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Going paperless

By May 29, 2009June 16th, 201616 Comments

I’ve lately become intrigued with the idea of going paperless. I have certainly cut back in paper use over the years, mostly without really trying, as technology made printing less and less necessary. A few things have happened recently, though, that really have me thinking about the possibilities of a paperless office and (eventually) paperless schools.

I was recently working on two large projects that, just a few years ago, would have resulted in my printing reams of paper. One was a technology audit that we had conducted which included interview transcripts from dozens of teachers. My job was to go through and code their responses to look for patterns. On another project, we were conducting a literature review for effective pedagogy. Both of these required me to read hundreds of pages of documents and to annotate them with key findings. Instead of printing them out and grabbing the ol’ highlighter, I found an online resource that allows me to upload documents, highlight and tag key phrases, then sort by tags. I not only saved money and trees, but was actually able to get my work done much more efficiently.

More recently, I was packing my office in preparation for a move to another floor at McREL. As I began cleaning out my file cabinet, I was aghast at some of the documents that I’d saved. A meeting agenda from 2006…countless articles that are now saved on my Delicious site…a to-do list from last November. Most embarrassing for me personally was a folder labeled “Web 2.0.” (How very Web 1.0!) If I had wanted to access most of this material, the first thing I would do is search online or use my bookmarks – I certainly wouldn’t thumb through countless files in my file cabinet!

I think there are several reasons why both schools and businesses should start thinking about the possibility of a paperless (or at least paper-reduced) future:

1. If we don’t force ourselves to rethink how we read, write, and communicate, we are ill prepared to teach and work with a generation that already embraces technology as its primary tool for these tasks. At McREL, we are experimenting with new ways to support our professional development sessions. For example, our Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works workshop no longer has a Participant’s Manual, but instead uses a wiki to provide key points, graphics, and links.

2. Schools currently spend upwards of $20,000 per year on paper & printers, even more on textbooks.

3. Even with recycling efforts, less paper means fewer trees are cut down, fewer trucks are needed to transport trees to a pulp mill, less pollution is spewed into the air (I grew up near a pulp mill…lessening that smell for future generations would be a very kind thing to do), and less gas is needed to transport paper to stores & offices.

So here’s my challenge: throughout the next month, question yourself whenever you start to print something. Ask if you can access or provide the same information using email, wikis, your intranet site, Delicious, or other means. Try having a meeting where bringing a laptop is encouraged. Find other ways to get information across during workshops other than printing out your PowerPoint slides. I’d love to hear what efforts you made and the ideas you came up with for going paperless.

(For more information on this topic, see the Teach Paperless blog at or follow his Tweets @teachpaperless.)

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • bmasey says:

    Going Paperless is a major point of discussion within our district in the past months. For meetings we print agendas and handouts galore, all to be recycled at the end of the meeting. We have been toying with the idea of paperless, and how to make this work. Has anyone else had a paperless effort at the district level? How are you collaborating and sharing important documents?

  • Dean Obermeyer says:

    We have talked about going paperless for a long time. It is time to stop talking about it and start doing it. (Borrowing Nike’s slogan…Just do it!) Elizabeth presented some excellent reasons and first steps to take to go paperless in the last paragraph of the post. Publishing information digitally can replace much of the paper that we generate.

  • Todd says:

    With the arrival of one-to-one laptop programs, I think that this will cut down greatly on the use of paper within the classroom. However, it is also necessary to realistically prepare students for some real-world examinations which may still take place only on paper, such as International Baccalaureate examinations (these do not become electronic until 2020!). However, I find myself scanning endless files that I used to keep. It keeps my file cabinet empty, and I can simply email the files to the appropriate classroom folders. Now think of how much time that saves me from being in front of the photocopier!!

  • Sherrie says:

    I agree that we need to work on going paperless. Within the past year I went from being an elementary classroom teacher to a middle school teacher technologist. I was amazed at what a district who is trying to go paperless was still printing. It was very wasteful. I am hoping that I can help my campus be more green in this next school year.

  • April Church says:

    As a third grade teacher, I have learned teaching methods which cut back on paperwork. I have found that my students are learning more effectively through the use of my document camera and SMARTboard. I am noticing a reduction in worksheets and my students are really excited about their learning. Plus, I am not standing at the copier my entire planning period. As teachers of this century, we should be dedicated to becoming more “green” to teach our students to be problem solvers in every area of their lives.

  • Stacie Fryer says:

    Our school district just purchased Smartboards for every classroom. After the first traning session, I knew that this technology would lessen our teachers’ dependence on textbooks and copy machines. Your article is insightful, and I am encouraged by the idea of conserving without the hassle of recycling!

  • Mike Neeland says:

    One of the challenges with a school going paperless is the need for this idea to be modeled by all members of the community.
    Although our Middle School has gone to a one-to-one laptop program, many teachers continue to print multiple copies of items that could be integrated with the laptop program. Students also still print items that could be turned in electronically.
    Our principal and superintendent actually model the paperless model to a certain extent by not printing items that can be communicated by email.
    Going paperless will be a challenge but can be achieved through modeling and education of the resources that will help reach this goal.

  • Adam Newman says:

    One of the first and most efficient ways I have seen my school start the process of getting teachers to do anything papperless was to switch to an electroninc gradebook. In a mid-sized Oklahoma school with 300 teachers, consider the cost effectiveness of 1) not buying paper gradebooks, 2)not haveing to print inelligable reports weekly to turn into an office 3) not having to print or write(by pen) discipline referrals, 4) having to remember wher you put your gradebook (or that you left it at home).
    I will admit there is an initial cost for the software, but having seen the paper saved, as well as the ability to connect to parents, makes it more than worthwhile.
    Besides, when its typed in, I don’t have to try and decifer, “Did I write a 4 or a 9?”

  • Genie Segura says:

    Going paperless is the wave of the future. I recently received a Nook for Christmas. This is Barnes and Noble’s answer to Amazon’s Kindle. In the space of a tiny paperback, this can hold around 1500 books! Reading paperless novels and books can be daunting, but the implications for the future are immense. I believe that digital textbooks as well as digital novels will soon be part of the school supply list!

  • Erin Landry says:

    I love the idea of going paperless. I tell my students to leave their textbooks at home because we never use them in class. I use other resources to supplement guided practice. I would love all the students to have tablets! They would take notes on tablets, save on jump drive, and access the same information at home on their computers. The only time I use paper is running off tests.

  • hrose says:

    I feel going paperless is something our district will get more and more involved in. Teachers find it hard to not hand out their worksheets but with more tools such as the Smartboard, MOBI,etc. it is becoming easier. However, it will have to come from admin in order to be successful.

  • wdbdee says:

    Each year, our District strives to become more and more paperless. However, our biggest struggle is the resistance we face from our teachers. We have not, to this point, convinced our teachers that they do not have to print out everything they access in their classrooms. Does anyone have any ideas for how to discourage this “printing” mindset?

  • Diane Kerestine says:

    I feel that our instructional technology leaders and administrators need to begin this process by modeling. We need to quit making hard copy handouts and agendas available at meetings and model how to do it electronically. Delicious and similar sites make for great resources for sharing sites. I think that educators need to get in the practice of doing this before our students will feel comfortable.

  • A Horen says:

    I agree that using less paper is a great goal to strive for each year. A couple problems that I have run into are the fact that parents think that their students are not learning in school if their child does not come home with a mountain of paperwork they have completed. Also, in elementary it takes a long time for some students to get handwriting down and it requires paper to practice effectively.
    Another issue that I find is that at my school we can plan for the use of technology and then the technology does not end up working out for one reason or another and we are stuck using paper and pencil type activities after all. Our computers are just so outdated that they are not able to run these great programs that would replace the use of paper.

  • So how’s going paperless, Beth? It’s true that going paperless means going green too! And it saves you more and more money in the long run. All you have to do is to get a good I.T. team and you’re good to go. I hope there will be a time when paper won’t be used for office and school works. Cheers! 🙂

  • sbtan says:

    I love the idea of going paperless and have tried encouraging the idea in my classroom, school and even at home for some time, without much success. But now with mobile technology and cloud computing becoming so pervasive, hopefully people will use less paper, since info is now more easily accessible anywhere anytime.

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