Venn Librarian

Reflections about the intersection of schools, libraries and technology.

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Why is paperless "better"?

Posted by lpearle on 1 September 2006

In all my meetings this week, there has been much discussion about MPOW‘s new on-line presence. This will be a – mostly – password protected environment that allows for posting of assignments, news, etc.. The library section will be very UNprotected, because we want to share what we’re doing with everyone, not just the Favored Few. But that’s not the focus of this post.

Some of the teachers have asked about syllabi/assignment sheets: do they need to post on-line AND have paper copies available? One teacher asked about what the printing looked like, “because I like paper.” The Director of Technology basically shot back, “We’ll change that.”

So here’s my question: why? What makes an electronic environment so much better than a paper environment?

First of all, electronic technology can (and often does) fail. There are any number of times during the day when my wireless connection reads “unable to provide link”. Just a couple of summers ago, the East Coast had a massive blackout. This summer, there were blackouts near where I live and in NYC due to tornadoes and storms, not to mention overloading the system. There’s absolutely no guarantee that this can be avoided – that the power supply will always be there.

Second, if what we’re trying to teach students is organization and responsibility, how is providing them with the ability to make endless copies/printings of something helping? In all the years I’ve been hearing the phrase “paperless office”, I’ve seen just the reverse happen. More paper is used, as people make countless printouts of things. Why? Because we can. Because we know that this is not the only copy “out there”, that we can always print out a new one so why take care of the one we have in our hands/on our desk already? I know that I become more careless, rather than more careful, when I know I have easy access to a new copy. This generates more paper, rather than less. And isn’t it easier to print or copy things and have them in multiple files, rather than being more organized and having everything in one place?

Perhaps the so-called “new race” of screenagers will truly have a paperless environment. Perhaps they will embrace reading/storing everything on-line and never print things out even once, much less multiple times. Somehow, I doubt it. I suspect that 20, 30, 40 years from now, the goal of a paperless work and school environment will still elude us.

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