In order to go paperless, there are several items of hardware that are needed to replace pens, paper, books, and the blackboard.  This chapter will describe the basic requirements for hardware in the classroom as well as providing some alternative solutions.

The Computer

Things are changing rapidly in the world of personal computing.  Just a few years ago, for the home computer user, there was basically the choice between a desktop and a laptop computer.  Then along the netbook (really just a mini laptop), but it was soon superseded by the tablet computer (or more specifically, the iPad.)  Simultaneously, however, with the dawn of smartphones, there has been a hyperbolic growth in the computing power of your mobile phone.  Many people are now have the luxury of having significant computing power across several devices they own: for example, a tradition desktop or laptop computer, an iPad, and a smartphone.

This situation provides both a challenge and an opportunity: how can we insure that as much information for/ access to our courses is available across multiple platforms?  Clearly, some platforms are better for certain tasks than others (it is generally easier to edit documents on a laptop, and it is more natural to take a photo or write a text with a smartphone).  However, the opportunity to make assignments, calendars, videos, texts etc. available for computers, tablets, and phones is simply too valuable to pass up and teachers and students may find themselves in the position of using one or all of them in a class environment.

On the school or district level, decisions need to be made whether to issue students and teachers with laptops, tablet computers, or iPads (or a combination of two).  Should students be required to purchase computers, or will the school provide them, or merely enough computers to furnish a computer lab or a laptop cart?

From a teacher’s perspective, the decisions center around which device is going to be best for which task or activity:

  • Laptop/ desktop computers: creating, editing, and providing feedback on documents, managing course management sites,  using ‘heavyweight’ applications such as Photoshop, and entering grades and comments into a  grade recording database;
  • Tablet computers: hand writing/ marking up digital content;
  • iPad: presenting materials in the classroom, taking notes and adding media to notes, using lightweight video and image editing applications (iPhoto, Snapseed), videoconferencing (Skype/ FaceTime), displaying images/ videos;
  • Smartphones: communicating by text/ phone, taking photos or videos, recording audio content (particularly in an interview).

Finally, there is one serious consideration when moving to a paperless leaning environment: Will all students have access to the internet outside the classroom?  If not, how can the school provide access for them?  This may be decision to be addressed at the school or district level, but equal access should be considered when planning all aspects of a course and classroom setup.

The Projector

Where digital text can take the place of pen on paper, so can it replace the need to write on a black or whiteboard.  There are two compelling reasons why using a computer and projector in the classroom instead of a white/ blackboard:

  1. Anything projected in the classroom from the computer can be saved, shared, and stored for future use/ reference;
  2. Virtually anything can be projected onto a screen: digital text, handwritten notes (written as the class progresses), videos, images, webpages, historical documents.  What is more, using annotation and markup tools (see Chapter X Section X), all of these media can be personalized to the needs of the class through highlighting, marks, and comments.

It is rarely the responsibility of the classroom teacher to acquire and set up a projector for a classroom.  However, where a teacher has input into the setup of a projector, the following considerations should be addressed:

  • Will the projector be bright enough for the students to easily read text even where the lights are on in the classroom? As a rule of thumb, a minimum rating of 1500 lumens should be sufficient for most classroom situations.
  • Will it be possible to mount the projector on the ceiling/ out of harm’s way?  Mounting the projector has several benefits: if it is in a fixed position, there is less need to re-focus, re-direct, or otherwise calibrate the projected image; it will reduce the possibility of students looking directly into the light stream which could possibly damage their eyes; where prying hands can’t reach the projector, there is less chance of it being damaged or, in a worst-case scenario, disappearing altogether!
  • Can the projector be mounted fairly close to the screen: the closer the projector is to the screen, the brighter and sharper the image will be.  There is a balance issue here, however: it cannot be too close as the image will be small.  Nevertheless, a projected image about 6 feet wide is more than sufficient for most classrooms.
  • Is there a remote control so that the projector can be easily turned off and on as the class switches between activities?
  • How will the teacher (or students) connect a computer to the projector?  If it is a wired connection, will the chord be long enough to allow some flexibility in connecting from different parts of the room?

The Scanner

This is an essential tool in the process of converting paper documents into a digital format.  Chapter X, Section X discusses this process in more detail, but in brief, a scanner takes a snapshot of a piece of paper and then can convert that snapshot into a PDF file.  Using Preview, Adobe Pro or a variety of internet applications, you can then edit the content, transfer it to a different format (Word, Google Docs), or search the document for keywords.  Dedicated scanners have been around for years, but an useful development in the high-end photocopiers used in most schools is the ability of photocopiers to feed through stacks of paper documents, scan them, and either email them to you or save the documents on a USB drive.

Apple TV

The Apple TV has been described by Apple themselves as just a ‘hobby’, and certainly, it is a product that not that many people know about since Apple does not market it.  However,  it is creeping into houses and businesses: 1.2 million Apple TVs were sold in the second quarter of 2012 alone.

This ‘hockey puck’ shaped device connects directly to a TV or projector, and through an internet connection, allows users to connect to online content such as video sites such as Netflix, Vimeo, or YouTube.  It also can stream movies or music bought through iTunes, display personal photos, or stream content from other services such as the Wall Street Journal or the NBA.

However, in terms of the classroom, one of the most compelling features of Apple TV is the Airplay feature: you can display anything from the screen of you Mac computer, iPad, iPhone, or iTouch through the Apple TV to the projector wirelessly.  Consider the following opportunities:

  • the teacher wirelessly projects her presentation from her iPad.  (Often, teachers’ computer terminals are located at the back of the class making presentation awkward without using a remote control; by using a wirelessly-connected iPad, the teacher can address the class from anywhere in the room and control the projected images; they become ‘untethered’).
  • students project maps, videos, photos, voice recordings from their iPhones; these can even be content they have made on their phones just moments before they project them for the whole class to see.  Switching between devices using the Airplay feature is quick and easy.
  • wherever there is a projector, the teacher or students can bring along the Apple TV to connect their Mac/ iPad/ iPhone to the projector to make a presentation/ show a video.  After plugging the Apple TV into a power source, there is only one cable to connect to the projector, (though you may need to use a HDMI to VGA adaptor if the projector does not have an HDMI input).

There is an access issue evident again here: what if not all students have an iPad, iPhone, Mac, or iTouch?  Some schools are moving to issuing all students with iPads, going to an all-Mac platform, or requiring all students to purchase a MacBook Air.  Where this is not the case, there needs to be consideration paid to insuring equal access to the features offered by Apple TV.

Interactive Whiteboards

Interactive whiteboards (such as SmartBoards) have been around for many years now and are fairly widely used.  A computer (running the interactive whiteboard software) is connected to a projector which displays the computer’s image on a touch-sensitive large whiteboard.  The computer can then be controlled from the interactive whiteboard: presentations/ websites/ documents can be projected and marked up on the whiteboard and saved for future reference; math problems can be hand-written on the board by students or teachers and saved and posted on the course’s website.  The interactive whiteboard is a valuable tool in that it provides the visual stimulus/ focal point of the whiteboard while also providing many of the tools offered by current technology, notably, the ability to save and share notes, marked-up documents, presentations etc.  While using an the interactive whiteboard provides many opportunities for using Web 2.0 tools, there are some ways in which it creates a less collaborative/ student-centered environment than an Apple TV/ projector solution:

  • The teacher (or presenter) is ‘tethered’ to the front of the class: to change the content on the whiteboard, you stand at the whiteboard;
  • the content on the interactive whiteboard streams only from the computer wired to the board: it is not easy to project content from other devices or computers onto the board

There is the temptation, then, that when using an interactive whiteboard, a class may be more teacher-centric than an AppleTV class: content on the whiteboard streams from a single computing source and is controlled from the board itself.  Students clearly can come to the whiteboard to add content, but it is likely that the board is still connected to the teacher’s computer.  A classroom set up round an interactive whiteboard clearly can be student-centric, but since the class is set up in such a traditional ‘sage on the stage’ manner, the commitment to remaining student-centric may need to be more conscious than in a differently-configured classroom.


Major technology decisions are generally outside the scope of individual classroom teachers, but in creating a paperless classroom environment, a teacher needs to make decisions regarding which computing platform to use (in general, or for particular tasks) and how to project the paperless content for everyone in the class to see.  Whatever decisions are made, the bigger question should always be how will the set up of the classroom affect the interaction between teacher and students and between students themselves; how will the choice of hardware affect the engagement and motivation of the students?  I would argue that providing the opportunity for all members of the class to project content from any of his/her devices encourages an environment of shared ownership and responsibility for learning.

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