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Paper Is Already Written Off by Some

April 19, 2001|SUSAN McLESTER |

"Paper is dead," I scribbled on my steno pad, shifting the heft of the handouts and conference brochure to my other knee. "Soon, only electronic communication."

I was taking down quotes from a keynote speech at an education technology conference. Later, I went back to my hotel room and typed "paper is dead" in an e-mail to a colleague. "Server Not Responding," my laptop informed me.

So, in the end, I printed out the e-mail and faxed the message back to the office.

Down on the exhibit floor, I visited several publishers who produce curriculum materials for schools. After making the rounds, I was carrying a 10-pound stack of media kits. I put 5 pounds' worth into my luggage and the other 5 in my briefcase to read on the flight home.

Sometimes I read press materials on my computer while flying, unless my battery goes dead or there's somebody in front of me who wants to lean his or her seat too far back for me to see the screen clearly. Other times, I read traditionally delivered newspapers or magazines.

Is paper dead?

For some. Perhaps.

But not for me.

A couple of years ago, I visited an unusual classroom in a continuation high school near San Jose. The teacher, Gail Long, was a 30-year educator who had become intrigued by the possibilities of technology for reaching her at-risk kids.

As in any continuation high school, Long's students were not mainstream. In this group were parents, full-time employees, halfway house residents, foster kids, youngsters who'd had various run-ins with the law and others with very low tolerance for school and the social interaction at its core.

Recognizing that it would take something fairly radical to keep these students attending school on a regular basis and staying in long enough to graduate, Long conceived of the idea of the totally paperless classroom.

Because continuation schools don't usually have active PTA groups, raising extra funds for anything can be a challenge. Long researched and wrote grant proposals on her own and was able to get the funds to equip her room with a computer for every student, each with a CUseeMe camera attachment.

At the beginning of class, students would enter the room and go straight to their computers. Booting up, they'd learn their assignment via a video of their teacher explaining the steps of the day's tasks. The day I was there, students read a Walt Whitman poem online, then conducted a dialogue with one another about it via messaging software.

They worked at their own pace, interacting with one another in a non-challenging way without the pressure of having to respond immediately, competing with peers for the attention of the class or being put on the spot without an answer. More important, there was no authoritarian figure watching over their shoulders and judging.

The results of this teacher's experiment were all positive. Daily attendance rose and the dropout rate fell. Long's observation: Simply having the computers to interact with, and not someone in their faces, was a huge motivation for these kids.

Also, not having to shuffle the packet of deadly dull work sheets these kids usually deal with lifted another huge burden. One boy I spoke with had discovered a talent for computer art and was saving up to purchase a professional-level Corel Draw package. A girl was writing and sharing poetry about her experiences. And all the students were acquiring the computer skills and confidence with technology they would need to be employable in the near future.

And the teacher? She had gained a second wind for teaching and new skills through these creative uses of technology.

Back at the office last week, we passed along an electronic media kit like a hot potato, mumbling something about it maybe not working on our computers. We could have perused it online, but, like many, we are multi-taskers, reading media releases with one eye, answering e-mail or editing a feature with the other.

Maybe a paperless world is in our future and some of us are just not ready for it. Or maybe it all just depends on who you are and what you need.


Susan McLester is editor of Technology & Learning magazine.

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