My first motivation toward making my classroom paperless was concern for the environment. There is no paper recycling where I taught at the time, and the classes I taught used huge volumes of handouts. My tree hugging was not a good enough reason to change the instructional model of the institution, though, so I had to find a pedagogical justification, and find one I did.
De Bonis and De Bonis (2011) support the argument I made to my directors: there are many benefits to a paperless classroom. Not only does it cut down on the cost of paper and improve classroom efficiency; it develops useful job skills for the students and allows for asynchronous learning—both very important in the environment where I was teaching at the time.
My first serious endeavor was the adoption of a learning management system (LMS) for the Bethel Regional Adult Basic Education (ABE) Program. I was on the verge of adopting Edmodo, when our tech support contractor walked into my office and said, “Edmodo is dead. Check out Google Classroom.” Since our organization used Google Apps for Education, I took his advice, and I was happy for it. It integrated seamlessly with everything else I used, and it was easy for digital non-native students to learn to use. My colleagues were not so enthusiastic.
Soon I had students accessing math handouts as pdf files, not on paper, and I didn’t need to worry about how many copies I needed before class. Students could do their work on small dry-erase marker boards at their seats, simulating the experience they would have when they took the GED tests. Google Classroom eventually added a feature that allowed me to create a named copy of each handout for each student, so they could type right into a Google doc and turn it in when they finished; that made it possible for me to use annotated reading assignments in social studies class.
My first experiment with Google Classroom worked well in part because all of my students were using the same laptops. We had a classroom laptop cart for them. I revisited Google Classroom a few months after I left the ABE Program, when I taught a statistics class at Bethel Regional High School (BRHS). I was asked to teach the class as an emergency substitution, but my schedule did not allow me to be at BRHS every morning, so I taught from my kitchen counter using Google Hangouts. Since I couldn’t be in the classroom with the students, I sent them everything by Google Classroom. It worked, but they still handed in their homework on paper; there was no convincing them all to type their answers into a Google doc or to scan and upload. Part of the reason for that difficulty was the lack of uniform one-to-one devices at BRHS.
One tool that worked both in the ABE Program and at BRHS for paperless submission was Google Forms. I first heard about using Google Forms for assignments at the ASTE Conference in 2015. With my ABE students, I would use a Google Form to give a short reading assignment with multiple choice questions. I could then discuss the reading with them, and we could look at the whole class’s answers together. That took out any embarrassment associated with reading difficulties. With my BRHS students, I got to try out the new (spring 2017) quiz functionality, and assign tests as Google Forms. It worked well.
Meanwhile, at my other teaching job, where I have much less control over teaching methods, I made the transition from traditional paper homework to paperless, online homework using ALEKS. When I started teaching developmental math for the UAF Kuskokwim Campus in spring 2014, my students turned in homework problems from the textbook, written on notebook paper, the same way I did in high school and college. The following spring, I stepped away from teaching on-campus lecture classes, and taught entirely online, using Blackboard, video teleconference (VTC), and ALEKS. I continued in that role for two more semesters, and when I returned to the on-campus classroom in fall 2016, paper homework had disappeared entirely.
On the surface, ALEKS is a teachers dream: no more grading. The online program presents the problems, offers the students help and extra practice if they need it, and grades the assignment. The teacher can sit back and enter grades at the end. Gone are the days of spending the first ten minutes of class “going over” or “correcting” the homework. And with that goes an important form of student and teacher feedback and an opportunity for remediation and reinforcement. I am unimpressed.
The research that I have read on ALEKS and similar programs (although most mention ALEKS by name) is also unimpressed. Bradford (2018) claims that technology driven math instruction improves outcomes, but her results show that the improvement is not significant; in fact, the improvement may be a function of anonymity helping students of some demographic groups avoid perceived stereotyping in the classroom. Taylor (2009) claims that ALEKS decreased math anxiety for developmental students by comparing two classes that used ALEKS to three that did not. Unfortunately, the classes using ALEKS also had lower outcomes. Childers and Lu (2017) report on an experimental model for remedial math that in some ways was very similar to what I teach now, but they found that it was not particularly effective in moving students toward success in college-level courses, nor did it improve over the previous model. A major difference in all of these studies from how we use ALEKS at UAF is that these schools replaced direct instruction with self-paced ALEKS instruction. We have not done that; we continue to lecture the students before using ALEKS to facilitate their homework.
A couple weeks ago I wrote a syllabus for a class I plan to teach in the future. In addition to ALEKS, I included paper homework, distributed and submitted through the LMS, so that it never needs to be printed out. At least on my end, the classroom will remain paperless, but the value of the interaction around paper homework will be restored.
Bradford, M.L. (2018). The effect of technology on community college developmental mathematics course completion rates (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Walden University ScholarWorks.
Childers, A.B., and Lu, L. (2017). Computer based mastery learning in developmental mathematics classrooms. Journal of Developmental Education, 41(1), 2-9. Retrieved from proquest.com.
De Bonis, S., and De Bonis, N. (2011). Going green: Managing a paperless classroom. US-China Education Review, A(1), 83-87.
Taylor, J.M. (2008). The effects of a computerized-algebra program on mathematics achievement of college and university freshmen enrolled in a developmental mathematics course. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 39(1), 35-53. Retrieved from ebscohost.com.