Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A Cost Measured in Lives: Responding to John Spencer

John Spencer is one of the best education bloggers on the planet. It is therefore with great delight that I read him taking on the perils of paperless classrooms in a blogpost a few days back. I'm going to quote a bit of it in full because I think we need to get this in front of our eyes.

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.

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.
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 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.


  1. thank you Shelly. important stuff.

    i especially like this:
    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.

    if we're smart about things.. pay off is huge. needs diminish.

    i also have to add - since it's so good - and since underlying all of this is a better world.. John's book - teaching unmasked - is an excellent read filled with great insight.

  2. I enjoyed your response!

    We're going paperless again in my classroom (netbooks, cell phones, etc.) with a goal toward conservation. Something as simple as screen brightness can make a huge difference. I asked last year's students to do research on this and they did a great job.

    I think there are bigger issues that are a part of reducing waste: supporting open source applications, getting rid of high-priced vendors, being smarter about the physical school design, considering a hybrid model of in-person and in-community.

  3. @John

    Yes, I think Open Source and non-Textbook go hand-in-hand; and getting rid of vendors means getting rid of marketing and a ton of the school-related waste that industry accounts for.

    Physical school design is going to be forced to change by the move to hybrid online/f2f models that's already a part of so many strategic plans. I'm thinking smaller, more open-area, community based schools -- perhaps even linked directly to neighborhood public libraries, local museums, theatres, art centers, and community-based tech access/help points.


  4. I see problems with the dream here.

    1) I don't think that schools are going paperless. We've seen the claim before in the business world, but the "paperless office" never materialized. If anything, the heavy reliance on computers has increased the amount of paper pushed in most offices, because cheap ink-jet and laser printers are ubiquitous. I believe that the total paper usage per person has increased in most offices over the past 2 decades. (Sorry, I don't have a citation for hard data on that.)

    2) Getting rid of textbooks and going to original sources is really only feasible in a few fields. The original sources in math are incomprehensible to most students, teachers, and even mathematicians. Math textbooks represent centuries of refinement on how to present ideas in the simplest, clearest way (followed by a few decades of obfuscation in some recent, bad textbooks). Science textbooks introduce concepts in a logical progression, not in the rather haphazard way they were originally discovered. History textbooks try to make a coherent story out of the messy entangling of millions of people's lives over centuries. People need this sort of distillation in order to learn, so text books in some form will remain essential. That form may become electronic rather than paper (which would be a good thing if it reduced the weight of middle-school backpacks), but we aren't magically going to be transported to a world where "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."

    Certainly good teachers will (and already do) supplement their textbooks with more direct access to primary sources, particularly in history classes. Certainly some of the textbooks currently on the market are so bad that any competent teacher can do better by ignoring them, but there is no replacement for a good textbook, nor is there a need to replace them.

  5. Would like to disagree re: math textbooks.

    Going textbookless is not a big deal in math... as there are enough sources to teach concepts, and lots of great ideas in open source can be mashed up to suit students. (mathelicious.com doesn't have information to fill a year, but lots of gleanable stuff, also see http://blog.mrmeyer.com/ for example, and the loved/hated Khan institute comes to mind as an open source of information graded to learners needs. Alpha Wolfram and its step by step setting is also incredible as a tool... and as a quick way to check answers to everyday spur of the moment problems.)

    We never had it so good. The pieces are out there, but the strong point of textbooks is not that they serve the students needs, but that they make the teacher's preparation easier.

    Sticking to the coursebook for me is like ordering pizza... every day. There are pizzas that are better and healthier than others, but none of them will get me excited after a couple of weeks of nothing else.

    Those ideas of centuries are mostly opensourced now, and those bad last couple of decades just happen to be the only ones we have to pay for...


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