Curriculum

‘Paperless’ Approach Catching On

By Michelle R. Davis — September 04, 2008 6 min read

Teacher Kerri Serrano had spent untold hours and countless reams of paper copying material for her 12th grade government class when finally she had an epiphany: She’d give up paper altogether.

Her school, T.C. Williams High in the 10,500-student Alexandria, Va., school district, had just been renovated to make it more environmentally friendly, so Serrano decided to stick with that theme.

“I had become so frustrated with the amount of time it would take to make copies of certain things, and there are some items students could access only on the computer,” she says.

Across the country, more districts are making a variety of efforts to go cold turkey, or at least cut back, on their use of paper. Schools are forgoing textbooks for online versions, school board members have laptop computers on the dais instead of thick paper agenda books, and classrooms such as Serrano’s are opting for laptops over three-ring binders.

The paperless movement has “saved a lot of trees, freed up staff time, and in most cases has produced a financial cost savings in the long run,” says Ann Flynn, the director of educational technology for the National School Boards Association.

In Serrano’s classroom, students have laptops and use a product from the software company Blackboard, based in Washington, as an interface with students. All the work Serrano creates is posted on a Blackboard site, and students can access it. Students can search a folder by date for assignments and turn in work online. They take tests on their laptops using the same system, which provides a “lockdown” mode barring students from browsing the Internet or opening a document. If the test is multiple-choice, students get their scores immediately after taking it.

Serrano says the best part of going paperless is the flexibility it provides. “If something’s not working, I don’t have to stick with that for the rest of the day because that’s all I have copies of,” she says. “If an article is not provoking discussion, I can adjust the material immediately by searching for something online. I’m not tied down.”

‘Increases Efficiency’

School boards were some of the first and most eager school-related entities to go paperless, or paper-independent, Flynn says. “It’s definitely been a trend over the last several years,” she says.

Before giving up paper, Flynn says, school board staff employees typically prepared big notebooks of all agenda items and related materials for board members. In a paperless board meeting, all that information is loaded onto a Web site that members can access online. Often the product allows school boards to have public sections in which anyone can look at the meeting agenda and some supporting material, as well as a private, members-only section for information on personnel or other sensitive topics.

Sophia Tarlas, the marketing manager for Emerald Data Solutions, an Atlanta-based company that produces the e-board system BoardDocs, says more than 240 school districts use the BoardDocs product. Board members typically have laptop computers open in front of them during a meeting, can vote online, and use their BoardDocs site like a library, because all the material is automatically archived.

“It’s almost like a notebook for the notes that go into an agenda, but we’re the one that keeps it all together,” Tarlas says.

The online process also increases communication with the public, since more people can access the board’s agenda and supporting documents than when each packet was prepared by hand. “It saves paper, but it also increases efficiency,” Tarlas says. “It’s not like we have to sacrifice to go green.”

BoardDocs annual fees range up to $12,000 per district, though some state school boards’ associations have partnered to get a reduced fee for their districts.

The Georgia School Boards Association produced its own paperless-school-board service, and it was so successful that the association started a subsidiary company, eBOARDsolutions. The for-profit company, started in 2001, now offers technology services to more than 200 school boards, most of them in Georgia, says Mark Willis, the assistant executive director of the Georgia association and the chief operating officer of eBOARDsolutions.

Over time, the company has gone way beyond paperless school board meetings. It now provides software programs and other services to help run meetings, create and track online policies, and develop and monitor strategic plans. For those in Georgia, the company also offers an online school law reference area, Willis says.

Willis says districts using eBOARDsolutions have seen annual savings from a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000, depending on how many board meetings were held.

“Without a doubt, everyone is saving a significant amount in terms of hard dollars and out-of-pocket costs, but there’s also staff time to be factored in there,” he says. “The data is already out there, so people aren’t calling in for record requests. They can do searches and find what they need.”

Costs for an eBOARDsolutions product can range from $5,500 to $12,000 a year for the online-meetings component. The full lineup of products the company offers can cost up to $20,000 a year.

The school board of Indiana’s 12,000-student Warren Township school district, located on the east side of Indianapolis, has been using BoardDocs products for several years. Jane Glover, the administrative assistant to the superintendent, says she puts the information electronically on the board site, and board members use laptops to view the agenda items and attachments.

“In the past, we created these monstrous books of documentation,” she says. “We’re saving lots of paper and lots of time.”

Paperless Challenges

Going paperless isn’t effortless, however.

To begin with, some states still require school boards to retain printed copies of board material, Tarlas of Emerald Data Solutions says.

But BoardDocs programs retain a copy of all board and meeting materials on their own internal server, which is backed up nightly and stored, similar to the handling of bank and credit card information.

While Serrano, the Virginia high school teacher, says students often seem more engaged using a laptop over paper and pencil, classroom management is still a challenge.

“One of the concerns is that students play games [on the computer] and don’t do their work,” she says. “It comes down to the same classroom-management skills you need to have if you’re using paper. When [I was a student and] had a notebook, I used to write notes to my friends and draw pictures. It’s just a different medium.”

In addition, some students don’t have easy access to the Internet after school, so Serrano says they’ll save a Web page to their desktop and work offline at home or copy and paste information as a reference. She does allow students to turn in work on paper if they’ve had a technical problem or feel more comfortable doing so.

For some school board members, the transition may be a bit more difficult, says Flynn of the National School Boards Association. She adds that it’s important to provide technical support to members when switching to a paperless-meeting system.

“School board members reflect a lot of American society and trend toward the less tech-savvy end of the population spectrum,” she says. “A few districts run into issues where one or two reluctant school board members don’t feel comfortable with the technology.”

But Flynn recommends going forward with a paperless-meeting system in such cases and continuing to print out material for members who feel nervous about the system until training kicks in.

Serrano says her students are so used to the paperless classroom that they act as watchdogs on the rare occasions she brings paper copies to class.

“They’ll laugh and say, ‘We thought we were supposed to be paperless,’ ” she says. “They say, ‘You’re killing trees.’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week

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