As we gear up for a new semester, some of us are likely lamenting the recent moratorium on paper. This isn’t so surprising. We’re English people. We love books. We love the smell of the library stacks, the sound of swiftly flipping pages, and the weight of words within. Paper is associated with a sense of accomplishment — generating a stack of newly completed pages is often a hard-won battle over the difficult task of writing a journal article or new short story or brand new syllabus. The printer and copier opened new pedagogical opportunities allowing us to share duplicated pages with students and colleagues alike, a technological advance we’ve happily enjoyed for a mere three decades. We have loved the tradition that is represented in print, passing on the printed word for each new class of students to cherish. I, too, have a sense of attachment to the page and worry for a future that lacks such a wonderfully tangible pleasure.
Still, I welcome the departmental shift to paperless classrooms. Granted, it isn’t much of a shift for me, since my classes have been mostly paperless since 2005. I made the switch out of personal necessity: faced with a killer travel schedule one spring, I would have been forced to cancel a lot of classes if it weren’t for the convenience of WebCT. Soon I noticed my students did different things in our online class activities than they did in person: The student who quietly listened to in-class discussions suddenly found her voice online; the usually dominant voices were tempered and mediated in their digital form; conversation as a whole explored new territories and pushed boundaries as students found it easier to speak frankly when shielded by their computer screens. Before long, I realized my students learned in new and different ways in this digital medium. Thinking and writing online engages students, encouraging exploration and self-assessment that a paper-turned-in-to-the-teacher just doesn’t allow. I was a convert.
I write this hoping it will inspire more paper-lovers to embrace the moratorium as an opportunity to evolve, to re-imagine the possibilities of education within a multitude of new medium. In order to facilitate this emergence from the paper cocoon, I offer the following tips and tools for digital learning. First, the tools:
Zotero – Zotero is a free downloadable extension for Mozilla Firefox and basically turns your browser into the smartest and most efficient notebook ever, one that can be accessed from any computer. Often with one click, capture nearly every imaginable resource in your digital library. Zotero automatically recognizes UTA Library databases, WorldCat, Amazon, and Google Scholar and captures all the metadata available for any record. With Zotero you can write extensive notes, link related items, tag keywords, create an infinite number of “libraries,” and generate bibliographies in any citation style and multiple formats (html, rtf, etc). A must for those doing extensive research! Oh, and if all that isn’t enough, Zotero also integrates with Word so you can cite in-text directly from your libraries and quickly create an accurate Works Cited page. Too cool.
Edublogs – If you want students to try online discussions or writing in a public sphere, check out Edublogs. A single blog is free and anyone can sign up (edublogs.org). Unfortunately, the free version does include advertising. But upgrading is really inexpensive, and in my opinion, totally worth the tax write-off at $36 for an entire year. The Pro version allows you to group as many as 50 blogs, create multiple group wikis, and link them all together, thus creating a networked virtual classroom rather quickly. Or, if you prefer, you can simply bulk add your students as contributors to a single advert-free blog. You can adjust privacy settings to go public or keep the group on the down-low, class members only. The interface (WordPress – same as UTA) is very easy, as simple as e-mail, and has loads more customization features than UTA blogs. I have used Edublogs as my course home page, discussion forum, and message board. Plus, I have created a complete blogging component to my course in lieu of traditional reading journals and discussion leader assignments. My students seem to get much more out of the interactive/collaborative nature of this medium: On the blog, reading journals become academic discourse in action. Check out my class blog at Revisionary.edublogs.org to see for yourself.
Screen-Capturing is seriously helpful in creating and managing the paperless classroom. While Generation M, generally speaking, tends to be technologically fluent, many of the specific classroom tools and resources are unfamiliar. Preemptively, I created demos for some of the basic electronic functions they will need to know, using the built-in screen capturing application on my iMac. This is a fabulous tool that I learned about in one of Dr. Guertin’s incredibly useful technology workshops. For example, I have one entitled “How to Post Blogs and Comments” and another called “Turning in Your Assignments.” This is a new experiment for me because last fall I just about went nuts answering repetitive questions. With a Mac, it’s a piece of cake to capture a screen, a window, or even action on the screen using the Grab application (located in Utilities folder). There are also several free downloads that enable Windows-friendly capturing (AviScreen, Jing).
GoogleDocs is kind of “old school” at this point, but still very useful for cutting down on the paper exchange inherent in group projects and peer review. Several students can edit any Word, pdf, PowerPoint, or Excel file in real-time and changes appear instantly. My students have reported that GoogleDocs really helps with group projects, particularly when organizing face-to-face meetings proves difficult. Students can meet virtually to create and revise synchronously, or work asynchronously whenever it’s convenient. Comment feature and multiple font colors make it easy to keep track of editing and revision suggestions from several peers. GoogleDocs has proved useful for me when collaborating with distant colleagues on scholarly proposals/articles as well.
Word’s Track Changes and Comment features make grading student work completely paperless. Students submit electronic versions of their essays. (See below for tips on collection and digital organization.) As soon as you open the file, turn on Track Changes. All changes will now be recorded and differentiated from the original so that they are easily identifiable to the student. You can insert comments in the margin and write an end note just like you did on paper. (See below for speedy grading tips). Save the document as a Word file or print to PDF and the changes are automatically preserved for the student to review on her own computer.
Via lots and lots of trial and error, I have learned to simplify and unify whenever possible to make the paperless classroom more manageable. Here are a few tips that may not be immediately apparent to the newly initiated digital teacher:
In closing, I’d like to leave you, Gentle Readers, with a final thought: Imagine today’s small children growing up in this digital world. If it isn’t already, it will soon be commonplace for these children to “read” interactive versions of beloved children’s books, like Dr. Seuss, on their parents’ iPhones (Mullins). In 5 years mobile media and internet will likely takeover fixed medium globally (Meeker). In other words, there will be more people connecting to the internet and performing tasks via mobile media devices than home computers. So imagine those small children of today, learning to read, write, and think in mobile pixels, growing up with the ability to access whatever they want online, at any time, and from anywhere in the world. Imagine the level of technology they (and their parents) will expect by the time they are ready for college. While I lament a future without the tangible pleasure of the page, I worry even more for a future where we are no longer capable of serving the needs of our students; where liberal education becomes a relic of an outmoded past. Perhaps there’s an opportunity in this departmental moratorium to take a few small steps towards improving and re-imagining educational possibilities in a digital world? Oh, and as a side note, I composed and published this post (almost) entirely using my mobile phone. Oh the places we can go!
Brooke, Collin Gifford. Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press (NJ), 2009. Print.
Frost, Alanna, Julie A Myatt, and Smith. “Multiple Modes of Production in a College Writing Class.” Teaching the new writing: technology, change, and assessment in the 21st-century classroom. Ed. Anne Herrington. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009. 181-197. Print.
Hart-Davidson, Bill et al. “Why Teach Digital Writing?.” KAIROS 10.1 (2005): n. pag. Web. 23 Feb. 2010.
Kist, William. The Socially Networked Classroom: Teaching in the New Media Age. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin, 2010. Print.
NCTE Executive Commitee. “21st Century Curriculum and Assessment Framework.” NCTE.org. 19 Nov. 2008. Web. 2 Feb. 2010.
Yancey, Kathleen Blake, et al. “CCCC Position Statement on Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments.” NCTE.org. 18 Aug. 2008. Web. 22 Feb. 2010.
More tools to try:
Guertin, Carolyn. “Moving Teaching Online: Screencasting.” University of Texas, Arlington. Arlington, TX. 8 April 2010. Workshop.
Meeker, Mary. “Internet Trends 2010 by Morgan Stanley Research.” CM Summit. New York City, NY. 7 June 2010. Available on Slideshare.net. Web. 23 Aug. 2010.
Mullins, Scott. “Mobile phones now put children’s books in your pocket.” Tampa Bay Online, TBO.com. 20 May 2010. Web. 23 Aug. 2010.