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The Paperless School of the Future Is Here Now!

School Issues CenterComputer networks and Internet resources are helping teachers cut down on paper use. Teachers can keep grades and attendance online and use texts that are available at no cost. How are these experiments going? Is the "paperless classroom" just around the corner? Included: Education World writer Ryan Francis's look at three classrooms that are trying to go paperless!

In a classroom in rural Kentucky, students can no longer use the excuse "My dog ate my homework." And that annoying churning of the pencil sharpener no longer interrupts the teacher's lesson. At Eminence Middle School -- the home of The Paperless Classroom --teacher Stephanie Sorrell has accomplished the seemingly impossible task of transforming her seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms into a paperless society! Her feat is an example of a movement toward paperless classes -- and, perhaps someday, paperless schools.

Sorrell's classes have served as guinea pigs. Those classes were tapped to introduce technology that could vastly improve student achievement, she said. Each of her students now has a personal digital assistant (PDA) that enables him or her to receive tests and homework via an infrared beam from Sorrell's PDA. Instead of standing in front of a copying machine for hours, she types tests and homework assignments into her computer at home and transfers them to the PDAs at school.


In Henry County, Kentucky, a part of the country where agriculture still dominates, farmers use migrant workers to harvest their crops. That is the backdrop against which Sorrell searched high and low for money to help her Spanish-speaking students, mostly the children of migrant workers, learn the same material at the same pace as her English-speaking pupils were learning it. She found the Kentucky Migrant Technology Project, a division of the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative (OVEC). OVEC provided Sorrell with 30 handheld PDAs, which allowed her to download lesson plans into Spanish to aid the migrant pupils.

"These PDAs do a lot more than we thought," she said, noting that all students in the class, not just the migrant ones, received PDAs. All the students use the PDA calendar function to plan their days and the calculator to do their math, she said. The PDAs have been a good thing for all kids, Sorrell said. "They have worked to motivate kids."


Sorrell figures that, on average, she used to pass out two sheets of paper per day, per student. That would equate to about 900 pieces of paper each week. The handhelds have also helped cut copy machine costs and saved time that she used to spend waiting to use the copier.

"Think about the money schools could save," Sorrell said.

In addition, PDAs indirectly opened the World Wide Web to Sorrell's students. She has downloaded books and plays, including Romeo and Juliet, from the Internet Public Library. So besides the obvious savings in paper, this project has also allowed the school district to save on the purchase of books.

The success last year of the PDA program with her eighth-grade class motivated Sorrell to search for ways to bring PDAs into her seventh-grade class. It wasn't an easy task, she told Education World, but she received about 60 used PDAs from Microsoft.

Despite her success, Sorrell continues to worry about the future. What will happen when these students move onto ninth grade, where they will have to be reacquainted with paper and a pencil? "Kids have come down [from high school] and said to me, 'I miss my PDA,'" she said.

Another concern is repairing and replacing the PDAs. The Eminence school district does not have a technology plan for supplementing or replacing the handhelds Sorrell's students now use. The PDAs are the district's property -- in the same way textbooks are. Students are allowed to take them home, but they must take care not to break or lose the $200 piece of technology, she said.

"My goal is to get something started in either fifth and sixth grade or in the high school ...but I worry. In this district, we don't have a lot of money. All these devices are great, but they break," she said. "I really get nervous [about the future]. We don't have the means to continue [the program]."


Ed Sherretta, department chairman of the business and computer science department at Hatboro-Horsham (Pennsylvania) High School, has led the effort there to create a paperless school. "It's easy to find something on the Web and hit the print button," said Sherretta. The effort to go paperless is designed to raise awareness, he said.

School officials estimated that each of the 20 classes at Hatboro-Horsham used nearly 500 sheets of paper a week.

The idea of a paperless school was first entertained at a tree-planting ceremony on the school grounds. The desire to save trees and the ecology prompted, in part, the push for eliminating paper from the classroom.

Sherretta said the paperless initiative began with basic awareness programs to promote ideas for the digital distribution of data. Students and teachers now use network folders to collect and distribute anything from tests to homework over the school's intranet. Teachers receive morning bulletins and important documents electronically.

Online attendance could be available in the future also, Sherretta said. He acknowledges, however, that security needs to be tighter for something like grades to be available over the public Internet.


"The school district's goal to move to a paperless environment is an ongoing process that requires constant evaluation and new initiatives," he said. "Although in today's world, some processes are more efficiently completed using paper, the school district recognizes that rapidly advancing technology will result in more and more practical applications of paperless processes."

Sherretta is looking into acquiring handhelds for every student in the business department. In a high school with 1,400 students, the district is continually looking to improve the three-to-one student-to-computer ratio at the high school, he said. The district has also implemented a pilot laptop project, which integrates technology into the daily classroom environment.

Sherretta admits the current technology has some limitations. "The limitations of current technology make some conceptually good ideas impractical," he said. His school district is in the midst of applying for a grant that could provide $4 million to the district in the next two years.


At Robertsville Middle School in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, eighth-grade physical science teacher Rodney King uses exam software called Examview. With this software, King's students take their tests on one of the 14 donated computers that are networked throughout the science lab. King records the grades on the network and then transfers them to his electronic grade book. That allows King to send electronic progress reports to parents with "a couple of clicks of the mouse."

He also keeps his students' assignments on a Web page, enabling students to pull a copy of the lab directions onto their computers. Distance learning has enabled some Robertsville students to learn from home.

"I think it would be great [to take paper totally out of schools]," said King said. In the first nine weeks of the current school year, King said, he used fewer than 500 sheets of paper!


  • The Paperless Classroom This article describes in further detail what the class at Eminence Middle School went through to become paperless.
  • Going Paperless: Mellon Competition Learns from Higher Ed Pioneers As a senior adviser in the humanities for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Dr. Al Kernan has researched the potential of making electronic admission and selection a success. One of the foundation's grantees, the University of California at Irvine, recently received a two-year grant to help the university battle security problems over the Internet.
  • Children's Paperless Projects: Inspiring Research Via the Web This paper reports results of a study that investigated a group of seventh-grade science students' search strategies using Yahooligans, a World Wide Web search engine and directory for children. It looked at the progress the children made in a paperless society.
  • Pennsylvania School Goes "Paperless" -- Fells Costs, Not Trees This article further describes the paperless environment at the Hatboro-Horsham school.

    Ryan Francis
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2000 Education World

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