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The paperless classroom: Pros and cons

Writer(s): 
Arthur Rutson-Griffiths, Hiroshima Bunkyo Women’s University
The introduction of the iPad in 2010 raised the possibility of using tablet computers in the classroom to go paperless. At the Bunkyo English Communication Center (BECC) at Hiroshima Bunkyo Women’s University, students and teachers are carrying out paperless General English classes every week thanks to the university’s decision to give an iPad mini to all incoming students from April 2013. This article will consider some of the practical pros and cons of the paperless classroom we have discovered in our first year.
 
Pros
Easy transition from current materials
The biggest advantage of going paperless at our institution has been preserving all of our current materials. Our in-house curriculum is made entirely in Microsoft Word, and is easily converted to a PDF file in seconds. Using the PDF annotation app Notability, all our current materials are preserved and can be interacted with on the iPad mini as if it were paper. This ability to mark up PDFs minimizes the disruption caused by introducing iPad minis into lessons, and allows teachers to make changes to their pedagogy at their own pace. Having the soft copy also ensures a backup is always available in case of network failure. Teachers are still able to print lesson materials and distribute to students on paper. 
 
Easy materials management
Materials management in the paperless classroom is improved in many ways. Eliminating the need to print class materials not only saves time and reduces printing costs, but also allows for last-minute editing. One typo no longer necessitates the reprinting of hundreds of booklets of paper. If materials are stored in an online repository, then they are always available to students in the event that they are absent from class or accidentally delete materials from their device. As an iPad mini is much easier to carry than a large folder full of handouts, students can always access work from previous classes. Distribution of materials is also fast; students can download materials ready for use in class in only a few seconds if a simple website is used to store materials. Google Sites makes for a simple, fast, and free way to store and organize materials.
 
Enhanced materials
Going paperless also provides an easy way to enhance materials. Materials and handouts that have been carefully designed on computer often lose their visual appeal when printed in monochrome. However, no such loss in quality is experienced in a paperless classroom; students will see materials exactly as the designer intended. Moreover, the iPad provides functions that paper cannot. In the Notability app, PDFs can be enhanced by inserting web clips, images, audio, and figures. 
 
No computers
A big advantage of students carrying their own iPad minis is removing the need to deal with computers. A large amount of time is saved by not getting computers out of cabinets and waiting for them to start. In addition, the familiarity with their device that students gain by using it every class means almost everyone is highly competent at carrying out tasks that used to be done on computers. For example, students using iPad minis at the BECC were able to create presentations much more quickly on the Keynote app than students in previous years who had to use PowerPoint on computers. 
 
Cons
The learning curve
The initial introduction of iPad minis into lessons requires a large amount of training for both students and teachers. As language teachers already have a packed curriculum and are not IT specialists, training before the first class is essential. All students in the BECC received guidance in how to use Notability in Japanese in their IT classes, and students who attended the pre-student day were also given homework to complete in Notability. Teachers also received three hour-long sessions in using iPad minis in class. Even with this training, the initial pace of lessons was slowed as students and teachers got used to working with class materials on their devices. 
 
Uploading and storage
Although the iPad mini is very convenient for downloading and interacting with lesson materials, turning in assignments or homework from the iPad mini is not as smooth. Similarly the 16 GB memory of the iPad mini base model may not be sufficient for four years of university study. There are a variety of methods for sharing documents and storing files in an external location, such as cloud services (e.g., Dropbox) or sending directly (e.g., email), but generally require students or teachers to sign up for accounts and none provide an experience as smooth as downloading materials to the device. These problems are not insurmountable, but none are currently as easy as uploading from a computer or as convenient as using USB or SD card slots that can be found on many Android devices. There is also the question of how well the iPad minis will stand up to both technological advances and wear and tear over four years of continuous use.
 
Computer-assisted language learning?
The fact that pedagogy has not been influenced by the introduction of iPad minis can be seen as both a pro and a con. According to the SAMR model (Puentedura, 2012), the iPad mini is functioning as a direct substitute for a lesson handout printed on paper. Given that there is no functional difference between writing on a piece of paper and using a stylus to write on an iPad mini screen, we are hardly dealing with CALL at all. On the other hand, if direct substitution is seen as a first step before moving up the SAMR ladder (see Figure 2), paperless is an excellent option. It allows users to get used to the technology using familiar materials and start to enhance their lessons at their own pace. Some teachers have already moved to the augmentation stage by using Notability to embed online content in lesson handouts. 
 
Conclusion
The paperless classroom is a big challenge for not only teachers and students, but also managers and administrators all over the university who have an interest in its success. The initial steps in establishing a paperless classroom may not themselves serve to improve pedagogy, but the numerous practical advantages outweigh the disadvantages and have placed the BECC in a position to greatly enhance the learning experience in the coming years.
 
Reference
Puentedura, R. R. (2012). The SAMR Model: Background and Exemplars. Retrieved from <hippasus.com/rrpweblog/archives/2012/08/23/SAMR_BackgroundExemplars.pdf>
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