If Fifth Graders Can Go Paperless…

It’s been a busy two weeks without much time to blog here, but a link to this article from NCTE’s Inbox caught my eye. This fall, I have been pushing friends and colleagues to go paperless with free and open source applications, like Google Docs, and even though this isn’t quite the same, seeing that fifth graders can do it makes me wonder if everyone will be going this route soon.

When she assigns students a report on Civil War heroes, the students take off on their own using Web sites like Google and Dogpile to do research, cutting and pasting photographs into documents and saving their work on floppy disks.”Instead of writing with a paper and pencil and your hand getting tired, we can do it on a computer,” said Robert Toledo, 10, as he reads a site about Abraham Lincoln. “It’s faster and better.”

In Miami-Dade County’s only paperless classroom, Web sites are used in lieu of textbooks, Power Point Presentations substitute for written essays and students get homework help from their teacher over e-mail.

Fifth-graders using computers, not paper, for classroom work | theledger.com

What would it take to get every classroom in the country to this level, both in terms of hardware and professional development for teachers? More thoughts on how and why to do that coming soon…

Author: Troy Hicks

Dr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs both the Chippewa River Writing Project and the Master of Arts in Educational Technology degree program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

5 thoughts on “If Fifth Graders Can Go Paperless…”

  1. I have been lucky enough to work with Tablet PCs lately…once the physical features improve a little (the screen reflects too much when you put it flat on a table like a piece of paper) I think it will (a) help some of the “digital immigrants” get on board with the paperless classroom and (b) provide new experiences/purposes for digital learning. There is something very natural about the Tablet OS..the ability to grab parts of the screen and to annotate what you see. The high cost could be tamed with the use of thumb drives or web based software. (As a test, I just uploaded an ink-annotated word doc to google docs & spreadsheets…it didn’t handle the annotations too well.) My big complaint when I tested Tablets 3 years ago was that you could not highlight/annotate text easily like you could on paper…the OS has improved greatly since then, and this is now possible.


  2. Hi Leigh,

    First of all, that’s great that you have been able to work with tablets. I have seen, but never used them, and I am intrigued by the possibilities.

    Second, the problem you describe and the current solution for it seems to be indicative of an overall concern that I have about technology. Yes, there is – and always will be – a barrier to entry, and these barriers keep getting lower. But, I often wonder if people let the barriers get in the way of trying something; that is, would someone have to wait until we get the “perfect” tablet before using it?

    Do you think that the flip side of the “I don’t know how to begin with technology” coin might be “I want to wait until it is more user-friendly?” If so, how might we get over that barrier?

    Thanks for the comments,


  3. In my experience as a grad student, sometime-educator, spouse of a secondary ed teacher, and technophile one of the primary barriers you’re going to run into is knowledge. In particular, this revolves around what a person willing to acquire, and who delivers that information. Basically, this involves the following:

    1. Lack of Willingness to Learn Beyond the Basics – This is the one wall I run into the most frequently. Too often it seems that there is a failure to grasp the capabilities of a technology simply because users refuse to learn about that technology beyond what their current situation requires. This habit of knowing “just enough to get by” inherently limits the user, and often keeps them working within their prior paradigm, albeit in a digital environment. As a result, creative uses of technology tend to go unexplored by those users. Once a user understands the capabilities of all the tools at their disposal, then creative solutions to problems and new methods of working can take shape.

    2. Unqualified People Posturing as Experts – This is something that absolutely astounds me. Too often I’ve heard of friends (particularly those I know in secondary education) who have been forced to sit through in-service sessions on technology, only to be given information that they know to be patently false. From simple nomenclature errors (referring to Mozilla Firefox as “Mazola” – like the cooking oil), to flat-out falsehoods (saying that Macs and PCs are incapable of sharing Microsoft Office files), it’s a shame that there are some folks out there making a buck at in-services and “teaching” them incorrect information. There have also been some horrifyingly inaccurate descriptions of wikis, RSS, and other up-and-coming technologies.

    In regards to the question involving the user-friendliness of technology: while a poorly designed/implemented technology should not be excused from criticism, neither should those users who are unwilling to crack open the user manual for software or hardware. It seems that there is a meme centering around the idea that all forms of technology should be intuitive; no additional education required. Yet, we all have to go through a learning process in order to drive cars, use telephones, operate stereo systems, and run the washing machine. None of these are particularly “intuitive” to our most primal behaviors, even though those examples are relatively simple in their execution. As you move to technologies where the use isn’t explicitly defined, and their potential results are limitless, you end up with a much steeper learning curve. Ultimately, though, it’s a curve worth tackling, but one which requires taking the time to learn how to use that technology.

    As for the hardware solutions available to users, there are other low(er) tech options that should be considered (outside of Tablet PCs). Some classrooms over the past 5 years have used PDAs (PalmOS and Windows Mobile) in conjunction with folding keyboards to create a low-cost method for creating the paperless classroom. Students have a solution that permits keyboard or pen-based input, and still allows them to use their documents on a full-size computer at a later time, if needed.

    Palm provides some examples of their success stories in education at:

    On a personal note, I’ve used PDAs and external keyboards with great success in my graduate studies as a paperless approach to note taking, brainstorming, and even the generation of full-blown papers.

    Just a few thoughts to ponder… 🙂


  4. There will always be someone who waits for the perfect tablet…or wants to wait until something is more user friendly..usually when I come in contact with these people, I refer them to Alan Cooper’s – The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity – to help give them some perspective. I have also been reading Rogers – Diffusion of Innovations to understand the continuum from innovators > early adopters > early majority > late majority > laggards…you may find it helpful (as I did) when worrying about the ” laggards”…finally…I really enjoy this piece from Frank, Zhao and Borman – http://tinyurl.com/u89fa


  5. Jim and Leigh,

    Thanks for carrying on the conversation. Of all the points that you both raise, I am most interested in the idea of someone being unwilling/a late adopter. Someone asked me once whether I think all teachers and students should be podcasting. I replied, “No, they should only be doing it if it fits in with their pedagogical vision and curricular goals. That said, I would like to help you think about how podcasting might fit in…”

    It seems to me that this group is the critical mass – those who do use technology, see some value, but may not see the potential. So, the trick is engaging them in work that they find valuable enough to overcome the minor tech obstacles. One of the teachers from RCWP introduced me to a new term in thinking about digital writing and how technology can sometimes get in the way. Rather than focusing on the technology itself, she said, you need to “envision” the writing product that you want to create (a collaborative report, a digital story, etc) and then think about the technology that you need to get there. This perspective is very helpful for me as I consider ways to stop talking explicitly about technology and more about writing.

    Again, thanks for the comments and helping me think through this. As I facilitated an RCWP meeting tonight, I had your ideas going through my mind. Fortunately, all of the teachers involved tonight are innovators and early adopters, so it made for a great discussion that we saved on our wiki.



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