Going Paperless in the Classroom

by Kate D. Jeffers, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Resident, The Johns Hopkins Hospital 

Over the past years, there has been a push to “Go Green.” Alongside this push, has been the revolution in digital publishing, with digital readers such as the Kindle and Nook, and the ability to digitally access digital material through Google Books or textbooks via the school library. But what does this mean for the classroom? Is there such a thing as a “required textbook” anymore?

The “green” classroom movement has taken an recent turn with the advent of the iPad. Apple and its affliated “app” developers have created increasingly sophisticated applications for use in education. iPads have been integrated into numerous schools around the country—from high school  down to kindergarten!1,2 This push has begun to creep into medical education.  The teaching hospital at which I am completing my residency gave each of the medical interns an iPad and the Department of Pharmacy purchased laptops for each of the PGY2 pharmacy residents.

A high school English teacher, James Harmon, from the Cleveland area conducted an experiment to determine if the iPad actually improved learning in the classroom. His findings? His students learned better with the aid of iPads—when used correctly. He began the experiment after the school was provided 24 iPads by the school district. The school primarily serves a low-income population, and traditional approaches to teaching reading and writing weren't working. Harmon hypothesized that the iPads would help the school's English teachers find new, creative approaches to teaching the content.  He also wanted to justify asking for more iPads with data-driven evidence. 

Harmon divided the sophomore English class into two groups, one iPad-free control group, and one that had access to these tablet devices at school. He ensured that all sophomore English teachers taught the same curriculum for that school year. According to his end-of-year data, students with access to an iPad were more likely to pass both the reading and writing sections of the state standardized test. The teachers also reported that the devices made their lessons more engaging and helped them connect with students, adding that the iPads allowed them to give students "more frequent and timely feedback on writing." Additionally, student surveys revealed that the iPads increased students' motivation to learn. Of course, the excitement behind the use of novel technology might wear off with time.  Which would mean their value would diminish unless teachers take other steps to make their material engaging.3 

In addition to motivation that new technology like the iPad can engender, the paperless classroom has other benefits. For starters, it cuts the cost of purchasing printed textbooks, which may or may not be used by students. By allowing students to access textbooks digitally, this allows them real time access to material. For example, if a student completes a lecture and has further questions regarding the topic, they are able to log onto the library website and read a textbook chapter immediately, rather than wait hours to return home (and perhaps forget to look up the material). This allows the student to formulate informed follow-up questions for the professor and quickly reinforces concepts covered in the classroom. Further, teachers are able to pick and choose what readings they require. Rather than requiring students to buy multiple textbooks and using isolated sections from each, professors are able to customize their reading requirements to the most relevant sections from various texts.4 

A potential issue with all of this technology is the loss of the tactile sensation of pen to paper. Students learn in different fashions—some may be auditory, some may be visual, while still others may be tactile. Throughout my education, I have found it necessary to highlight and take notes on various book chapter or articles. Some technology, such as Adobe Pro, allows you to highlight and comment on electronic documents. During my first year of pharmacy school, I printed each slide set to take hand notes. As the courses got more difficult, I took notes on my computer, which I then had to convert into a word document alongside the slide information.  And then I printed it to study for exams.

An additional concern becomes the reliability of the technology itself. I watched many students loose all of their hard work during computer crashes.  This highlights the importance for backing up files regularly. Finally, with all of the computers in the classroom, it can be distracting for students. Students may be tempted to instant message, check out Facebook, or surf the web; all of these would be counterproductive to the purpose of being in the classroom.

Is it ever possible to “go paperless” in the classroom? Probably not. On the other hand, it is feasible to use “less paper,” bringing new meaning to the “Go Green” movement. 

1. Hu, W. Math that moves: Schoolsembrace the iPad. New York Times 2011 Jan  4 [cited 2011 Nov 26]. 
2. Dwyer, L. iNsane? Auburn, Maine,is giving an iPad2 to every kindergarten student. Good Education 2011 April 11 [cited 2011 Nov 26]. 
3. Dwyer, L. Teacher’s iPadexperiment shows possibilities for classroom technology. Good Education 2011 Sept 9 [cited 2011 Nov 26].
4. Kupetz, AH. Is the paperlessclassroom possible? BizEd 2008 Jan/Feb: 36-40 [cited 2011 Nov 26]