The Issue

Sara’s teachers have done a great job providing paperless resources for her, and in turn, she is creating paperless documents, presentations and media.  However, she is more confused than ever: she needs to check her homework on one website, find her assignments on her teachers’ personal webpages, and then access the school’s subscription services for her research on the school’s webpage.  She doesn’t know where to store everything, and what’s more, she has seven different passwords, and she can’t remember three of them.


To help Sara, we need to ensure that there are as few obstacles as possible to accessing resources and getting down to work.  She needs help with locating resources, keeping her documents organized, and cataloging her notes, photos, webpages, and media.  It would also be great if she used her email effectively to communicate and receive useful reminders.

This page describes how learning management systems, Google Apps for Education, and Evernote can provide teachers and students with the tools to stay organized and productive.  The final part of this section describes how to use email effectively and even automate it.

Learning Management Systems

A learning management system (LMS) such as Moodle is a software application that, through a website interface, provides a wide range of educational tools and opportunities.  Once students are enrolled in a teacher’s course, the LMS can provide the following features:

• students can access information about assignments and can submit their work for these assignments;

• any enrolled user in the course (with the appropriate permissions) can post text, links, webpages, quizzes, games, assignments, problem sets, presentations, images, or videos for other users to access at any time;

• all enrolled users (including parents) can view the course’s calendar, scope and sequence, overview, guidelines and expectations;

• the teacher can email all enrolled members of a course (including parents), a group within a course, or members of all his/her courses;

• students can participate in an online discussion forum or add comments to text, documents, or media posted by other students.

There are a couple of important benefits of using an LMS:

• All the course information is located on a single webpage on a server: It is NOT located in a physical location (in a paper notebook) or a single digital location (a computer’s hard-drive), both of which can be lost;

• Students can access this information wherever they can access the internet.

• There is a single sign in, and the LMS can be used as a portal to access other online resources such as gradebooks.

Having all materials, resources, assignments and the calendar in one place removes an obstacle to students accessing this information, getting the help they need, or submitting work. With a little guidance, they may even be able to automate some aspects of the website, for example, when a new assignment is posted on the class calendar, they can be sent an email.  There needs to be a certain amount of training: students need to know what is on the LMS and where to look, but once this is done, the onus is then on the students to access the information and resources.  However, because obstacles are minimized (it is all in one place, it is always accessible, they know where it is, and they may have set up automatic reminders) there is the opportunity to stay organized and productive.

Where possible, I would recommend using an LMS that is stored on a hosted server (such as Moodlerooms or Google Apps for Education) since local servers (such as at your school) can be dependent on the vagaries of local conditions and are more likely to be occasionally inaccessible.  Where a school does not offer an LMS such as Moodle or Blackboard, there are many options for teachers to create their own websites using applications such as WordPress or Google Sites (described below).

Google Apps for Education

Google Apps for Education provides email, calendars, collaborative documents, blogs, websites, YouTube videos, and the picture application Picasa.  Moreover, all of these features are integrated with each other – they are all accessed through a single sign in.

Google Apps for Education can provide many of the features of a learning management system such as Moodle.  If you begin with using Gmail, branch out to using Google Docs for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, other apps such as Calendar, Sites, Forms, and even Google-owned YouTube can help to provide a rich and organized class environment.

Google Docs, which has been around since 2007 has gradually become more feature-rich; at this point it offers many of the features of Microsoft Word.  However, there are some key differences between this word processing/spreadsheet/presentation app and more traditional software (other than the fact that Google Docs is free!)  In an article about Google Apps for Education, the website Edutopia describes some of the benefits of Google Docs: “Google Docs … allows you and your class to track what changes have been made, save each revision, and collaborate in real time. And it’s a great organizing tool: you can easily upload old documents in other applications to Google Docs so all your files are accessible in one place. Not only can your students create electronic documents and spreadsheets, they can also instantly access and edit each other’s essays, post their work to a blog, publish it as a Web page, and create eye-catching presentations — all within the same program.”

Even if we are able to get our students to go paperless by taking notes, writing papers, and submitting assignments electronically, there is still work to be done in encouraging them to stay organized.   If they consistently use Google Docs, there is a danger that their Google Drive becomes a massive repository of documents like a virtual equivalent of their bulging backpacks.

Fortunately, being digital text, the documents are searchable, so, if you know what you are looking for, it can be found fairly simply.  However, other than being able to find documents, there are other benefits for the student in staying organized:

  • When writing a paper, a report, solving a difficult problem, or writing a lab report, students should be able to access all notes/information pertinent to the assignment;
  • When it comes to test/exam time, all the documents needed for reviewing are in the same place;
  • If the student wishes to build a portfolio, again, there are few impediments to finding and collating the documents.

Therefore, it is important that we constantly encourage and remind our students to:

  • Make folders for each different subject area;
  • Make sub-folders within each subject for each unit of study;
  • Make sure that the documents are sent to the correct folders and always remember to ‘file’;
  • Name documents accurately and include the date, name and the title/subject.

Google Calendar is a web-based calendar that, like Google Docs, can be shared with anyone.  Furthermore, you can create a number of different personal calendars as well as view the calendars of others simultaneously.  Once again, all changes to the calendars work in real time, so if you add something to your calendar, everyone with whom the calendar is shared instantly has this addition.  Thus if a teacher shares a calendar with his class and adds homework assignments to the calendar, the students all instantly can see these assignments.  Events can be added to the calendar right from Gmail, and the posted event can contain information about location and other relevant notes.

Google Sites is a basic webpage building application.  You can use one of the templates provided by Google or make templates of your own to create webpages.  Like an LMS, Google Sites allows teachers to:

  • provide information about the course, expectations for student work, and contact information for the teacher;
  • provide links to resources, presentations, and videos;
  • provide links to assignments, quizzes, and tests;
  • display the classes’ calendar.

For students to submit work, this can be achieved through sharing a Google Doc with the teacher or with each other.  However, the ‘form’ application in Google Docs also offers the opportunity for teachers to create online surveys, quizzes, or tests: once the questions on the form are written and shared with the students, the application collects all responses and creates a single spreadsheet with all answers.  Susan Oxnevad on the website Cool Tools for 21st Century Educators even describes how Google Forms can be used as an electronic inbox and assignment tracker as well as a method of producing self-grading quizzes as classroom ‘exit tickets.’

Google Apps for Educators, then, offers the opportunity for teachers and students to create web-based documents, presentations, and websites that can be shared and worked-on collaboratively.  Furthermore,  Google Calendars and Sites offer resources for keeping the students informed and organized and for teachers to present all information in one location.


Not all of our digital documents and ‘stuff’ will neatly fit into Google Docs: emails, quick notes, photos, webpages, web addresses and links do not comfortably find a place into files of documents.  There are ways of fitting these square pegs into Google Docs’ round holes, but there are other solutions for catch-all digital notebooks to collect and organize your digital ‘stuff’.

As with all digital tools, there is a rapidly expanding plethora of resources that offer great potential for organization and synchronization of documents and information.  One of the most popular is Evernote.  This application allows you to create notes, organize them into notebooks, and share these notebooks with other users.  However, there are also a number of richer features: you can add photos to your notes, take pictures within a note, and add voice memos to notes (this includes the ability to take a photo of a paper document and include this image in the Evernote note).  You can upload PDFs to your Evernote notebooks, and furthermore, the paid version of Evernote has Optical Character Recognition that allows you to search PDFs by keywords.  Evernote also has a useful ‘web-clipper’ function that allows you to ‘clip’ and send articles, full pages, or web addresses to specific Evernote notebooks directly from your web browser.  Finally, you can also email content to specific notebooks using a user-specific email  address.

In short, Evernote is cloud-based storage for everything that does not lend itself easily to the word-processing, presentation, and spreadsheet applications of Google Docs.  Evernote allows very easy synchronization across all your devices: once a note has been created on your desktop, it is immediately available (and editable) on your smartphone or iPad.

Evernote is clearly a Web 2.0 tool: notebooks can be shared, students can collaborate on notes, and it is media-rich.  In terms of helping our students stay organized, Evernote is a must-have tool.  Using Evernote, they can keep all their notes, images, voice memos, links to articles and webpages and much more in one place.  Moreover, this ‘place’ is in the cloud: they cannot leave it at home!

By encouraging our students to organize their Google Docs into folders and use organizational tools such as Evernote we are not only teaching them important executive functioning skills, but providing further opportunities for academic success.  However, it can never hurt to consistently remind students of the importance of:

  • Making a file structure that makes sense;
  • Naming notes, files, and documents consistently so they can be easily found;
  • Filing their notes/documents in the right place;
  • Making sure that these files are accessible from everywhere and from all devices.

Email Triage and Automation

Brian never responds to the emails you send out.  Some emails are to the whole class – reminders – and some are sent solely to him and his advisor – updates on his progress.  However, he seems overwhelmed by email: when he shows you his inbox, you see a mountain of unread emails, some personal, some spam, some group.  He needs help.

For both students and teachers, emails can get overwhelming: soon into the school year there can be a long list of unsorted-unread email which is both daunting and a time-drain.

Fortunately, using an email client like Gmail, email can be much more than just a portal to send and receive information.  There are a number of very useful features to keep both you and your students organized and even to enhance communication with a class, colleagues, and friends:

• Use the Priority Inbox feature to sort emails into at least two inboxes: 1) emails that have been sent directly to you or have been identified as important to you (Gmail learns this in a number of ways including by tracking which emails you reply to); and 2) all other emails (where you are merely one person on a distribution list, for example).  These settings are easily customizable, and what’s even better is that the inboxes appear on the same page.

• Use ‘Starred’ emails to indicate that action is required from you.  Then, using the multiple inboxes feature, starred emails can be sorted into their own section so that they become a rich and detailed to do list.  Again, multiple inboxes appear on the same page as your priority inbox and ‘everything’ inbox.

  • Make sure the ‘Threaded Conversations” feature is turned on in settings so that all replies to an initial email are sorted into one place.
  • Contact Groups allow the opportunity to share information with classes, sections, or any variation of social groupings.
  • Filters further provide opportunities to automate the processing of your incoming email).

Using these features, your mail is sorted into multiple sections and is labelled automatically; a rich to-do list is easily created; all replies to a large group email are organized together; and you can share information with multiple groups simply using contact groups.

The technology/lifestyle website Lifehacker goes further in advocating that we can use email to replace increasingly insecure social media products such as Facebook.  In the article Turn Your Email into the Best Social Network You’ll Ever Use, Alan Henry argues that we can “post” updates and information to friends (and, by extension, students) by using contact groups.  Henry also advocates turning on Maps, Flickr, Picasa, Docs previews using the Labs menu in settings so that emails are rich in content.

Finally, one way to ‘supercharge’ your email and other web services is through the useful free application If this then that ( that automates web and email actions.  In short, IFTTT allows you to create triggers whereby if one action happens, then another automatically follows. These could include the following:

  • When you star an email, an event is posted on your calendar;
  • When you add an item to your calendar, a text is sent to your phone.
  • Or, when you star a Tweet, the post is sent to a folder in your Evernote account.

If this then that works for a wide range of web services including organizational tools like Evernote, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and read-it-later services like Instapaper.

Further Resources

This presentation by the Google Apps for Education Team provides a comprehensive overview of Google Apps: Google Apps in Classrooms and Schools: 32 Ways to use Google Apps.

For more ideas and applications for Google forms, see the Edudemic article 80 Ways to Use Google Forms in your Classroom.

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