August 17, 2011

Going Paperless in Your Classroom? Where to start

In my English classroom last year I was given the tools to take my classroom virtually paperless. This blog post is meant to do a few things -

1. Describe the tools that I used in order to get my classroom to that point.
2. Give some direction as to where to start.
3. Describe the benefits of the paperless classroom - beyond the obvious conservation of materials and resources.

1. The tools
The tools of a paper less classroom take many forms and approaches. The best way that I can think to organize them is by who uses them. Since they are obviously the most important, I will begin with

Students - my district recently underwent a project to go to a 1:1 student to computer ratio. They decided to go with netbooks for students. There of course many options (Macbooks, iPads, PC Laptops, Android tablets, and even iPod Touches). Each option has advantages and limitations.

In my case, the netbooks are fully functional PC's, which is very convenient for completing assignments because of the standard program set. At the same time though, they're slow, have terrible track pads and a reduced size keyboard. But, you make do with what you're given. Overall I support the idea of training students to use actual computers vs. iOS devices as it trains them more for computer use beyond school.

What do they do with the computers? Online discussions, access shared documents, write/edit papers, read for class, access course resources, update their blogs, turn in assignments electronically, and explore and use new tools online to complete their projects in new and interesting ways.

Teacher - the district is providing each teacher with a Tablet PC. This is by far one of the best changes in my work in my English classroom. This year I plan to be correcting student work less, if at all, but when I do need to mark student work I use my tablet PC. With MS Office 2010 you can use a tablet PC, or IWB I order to mark up and annotate by hand. Using the typed in notations has never worked for me. Now I can just use a stylus to write them in electronically. I no longer need to print student work to mark and return it. They submit it online and I give them electronic feedback. They can then resubmit online, once again.

Both - the most important part of the scheme is having a hub of information and communication. I've gone through multiple services as I'm always exploring and trying to make sure that I'm using the best options possible. Both for the students and for myself. Last school year I began the year using as our social networking AND online learning management site. This was the hub of information that I used to give my students handouts, reading materials, assignments, etc. Most of which would have been hard copies before. At the semester I made a new move to use - I did this for multiple reasons. It leant itself better for a school wide roll out as it has more administrative choices (some of which I had to use last year). Also, it offered multiple ways to organize the course content as opposed to merely chronologic, I could also organize it by unit or other sub catagories.

Schoology (and sites like it) offer students a way to keep up with their assignments (due dates, current grades, etc.). It also gives them a way to contact fellow students and collaborate and work together. All course information is housed in one place, so they know where to find it. Once they have turned in an assignment it is stored in the online database associated with their individual account. It also catalogs multiple submissions and divides out late submissions automatically.

Parents can be given Schoology accounts in order to access their individual students' grades (self service is always the best).

Finally for Schoology, I like it because it does not require students to have an e-mail address (neither does Edmodo). They choose a user name and CAN associate an e-mail address with the account, but do not have to. The address would merely be used to send notifications.

2. Where to start
Always start with the needs of your students. What can you offer them through technology that will help them? Keep in mind that while you'll be helping them, they may not see it that way. Believe it, or not, but some students do not like using computers and technology. Try to help them understand how it can help them, don't just assume they see it the way you do.

Assess what technology you have available. If you don't have what you need your admin. may be more accommodating than you think. If they can't be, your students may be able to - bring your own technology (byot) is all the rage right now.

The BEST place to start, as I've found, is to set up an online learning management system and social network. Schoology and Edmodo are both great. Even if you have a very limited number of computers in the class these are excellent and free options to keep assignments, resources, and even grades organized. Students will have a direct connection to you through the network and that means SO MUCH to them and their parents.

Keep an open mind and prepare yourself mentally for it to be a slow difficult process. Never put something on your students that you have not tried your best to work through yourself first.

3. Benefits

Save paper, ink, etc.

Available resources for students - handouts and materials at their fingertips, whenever they need them. Their grades accessible 24/7. The ability to easily communicate with their instructor.

Built in organization - when you create an assignment it gets added to the grade book AND course calendar. No more needing to figure out which notebook it was written in. Students (AND teachers like myself) will not lose the only existing copy of the assignment. Ever have a student turn something in, typed, it gets lost in your giant pile of stuff, and they DIDN'T SAVE IT? No more turning in hard documents means no more losing hard documents.

This is Difficult
Try not to be discouraged if you feel like you are losing a battle. Always ask for help when you need it. The benefits are there, all you need is the will to achieve them. But, that will sometimes needs support - get it!

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