While I have long been a fan of gadgets, I’ve never really been interested in programming or the heavy-lifting aspects of technology (as an undergraduate, I studied musicology).  However, over my twenty years of teaching, I have used an increasing number of technological tools to help me teach and to help my students learn.  Between the beginning of my teaching career in 1991 and the time when I became a full-time administrator in 2006, I used:

  • Word processors (Microsoft Word)
  • Presentation applications (PowerPoint)
  • Spreadsheet apps (Excel)
  • Email (Hotmail, then Yahoo, then Gmail)
  • An interactive whiteboard (SmartBoard)
  • Music writing software (Finale)

Not a very impressive list, then.  However, my perspective shifted, when after five years as an administrator, I had the opportunity to again teach a section of my favorite course: tenth grade English.

So much had happened in these five years, though.  Instead of a tiny flip phone that took terrible pictures, made texting difficult, and had no internet access, I had an iPhone.  I also had an iPad (I said I liked gadgets!) and therefore had access to the internet pretty much everywhere and all the time.  (During these five years, the world had gone wireless, with free wifi in every Starbucks.)

What is more important, however, it was apparent that my students now had one or both of these tools, and their dedication to using their phones was evident all around the school.  They also had computers at home, and the school itself had increased students’ access to computers in terms of the number of laptops, desktops, tablet computers, and even some iPads.  Moreover, the world of the internet had moved from ‘Web 1.0’ (you receive content) to the much more interactive ‘Web 2.0’ era (you receive content but you can also produce content).

As I planned this English class, then, after an absence of five years, there were a whole set of new tools available to both me and my students.  It soon became apparent that not only could these tools help me share content with the students, they could also offer many new ways of communication.  They offered many new opportunities for collaboration.  And they offered opportunities for creating videos, photo galleries, blogs or myriad ways for communicating ideas and sharing work.

As I taught this course, it was soon obvious that my students were as excited about using these tools as I was.  They loved using the mouse-over interactive text while reading Macbeth (see Creating Paperless Documents), they put in hard hours to produce video documentaries (see Engaging Students), and the intensity of the silence as they collaborated on a test review sheet (see Encouraging Collaboration) was shocking.  A test review sheet!

In other areas, I used technology tools as ‘workarounds’ to the challenges of working with teenage boys: it didn’t take me long to remember how high schoolers were prone to forgetting and losing things: books, notes, papers with my markups, assignments, planners.  If I could make it so that their work and the materials for the class were on the internet, then they would not be able to lose them or leave them at home.  Moreover, I now had a whole new toolkit of ways to remind them of what they needed to bring and do.

It became apparent, then, that not only could using these tools help them stay organized, but that they also motivated and engaged the students.  However, the engagement only occurred when the students were using the tools themselves to address issues, solve problems, and create presentations, websites, and videos.  It was not sufficient for me to be the only one using the tools.

Therefore, I needed to make a shift in the kind of assignments and assessments I gave the students, and the Project-Based Learning (PBL) movement provided an excellent framework for using the interactivity of the new technology.   Since PBL provides learning opportunities that address the higher order thinking skills described in Bloom’s Taxonomy (analyzing, evaluating, and creating), it is not surprising that students are going to be more engaged than when they are assigned work that addresses the lower-order skills (remembering and understanding).

However, there are many occasions when these lower-order skills are necessary (building vocabulary/foundational skills).  Fortunately, the new resources provided a motivating alternative to the usual drills and quizzes: games.  Where students in my class had previously completed sets of questions in building their SAT-prep vocabulary, the publisher of the vocabulary textbook now offered hangman, word searches, competitive multiple choice quizzes that the students played voluntarily!

The class still had some ‘traditional’ elements: the five-paragraph essay, daily study guides and quizzes to nudge the students to complete their reading assignments, and a final exam.  But when these elements were blended with projects where they collaborated and created a publishable project as well as games that drilled critical knowledge and skills, the outcome was clear: the students got their work in on time, they always had access to class materials (because they couldn’t forget them), and most importantly, they worked hard and enjoyed their work.  Several students at the end of the year even commented that it was the best course they had ever taken.

The paperless classroom, then, is not just one where the pen and paper is replaced by digital text.  It is one where twenty-first century technology tools enhance communication, help students stay organized, and engage and motivate students through collaborative and creative classroom experiences.  It is one where interactive and adaptive games and programs make acquiring knowledge and skills fun and competitive.  And it is one where students learn technological skills – and importantly, how to effectively and properly use these skills – that will prepare them for twenty-first century life.
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Beyond the Paperless Classroom by David Doherty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.