05 July 2010

Paper or Plastic

I've found myself thinking about the following question quite a lot as of late: What's so bad about paper?

In April, there was a lot of faldaral in the edusphere about "teaching paperless" for Earth Day. I had to wonder why. We grow trees now for the purpose of paper---it isn't as if logging companies are running willy-nilly throughout the land to grab trees. Trees are renewable. The stuff that makes electronics is not. That stuff gets mined in ways that destroy the land. It comes from third-world countries where child labour is common. It gets "recycled" in ways that make workers go blind and suffer terrible health issues. I know that paper production uses chemicals and bleaches (and if you've ever smelled a pulp mill, you know it's one of the most noxious things)---that mills use electricity, too.  But, is my computer (and the electricity it demands) a more ecologically friendly option? When we tie "paperless" with "Earth Day," are we really sending the right message?

Perhaps I should dig a little deeper.

In my mind, the advantage of digital is that it saves space, time, and can enhance organization and archiving---not that it saves the environment. I can store far more documents and manipulate them in more ways digitally than I can on paper. The amount of data I can manage is far greater. But none of these things mean that paper is evil.

I recently heard about a school that used its 1-to-1 program to go "all digital." Because every student had a laptop, they were no longer allowed to turn things in on paper. And while nearly everyone who heard this story thought "Ooo...so progressive! So 21st Century!" I thought, "What if a student likes to use paper? What if a kid is better able to organize thoughts and communicate with words and pictures better with paper?"  I don't understand why one tool has to replace the other. Is there not room for both?

Someone shared a link to this post wherein the presenter brags about his paperless presentation and implies that needing paper is for losers. Because, hey, in the future, kids won't need paper---so let's just chuck it all now. Sorry, but that is not very respectful of student (and adult learner) needs. If someone wants paper to take notes---so freakin' what? Have we taken the time to help people learn to organize their thoughts in a digital world?

I admit that all of this is through my own lens. I use both paper and plastic. When I am planning professional development, I tend to go back and forth. There is something about the act of writing---and the ability to place ideas wherever I want in whatever form I want that sparks my creativity. I can't do that on the computer. When it's time to put things into a format---then I move to digital. I like to use whatever the right tool for the job is. I don't assume that my computer is a hammer and everything I need to do is automatically a nail.

If you're an all-paper person---Go you!  If you're an all-plastic person---Awesome! And if you're somewhere in between (bi-media?)---Enjoy! But let's not fool ourselves that one is better than another or that one is a "must" and the other is for stupid people. Why not embrace the diversity of options that can allow more people to find something that works for them?


Joe said...

Thank you for saying this. I felt like I was the only "modern" teacher who didn't go paperless for Earth Day. I nearly always give the students the option of digital or paper projects and I always get a mix of both types. Some days I like working things out on my computer and some days I like just grabbing a freshly sharpened pencil and a sheet of paper and figuring it out. The kids are the same. I guess that makes us bi-media too.

Anonymous said...

It seems that there is a big misconception about resources used for each. In paper, people can see the paper being used up. With electronic files, people can't see the electrical energy being used up (or they don't think about it).
It's like the students that want to save as much space as possible in a composition book. The paper has already been used up - so until you go to the next notebook the resource cost is the same.

Maybe there is a lesson there: Which is more efficient: writing as small as possible in a notebook or using up every page? (intentionally vague so they come up with the details)

Jason Buell said...

So you're kind of on fire lately and you should take a moment to bask in your own glow. I never got the paper is bad thing either. Certainly I've been known to waste paper. But saying all paper is bad is insane. Paper is a tool, just like a computer. They both are useful in certain situations.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Interesting discussion...I use Evernote and Gmail, ReQall, and Appigo Notebook and Appigo ToDo, as well as Google Notebook, (no Google Doc addiction yet) and MobileMe for calendar and contacts. I've pretty much abandoned Outlook.

After the mega-crash of May 2010 (my mega computer crash that I slid through intact thanks to an external hard drive backup) I have become a cloud believer (backup with Carbonite).

But totally paperless? Frankly, it's kind of dumb for anyone to insist that anyone else adopt a paperfull or paperless attitude. We all have our comfort zones.

To put it into perspective, ask "Would I trust my last will and testament to a solely digital environment?" Or, substitute your Living Will, or anything else you might hope has some permanence and can be easily found after you're dead (or might we say, after your batteries have fatally failed)?

To each their own. To preach one way or the other is useless.

Just sayin'...