Creating Paperless Text

There are many ways to produce materials and resources for your courses in a paperless form.  The most obvious perhaps are word processors.  Most of us are more than familiar with Microsoft Word and the multiple benefits of creating documents in such an application over writing by hand or typing: ‘edit-ability,’ save-ability, and the ability to share and project the document.  Google Docs is a newer application and one which is arguably more ‘Web 2.0’ in character.  However, there are a variety of other ways to create paperless documents:

  • Use a scanner to convert paper files to a Portable Document Format (PDF) so that the document can be projected in the classroom and shared digitally with the students;
  • Use presentation programs rather than writing on a black board;
  • Use markup and annotation tools to add comments, highlights, and marks on digital documents and webpages and share these comments/notes with others;
  • Use blogs, wikis, and websites (see definitions later in this section) to ‘publish’ work and information making it accessible to anyone whom you give permission to from anywhere they can get online;
  • Read texts in ebook format; use the annotation tools to take notes and highlight significant passages.  Then, refer to all your annotations in one location, share them with others, or even make flashcards from the annotations:  iBooks - notes and highlights


In turn, students can use similar paperless resources to generate their own paperless text, publish it for an audience wider than the teacher, and keep it organized.



You’ve made the decision to go paperless, but what do you do with all those old handouts you have that represent years of work and prepping for classes?  You have quizzes, materials, and notes on a topic that you haven’t taught for several years during which your school-issued computer has changed a couple of times and you’ve moved from 3 inch “floppy” discs to “The Cloud.”  All is not lost: the solution lies in scanners, PDFs, and OCRs.  First, many people regularly use a scanner to make digital images of  paper documents: put your paper document on the glass plate, press start, and a digital copy will be sent to your computer through a USB cable, saved onto a USB storage device, or emailed to you.  It is important to label the document carefully and then file it in an electronic folder.  (The ebook “Paperless” by David Sparks has an excellent guide to naming, filing, and backing up electronic documents along with many other aspects of the process on going paperless.)

Besides printed documents, scanners can be used to make copies of photographs or anything that is two dimensional.  Scanners are great for making digital copies of single sheets, but can be laborious when you have many documents to scan.  Fortunately, many newer scanners and photocopiers now have the ability not only to scan documents, but also feed multiple pages automatically: you can put a pile of documents into the feeder, and the photocopier will automatically pull them through the scanner so you don’t need to lift the lid up a thousand times.

Once you have the digital document, it is likely to be a Portable Document Format (PDF).  This is essentially a snapshot of the printed document.  You now have a digital copy of your document that can be shared with anyone and be backed up in the cloud so no matter what happens to your computer/paper copies, you will always have a copy of the document.  If the document is in a different format such as TIFF (Tagged Image File Format), JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group), PNG (Portable Network Graphics), or GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), these file types can be converted to PDF by using an application such as Apple’s Preview (use the Export command) or by using the Save As command in a program such as Adobe Acrobat.

However, if you wish to search or manipulate your newly digital documents, further steps are required.

To search your scanned documents for particular words or phrases, you will need an application that has an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) feature such as the paid version of Evernote.  Applications with OCR can scan your PDFs for keywords so the documents are searchable.  Some applications such as Adobe PDF Pro or PDFpen are able to convert PDFs to text so that the text can be copied into Microsoft Word or Pages document and then the text can be edited in the familiar way.

Besides using dedicated scanners and photocopiers to scan documents, the cameras on smartphones and iPads can be used to capture documents, and apps such as Quick Scan can convert the images into PDFs.

Annotation Tools

When reading a text, it is often helpful to highlight significant passages, write notes in the margin, and even dog-ear pages.  Clearly, these activities are traditionally accomplished with a pencil or highlighter pen.  However, there are many paperless tools that allow readers to do each of these things as well as providing an even richer set of features.

As above, perhaps the mark up tool that most people are familiar with is the ‘track changes’ function in Word that allows you to highlight, add comments, and annotate text.  Additionally, if the document is shared between multiple users, they can identify the annotations of each other (the various contributors are each assigned a different color).

Documents in PDF format can also be annotated using Adobe applications to highlight the text in a variety of colors, create “sticky notes,” and even create interactive mouseover text.

With regard to annotating webpages or text stored in the cloud, there are a wealth of tools that can add sticky notes to webpages and highlight or annotate webpages/images.  These annotated pages can then be shared or saved in a multiplicity of ways providing opportunities for collaboration.  The recent update to Apple’s Preview application provides an annotation function for both images and PDFs, but other applications such as Evernote’s Skitch provide similar functions across various platforms.

Paperless Publishing

Project-Based Learning, authentic assessment and other recent major educational philosophies emphasize the importance of students having a real-world audience for their work.  As the internet has matured, there has become an increasing array of ways for students to ‘publish’ work, or at least share it with others.   Below, I will describe the three most common paperless publishing tools.


According to Wikipedia, “A wiki is a website which allows its users to add, modify, or delete its content via a web browser.”  The most well-known wiki (from the Hawaiian for “quick”) is Wikipedia, a collaborative online encyclopedia with 22 million articles in 285 languages and an estimated “2.7 billion monthly page views from the United States alone” (source:

Though some educators are critical of Wikipedia for the quality of writing accuracy of the content, others see it as a highly up-to-date first stop for students in researching a new topic.  Whatever the shortfalls or advantages of Wikipedia, wikis as a genre provide the opportunity for students to collaborate in pooling their knowledge and research to publish a webpage, website, or study guide.  In other words, it is another publishing/real-world opportunity that encourages students to collaborate.  According to the creators of the wiki Ward Cunningham and Bo Leuf in The Wiki Way: Quick Collaboration on the Web, the wiki, “Seeks to involve the visitor in an ongoing process of creation and collaboration that constantly changes the Web site landscape.”


A blog (a contraction of the phrase “web log”) is most commonly an online journal consisting of discrete posts organized in reverse chronological order..  Typically, blogs have one author and often contain discussions or musings of a personal variety.  However, some productivity gurus promote the use of blogs as a way of providing answers to FAQs for your students: instead of answering similar questions in multiple emails, a link to a blog post on the subject can be referred to whenever and provides a useful archive for answers, learning issues, and ideas.  (Click here for a link to a useful productivity website.) For students, a blog provides a media for sharing ideas and publishing journal entries, and provides the opportunity to comment upon the journal entries of other students.


Similarly, websites (such as WordPress or even Google Sites) provide the ability to publish information for everyone or just a select group to see.  One benefit of websites over blogs is that they can offer the ability to publish a variety of media types such as videos and are often easier to organize in non-chronological ways.  Learning management systems  can function in a similar way to websites, though they also offer the ability for students to submit work, receive grades and comments, etc.

Electronic Books

The Kindle might be the gadget that really ignited the ebook phenomenon, but certainly other ebook readers (including smartphones) have played their part in the significant rise in popularity of ebooks over the past few years.  In fact, according to a recent BBC news article, sales of ebooks on Amazon (the U.K.’s largest book retailer) have now surpassed print books.

While many may rue the decline of opportunities to experience the tactile delights of a printed book, ebooks offer the reader many attractive features:

  • The text is searchable;
  • The text can be highlighted and annotated, and your notes can be accessed as a single document;
  • You can view the notes and highlights of other readers;
  • Notes and highlights can be shared, and vocabulary words can automatically generate flashcards;
  • Interactive images, web-links, and videos can be integrated into the text;
  • Ebooks are light, and they are easily stored and transported.

Ebooks are now become “Web 2.0” in nature with the introduction of user-friendly applications in which to write electronic books, integrate images and videos, and publish them online.  No longer, then do students and teachers need to remain as readers of ebooks: they can now write them too.

Creative Commons License

Beyond the Paperless Classroom by David Doherty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.