Going Paperless in the Classroom

Shredded PaperLast week I highlighted a few of the ways I’ve gone paperless at conferences. Continuing on that theme, I want to share a few tips for going paperless in the classroom. Or at least for using less paper in the classroom.

Course Documents

When it comes to syllabi and assignments, it’s a simple matter to distribute these documents to students electronically. Because I use class blogs as the central platform for all of my courses, I simply incorporate these documents directly into the structure of the blog. But it’s also just as easy to distribute them to students as PDFs (through email or Blackboard, for example).

Note that you should check with your institution before you stop distributing paper copies of your syllabus to your students. Up until last year I was required by my university to have paper copies of the syllabus at the beginning of the semester. That rule has changed now, and in fact, faculty are being encouraged to deliver course documents electronically to their students.

Administrative Tasks

I’ve stopped printing out attendance sheets, and simply call up a Google Doc spreadsheet, either on the instructor’s computer (if there’s one in the room), or on my iPad. Because Google Docs is so mobile-friendly, you could also do this on your iPhone or Android phone. As I’ve described before on ProfHacker, I use OffiSync to sync my Google Doc spreadsheet with my laptop, so no matter what hardware I’m on, I have the latest copy of the document. I also use an electronic gradebook, a tool we’ve covered before on ProfHacker.

Lecture Notes and Presentations

Now is not the time to debate the merits or failings of lecturing or of PowerPoint. I do want to point out, though, that in the same way I’ve been performing my conference talks without paper, I now put all my class notes and outlines on my iPad, rather than print them out. As I mentioned last week, the easiest way to do this is to save my daily outlines on DropBox, which I can readily access from my iPad in the classroom.

Student Work

I rarely have students turn in hard copies of their work any more. Blackboard is my mortal enemy, in terms of usability, design, features, and philosophy, but there’s no way getting around the fact that Blackboard is my institutionally-sanctioned and FERPA-compliant way to interact with students when student work and grades are involved.


While much of the required reading for my courses comes only in book form, I rely on e-journals and e-reserves when I can. My campus library runs the e-reserve system, and it’s incredibly responsive in scanning articles or chapters (within Fair Use guidelines) and making them available for students on a password-protected site.

The Hazards of Going Paperless

The most obvious drawback to going paperless in the classroom is what happens when the technology doesn’t work. It happens. The classroom network is down. The computer doesn’t work. Students have trouble logging in. I’ve encountered all of these problems. On the whole, though, going paperless has streamlined my teaching, making me organized and prepared for my daily teaching.

I’ve found the greater problem to be how students handle my paperlessness. When we have readings that exist only as PDFs, I ask my students either to print out the material or bring it to class on an electronic device (laptop, netbook, Kindle, iPad, I don’t care). This occasionally does not happen. And it always happens with some students. It’s quite frustrating to talk about an article that students don’t have in front of them. But I began running into this problem a long time ago—long before I shifted toward electronic versions of readings. Perhaps it’s simply the 21st century version of students not bringing their books to class. Nonetheless, I still struggle with ways to encourage students to treat digital texts with the same seriousness they bring to printed material.

What about you? How have you gone paperless in the classroom? How do you deal with the pitfalls of going paperless, particularly the problems of accessibility and accountability as they relate to students?

[Shredded Paper photo courtesy of Flickr user Peat Bakke / Creative Commons License]

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