Goodbye Paperless Classroom, Hello Collaboration

After a three-week experiment, I’ve decided that I’m going to downgrade my classroom from “paperless” to “minimal paper usage.” Every student in our school is given a tablet computer, which is awesome, yet very few teachers take advantage of the tablet capabilities of these computers. I thought I would try this year and had every student bringing their tablet to every class. We have been taking notes and doing homework with Microsoft OneNote. The cool part about this is that I have their notebooks shared with me on our school network, so I can check out their notes if I want, AND no one has to rip out paper from their notebook to hand in, only to lose it when I hand it back (or, on the rare occasion, have me lose it). OneNote automatically syncs with their shared notebook on the network, so I can grade their notebooks on my computer without them sending anything to me, and then they can automatically see my marks on their homework notebook the next time they open up their computers and sync – without me sending anything to them. This, I have found, is absolutely awesome. It’s more efficient and more organized and I think saves a considerable amount of valuable class time.

But the in-class tablet usage is another story. Here are the downsides:

  • It has taken them like an average of 6.8 minutes* to start-up their computers and get going every class, which is possibly the most annoying thing in the world. My hairline recedes a little bit at the beginning of each class from the stress of the wasted time – I couldn’t have kept that up for very long.
  • Our tablets are not reliable. Every class, someone’s computer wont start, the pen wont work, the screen wont flip to the right orientation, a computer will spontaneously light itself on fire etc. etc. I’ll get a hand raised every lesson with someone asking me an annoying tech question that I can’t answer and I have to make the choice of whether to help them out or to keep going with class and let them fend for themselves. As an efficient/impatient person, I choose the latter, sorry kid!
  • Most importantly, there’s a weird invisible barrier between everyone with computers in front of them. I have found that the level of collaboration in the class went way down. I could have predicted this with regular laptops, but I would have thought that the tablet would feel just like a regular notebook. But something about that extra weight over a notebook keeps people from scooting over to see what a neighbor is doing, keeps the computer flat on the table instead of being able to show someone else, and keeps students eyes down more often than up.

Final decision: I’m keeping the tablets for the homework (where efficiency is paramount and collaboration doesn’t really matter), but ditching them for in class stuff. Though I’m sad it failed, it helped me really realize what I value in my classroom. Frank’s famous $2 Interactive Whiteboard post really captures well how technology can actually restrict modalities of learning though it can expand our abilities to visualize and manipulate things. And even though I read that a few times this summer, it took the experience of the tablets to make me really understand what he was talking about.

So what did I do? I had the school order whiteboards for the math department. And we used them today to play the Mistake Game, where students present the solution to problems and purposely hide a mistake in their solution. And it was awesome. My favorite math class of the year by far.

I guess I’m willing to sacrifice a tree or two for mathematics sake.

[See the mistake(s)?? Kind of a silly one.]

*Educated guess. I’m not ridiculous enough to actually time that and record the data.

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Posted on September 29, 2011, in Calculus, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful evaluation of the tablet in your class. While I get the validity of what you are saying in your own class, I have observed powerful and engaging collaborative work using tablets in class. The three key issues you bulleted will clearly be ongoing topics of conversation as we move forward.

    • Great point – I think the way I said it was very “all or nothing.” I still plan on doing a lot with Geogebra/Logger Pro/Excel and other tech-based projects (so it’s nice we’re 1-1 for that), but I guess I realized more that I need to be more intentional about the way I use the tablets. I don’t think they’re great for EVERYTHING, so I just need to use them more selectively. Instead of requiring kids to bring their computer every day, I’m just going to tell them when they need their computer. Also, it’s worth it to point out that about 30-40% of the students indicated that they probably will still take notes on the tablet anyway.

  2. Yay for whiteboarding! Also, my students think it’s awesome that people in Jordan are playing the Mistake Game.

    I’m doing an experiment to go paperless just for myself this year. I’m importing PDFs of my packets onto an iPad and using Notetaker HD and an awesome Jot stylus to write on them. So far, so good. Maybe later in the year I will get a kid to borrow a library iPad and try it for themselves. I know a few of them are interested. I don’t see us going there for the whole class any time soon, though.

  3. Man, oh man have I also witnessed how tablets limit collaboration in the classroom (unless it’s a funny YouTube video, of course). I never attempted to go paperless because my iPads are only a classroom set and don’t go home with the kids. I would love for the students to use them to organize their notes but there’s just not a great way unless the students keep the machine with them at all times.

    But since I’ve had the iPads in the classroom, my use of white boarding activities has increased significantly.

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