the class the entire year. We didn’t do a single worksheet. However, practically every student in those classes had access to computers, so that certainly helped. What I was trying to do in this post was figure out a way to create a (nearly) paperless classroom without too much technology, which obviously comes at great expense.

    It’s a bit of a thought-experiment so I’ll admit it’s not perfect. I think it would work though… I think that there are teachers actually doing what I’m describing here.

  • You know, I didn’t even think about the computers and cameras being taken. That would definitely put a damper on things. I think your reply about having silly faces on the white boards was funny. You know back in the “olden” days as my kids say, we had chalk boards and I can remember drawing silly faces and such when we were given an opportunity to draw on the them. Here in Alabama, we are going through a funding crisis. Teachers are having to account for the paper they use, and most of the time, buy the paper themselves unless, there is a parent ( me) who will buy them a case of paper to help them out. So, in that aspect going paperless could help ease the financial strain that teachers tend to have to endure. I like your ideas and while it’s not perfect, I can appreciate your willingness to create a learning environment that is interesting and fun for your students.

  • Hi David,

    I think we may have attended the TEDx conference at UBC Robson… anyway, great discussion.
    I have managed to maintain a paperless classroom this year. It hasn’t been easy but I am getting the hang of it and have found quite a few benefits. First off, though, I must disclose that I am fortunate enough to work at a school with a 1:1 laptop program. I commend you for your creativity in addressing the challenge without the sole use of computers.

    Anyway, I have found the use of Microsoft Onenote (available in Office education pack) to be really useful for collecting students’ work, assessing it, and sending it back.

    I basically require them to send me all of their work electronically (in word or a onenote document). I also require them to provide their name and the assignment title in the subject line and they must include the assessment rubric (we are MYP) with their assignment. This allows me to “file” it by their name.

    I then bulk transfer all of their work to Onenote (Outlook has a quick link button for me to do this). I then assess their work (I have a tablet so I can use my pen to write on their document) and fill out their assessment rubric as well.

    Once finished I e-mail it back to them.

    There are a number of benefits:
    1) no paper!!
    2) places increased responsibility on the student to communicate effectively in electronic form
    3) less excuses from students about “printer problems”
    4) I have a permanent record of their work that is easily available to show parents at conferences
    5) The increased portability of my computer eliminates the need for me to carry papers home each weekend and also allows me to mark whenever I have some free time (bus, coffee shop, etc).
    6)It allows me to keep student work examples to show to future classes

    I am sure there are others as well.

    It hasn’t been easy going this route and each teacher needs to figure out a way to manage the Onenote folders, and be able to track who has submitted their work. It can also be time consuming to e-mail work back to students all of the time (rather than simply hanidng it back to them in class) but I have found the benefits to outweigh the costs.

  • David Wees wrote:

    I think you could do this with Google Docs as well. Create a folder for each student, in each of your classes, and then share those folders with your students, and ask them to ensure that anything they create for your class is in one of these folders.

  • A.G. Ford wrote:

    What wonderful tips and suggestions I like the electronic documentation. A tip off the famous pinterest site is to use foam plates as temporary wipe boards for students. It really works- I plan to hang mine on the wall by group with the best in front daily.

  • Justin Debbis wrote:

    Hello~

    First off, I want to thank you for all of this information. My school is beginning a 1:1 program with laptops and I am working very hard to get to a paperless classroom (or as close as possible). I am hoping that you might be able to provide me with any suggestions/ideas that you have developed since posting this blog that would help me better adopt the paperless classroom. I am definitely going to use whiteboards and I am looking into ways to create editable scanned worksheets for my students to complete.

    Thank you again!

  • Hi Justin,
    I have a paperless math program. We run everything through google drive. Students have a working Math Portfolio that they continue to add pages in through explain everything. We have posted some items on #paperlessmath @AndreaMcCabe
    We also use google classroom- we have forums, chats, assignments ect.

  • David Wees wrote:

    I’m sorry, Justin. I haven’t really done anything differently than this. I’ve been out of the classroom (except for a Saturday class with elementary school kids) for a few years now.

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