Paper Love

We love our paper.

The experts have been predicting for decades that we are going paperless. The paperless office. The paperless school. The paperless bathroom. Okay, maybe not. But looking through this stack of papers brought home by my fifth grader, I can’t believe that we’re making any progress at all toward reducing our paper consumption. And one look at my desk would tell you that I’m about as paperless as a news stand.

In the 1970’s, Xerox was so concerned about the promise of a paperless world that they set up the Palo Alto Research Center to figure out how the company could survive once people stopped printing. The researchers at PARC invented ethernet and laser printing and the graphical user interface and object oriented programming. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates famously stole ideas from PARC for their own products. And many of the researchers left PARC to start their own companies, including Adobe and 3Com. But Xerox? They just kept printing.

For all of the efforts of the information age, we’re printing more than ever. Take a look at this document from the Resource Conservation Alliance and this one from ID2 Communications. Both are written from a conservationist perspective. Both have statistics about how much paper we actually use. Both are kind of out of date, which is why I’m not reproducing the numbers here. But what else do you notice about the documents?

They’re documents. They’re formatted for printing. They assume that they’re going to be viewed on a standard US Letter size piece of paper. The second document is a little apologetic about it, asking people not to print it, or at least to print it on recycled paper. But if the goal is to get people to read it on a device rather than on paper, why is it still formatted for the printed page, with a layout that looks awful on my computer or tablet or (God help us) phone?

Ryan Collins was thinking about this recently, and it became the basis for his Beyond Paperless presentation that I skipped didn’t have the opportunity to see at eTech this year. I hear he’s going to repeat it at the Catiie Conference in June, and I may not be able to avoid it be able to catch it this time around.

Last week, I found myself in a meeting with my Superintendent and two school board members talking about Board Docs. This is a tool to computerize the process of building and disseminating agendas for school board meetings. Traditionally, the board agenda is posted on the web site a few days before the meeting. There are ancillary documents (called tab items) that are also assembled. These are things like contract proposals, studies, reports, and various documents that the board will discuss. All of this stuff is printed, and placed in a binder. A separate binder is prepared for each board member, the superintendent, the treasurer, and the news media. For a typical meeting, this can add up to a thousand pages or more.

In an effort to improve transparency, the board has requested that we post all of the tab items on the web site when the agenda is posted. That way, any community member can see all of the details of all of the documents that the board is discussing. The next logical step, then, was what we were discussing at this meeting. Why do we need the binders at all? What if everyone just had a laptop or a tablet or something? We could project the agenda for the audience to see, and the board members wouldn’t need the binders.

We talked for a while about logistics — would we have to buy computers, or could they use their own? How can board members take notes and annotate their documents? Can we embed things like videos and PowerPoint presentations that are typically shown at the meetings? As we talked, I could feel my to-do list piling up. How can I embed a PowerPoint presentation into the PDF of the board agenda, and how do I teach the administrative assistants in the central office how to do that? But I had missed the same thing you did when you looked at those pdfs about paper consumption.

“Why are we designing for a printed document?” I asked at the meeting. “What if the agenda doesn’t look like a sheet of paper? What if each agenda item is on a slide?”

“Like PowerPoint?”

“Yes, but don’t get locked in to PowerPoint just yet. Think slides. Each agenda item is a slide. If there’s a document (tab item) related to that document, it’s linked from the slide. If there’s a presentation, it’s either embedded on the slide or there’s a link to it. The same goes for videos and other multimedia. But it’s not designed to be printed, because we have no intention of printing it. Instead, it’s formatted for the computers (and projector) we’re viewing it on.”

They were intrigued. I crossed off a bunch of things on my to-do list. Now, I just need to riff on this idea. I have to play with it with actual agendas and documents and see if I can put together something that will make sense. But the paradigm shift made all the difference.

What if we did that in other places? What if we stop printing that stupid report each time a student takes an Accelerated Reader test? What if we stop making endless copies of workbook pages and find something a little more engaging for our students to do? What if we teach our students to do research by reading on screens and annotating or taking notes in a document, rather than printing everything out and grabbing a highlighter? What if our students share their work online, and their teachers make comments on it, or send them an email with their grade and feedback? Why do we have to do so much printing?

Last week, we also had a tech team meeting. For the first time in 12 years, I didn’t print anything for the attendees. They noticed. They didn’t have anything to take notes on. But they didn’t need anything to take notes on. If they needed notes, they could have grabbed their devices and taken notes. None of them did.

I don’t pretend that we’ll ever really be paperless. And I don’t necessarily think we should be. Paper is, after all, a remarkable technology. But when I look at the hundreds of thousands of dollars we spend each year on printing, I can’t help but think there must be a better way.

Photo credit: Sean Stayte on Flickr.

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