A common theme of my time as a teacher has been the potential for technology to transform teaching. I began my career at a time when the internet was becoming ubiquitous in homes and classrooms around the world and have seen the rise of YouTube, social media, blogs, apps, and dedicated educational platforms and “web 2.0” tools that were set to transform teaching.
I have followed excited discussions about ‘going paperless’ in the classroom and making our learning fully digital. And yet, this utopian EdTech focused future has not materialised. Still, my students use notebooks on a daily basis to record classroom topics, plan and complete tasks, jot down vocabulary, and keep track of important information.
The benefits of a paperless classroom seem obvious and have been much discussed through online articles and blog posts (see, for example, this discussion of the benefits of paperless teaching from EdSurge, or this explanation of how going paperless improves efficiency from Paperless Movement. Saving time is usually near the top of the list as teachers can assign materials and tasks digitally, students get instant access, and feedback can be given remotely and in real time. Saving paper and therefore, reducing our environmental impact and spending on resources, is another plus point often touted as the need for physical books, associated materials, and photocopies is eliminated. The ability to quickly access work from any device and continue directly from where you left off at home is also cited as an advantage, as is the ability to easily work with others using collaborative tools to generate assignments together without the need to physically meet up outside classroom hours.
Having said all that, at times it’s hard to see this in practice. At my current school (and my previous schools as well), notebooks are still used by the majority of students for the majority of lessons. Even in cases where laptops and tablets are widely available (or students can bring their own devices to class), and even when the school is subscribed to various online learning platforms, paper notebooks still feature heavily in class. Is this a sign of slow uptake – a failure to keep up to speed with advances in technology? Or is it simply that the classic humble notebook still has a place in the modern-day classroom? I believe it is the latter and the remainder of this post will explain why.
- Notebooks are notebooks
About ten years ago, I started a blogging programme with my EFL students in Turkey. The idea was to provide an online space for my students to produce and share their written work, be it a story, an essay, a review, or any other of the numerous writing tasks we did. Students and parents alike loved it. It was easy to access, give feedback on and edit, and there was a final piece of work that was easy to share with home.
The programme didn’t last very long though. Why? The platform we used was Posterous, an easy access collaborative blogging platform that shut down its services in 2013. Alternatives were tried but they didn’t have the same functionality and ease of use, or a paid subscription was required to access all features.
While there are many online options out there for those wishing to go paperless, they often involve third-party applications which may close down, change their terms and conditions, start running ads, or in some other way alter their service at any time. There may also be compatibility issues with some apps only available on specific devices or features unable to run on all smartphones.
Not so with paper! It doesn’t matter if one student is using a stapled A4 notebook and the next one a spiral A5 version. Additional pieces of paper can be added in, and pages can easily be shared (albeit not remotely). Should a student forget their notebook, a spare sheet can easily be used unlike the lesson derailing disaster that can come from a laptop left at home, a phone running low on charge, or a tablet unable to connect to the school wifi.
Paper is also versatile. It can be used to jot down an assignment date, create a record of notes on the board, or become the home of a full-length essay!
- An easily organised record of learning
I have had students in the past who have made extensive use of iPads and/or laptops in class. When the student concerned has an organised method for using their device, it can be effective as they annotate texts, collate learning materials, and share assignments with me.
This all great practice but there are a couple of limits to the effectiveness of this comprehensive use of a device within a class. First of all, not everyone is so organised. For every student like the one described above, there are two or three more who are not as organised or simply don’t have access to the same apps or hardware and end up with materials, notes, feedback, and assignments scattered across several files and folders. Secondly, whilst they can easily turn in assessed work, getting an overview of their learning is much more of a challenge. Nobody would be willing to hand over their device or give access to all their accounts (and nor should they!). Documents can be shared of course doing that for a whole term’s worth of work can be quite a task for student and teacher.
However, with notebooks, it is easy. I just ask my students to leave them behind at the end of a lesson and I can not only check their most recent tasks but also get an overview of their learning across the course so far. A well-organised notebook offers an easy way to see what each student has been doing and identify any areas they need further work on.
- The benefits of writing on paper
Another reason that notebooks aren’t going anywhere is the fact that they provide numerous benefits for learning. For every ‘go paperless!’ article there is out there, there is another espousing the advantages of sticking with our sheets of pressed pulp. Some stress the benefits of getting away from the screen, processing your thoughts, and easily switching between writing, mind-mapping, and doodling while doing so. Others highlight the opportunity to slow down, review and select key features, and organise them into your notes. Yet more promote the idea of a truly personal learning space to annotate and organise as you see fit.
This is something I have experienced myself with lesson planning. When I write plans by hand, I rarely need to look at them once in class. The process of organising the lesson in my mind and writing it down helps me recall it easily later on. Should I type up a lesson plan though, I find I am much more likely to need to glance at it during the lesson. With blogging also, most of my blogs begin as handwritten notes which I then annotate and scribble on in various ways. The page may look messy but it certainly makes the writing process easier than just sitting down to type.
For our students, time to write offers an opportunity for consolidation, questioning and processing thoughts that may be lost when a shared online document has been updated live throughout the lesson. Students who take digital notes are also less likely to review those notes later on. One of my iPad wielding pupils has told me he sometimes sees a photo of the board or an unannotated extract of text in his files and thinks ‘why did I write that down’? In a well organised notebook, that seems less likely to happen.
- A place for the old and new
So, in summary, paper seems to be here to stay. However, so is technology. While I firmly believe that the notebook is an important learning tool for my students, I also recognise that technology has its place in our learning programme. Our student portal offers an easy way to assign homework tasks and request submissions ahead of lesson time so we can get straight into feedback and review the next lesson. Presentation and editing tools offer my students creative outlets to use and explore language. Collaborative apps like Padlet, Google Keep, and Google Docs offer spaces for students to work together even from home. However, put simply, all this learning still begins in the classroom where the best place to capture and consolidate the moments remains the humble paper and pen.