For those of you who don't know John's work, he's (among other things) the writer of a blog called 'Adventures in Pencil Integration' which basically tells the fictional (yet familiar) story of a late-19th century teacher's struggles with new technology. In this scene, the teacher -- Tom Johnson -- is in a conversation about whether a paperless future is possible.
I'm sitting with Mr. Brown and mention, "I hate this march toward industry. For all my pencil advocacy, I want to conserve paper. I want a more sustainable way of life. I wonder if the answer is found in the telegraph. Perhaps information can go paperless."
"We have that already. It's called vocal chords."
"Seriously Brown, I'd like to believe that in a paper-free world, where all things are electrical, we would reach the point of technological progress that we can evade ecological disaster. I'd like to think that the pencil is just a step toward something better."
"I'd like to believe in leprechauns, but I'm skeptical of them as well," he responds.
"Factories are more efficient and farms are more effecient and so we would think that this would lead to conservation. But it doesn't. We're at the dawn of an environmental disaster. Replace the methane pollution of horses with horseless carriages. But we've just created a new problem. Yes, the automobile will be more efficient if we keep our same short-distance habits. But we won't. So, we go paper-free, right. Sounds good. But then we switch from a renewable source of trees to coal and oil, which is essentially what's running our city. People die each year so that you can brew your coffee electronically."
"So, what does that mean for students?"
"It means that we can't propel a myth that the medium we choose is a free one. There's always a cost. A cost on our ecology and a cost on our relationships. It's never neutral. So, we traded in slates for paper. Someday we'll trade it in for an electric alternative. The cost isn't always measured in dollars. It's often measured in lives."On the ecological front, I've been asked about this several times over the years and this is how my answer has developed: we are living in an era where the birth of one mode of communication is slowly eschewing the former. This is and will continue to cause redundancies so long as the former method is used with the frequency with which it used to be used in its prime.
In terms of schools, one may argue: "True, but paperlessness is a dream -- because it'll be a long time before every schoolkid has a computer and access to the Internet."
My reply: "But it will happen. The 'computer' may not look like what you or I currently think a computer looks like; but there is going to be a point in the future where every single school (and with deference to my international readers, I'll say 'every single school in the United States') will provide Internet access to students, all of whom will have devices with which to connect 1:1. This isn't science fiction. I just had a conversation with a woman who has a plan to get access to every schoolkid in Colorado for a relatively paltry $150 million; you have any idea how many individuals could afford to drop that kind of change in the name of philanthropy and education? Yes, it will take time, it will take money, it will take guts; but it will happen."
There is an enormous opportunity to overhaul the way we allocate funds in education. And primary to this is the way that teachers can use the free and non-profit resources of the Web to disengage from the world of Big Publishing that has existed in the form of paper textbooks in our classrooms since the early days of public education. Get rid of textbooks and you do three things: you eliminate all of the energy consumption and waste that goes into the making of textbooks; you take the filter of textbook editors out of the classroom and you let students and teachers engage directly with primary sources via the Library of Congress, United Nations, New York Public Library, etc; and you sort of force all those very intelligent folks who used to work in the textbook publishing industry to change careers and therefore perhaps approach things in a different way.
Continued use of paper and analog technologies -- that is the continued use of those technologies in ways that conform to their usage at the height of the pre-Digital paradigm -- will produce a surplus of waste. Is it true that electronics and computers are producing and will produce more waste via non-recyclable materials, poor energy usage, and throw-away consumable design? Yes, absolutely. But to say that the coupling of this waste being produced by a Digital revolution (which, by the way has already happened and isn't going away -- ask the music and newspaper industries) with the waste produced by schools in paper-form primarily as redundant information like daily bulletins, calendars, homework/classwork sheets, and tests (especially of the standardized mega-booklet form) is just a cycle bound to bring us to our knees (John's not necessarily implying this, but I've had that argument levied at me) is perhaps shortsighted as to the change the Digital revolution has already had on shifting our idea of what we 'need' and what we do with what we 'need' after we don't 'need' it -- and this will continue to have an increasingly (by necessity) impact in the way we approach our world as the exploitation of the poor areas of this Earth produce devastating problems that come back up the food-chain. E-waste is an enormous concern and one of the most heinous by-products of the way consumer electronics and computers are made and marketed. As I wrote back when Steve and I started the call for Paperless Earth Day:
As for the electronics waste side of the argument, we consumers should be insisting that manufacturers build 'shell-based' modular computers and mobiles that allow for the easy swap out of old individual components for new while being extra-durable and maintaining the life of the device itself for far longer than anything currently on the market. And we should be demanding (with our pocketbooks) that the companies themselves assist in electronics recycling programs that actually recycle the material components like lead and mercury in safe ways and refrain from shipping junked machines to third-world countries to poison the children of the poor who scavenge them for metals.Part of source reduction means negating redundancy; part of it means not creating new problems. The key going forward is to advocate and to teach this generation to advocate for a technological mindset that challenges the traditional waste cycle. The connection made through the technology itself can be the window through which our kids see the world that their use of resources is having an impact on. Their use of the technologies causing the problem could potentially help solve the problem; further, the technological development of the poorest parts of the world will empower those people to engage directly and anti-hierarchically with the people whose consumption is causing the greatest distress. This isn't about pity; it's about connection and collaboration.
As for what we can do in our classrooms, Steve and I are asking that as teachers you pledge to refrain from using any paper or accepting any work on paper this Earth Day (April 22nd). And as for old machines: use Freecycle, support non-profit recycling programs like the National Cristina Foundation, and let's make a difference.
As for what this all means in terms of the classroom and the human dimension, I'd say that the single biggest change that has taken place with regards to technology over the past five years has been the increased value of understanding technology as a way to make human connections. Whether we are talking about teachers taking part in the global PLNs on Twitter or grandmothers and grandfathers getting a real-time glimpse into the lives of grandkids who live far away via Facebook and Flickr and Skype, we are talking about new ways of connecting people in an immediate, real-time, worldwide way. And yes it does have all the bad stuff that goes with it -- the privacy concerns, the poor examples of digital citizenship, the blatant marketing and commercialization of much of the Web. But for better or worse, that connection has been made; and it's not going away.
So let's engage our students with learning within the dynamic of opportunity that social technology allows. Let's use 'real-time' to mean something 'real' in education. The trick is to make the tech work for the human and not vice-versa; and I'd argue that the old way of thinking about tech was all about the human working for the tech whereas, in its best moments, social tech is made to be subservient to whatever objective the human puts it too -- whether using Jing to critique student labs or YouTube to broadcast student events. Social tech isn't monolithic; it's all about tweaking it to your own needs.
It was the paper school model world that gave us the Digital Age. Paperlessness and Social Tech driven dynamic learning was made possible by folks who learned via paper, static assignments, bubble tests, and lectures. What will the post-paper school model world give us? I like to think that thinkers raised post-paperless would dream up a new way of computing -- a form of 'sustainable computing' that ameliorates both the degradation that technology does to our environment as well as occasionally to our lives, our relationships, and our sense of being human. Because if Kurzweil and the rest are right about The Singularity, that'll be one of the greatest challenges facing the kids currently in our elementary schools. And it'll be a problem neither paper nor what we currently envision as computers will solve; it will require a new technology for a new time. Hopefully we will have used the technologies at our disposal -- whether the stuff of binary code or the stuff of the heart -- to prepare our kids for that eventuality.