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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 3|November/December|2001

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Paper Works
Still

by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

Macbeth as displayed on a handheld device. Full of sound and fury?

Despite the pressure from vendors to go entirely digital, there are still many times when paper may play a superior role supporting student investigations and problem solving.

Schools must learn to protect themselves from digital orthodoxies - marketing statements designed to propel us into buying and using tools we may not need, may not be able to afford, and might find less effective than some of our time-honored non-digital friends such as Post-it® Notes, composition books and white boards.

© 2001, J. McKenzie.


Digital classroom? Digital school? Digital generation?

These prescriptions are folly - an example of tools driving curriculum. Digital is automatically aligned with the notion of progress and improvement, even though history is littered with the wreckage of technologies that failed to please the public.

The dot.com phenomenon should serve as evidence that not all innovations lead to improved conditions, operations and results.

Smaller is better?

At one point I overheard an Apple rep brag at a conference that a small laptop offered a "full half screen."

In the drive to offer light weight, convenient tools, screen size (and lighting) becomes an issue, yet there is little open discussion of the limitations and frustrations associated with these new tools


During a three day hands-on workshop this past year, I noticed that laptop equipped teachers kept turning to the printer to create paper documents that ended up on the desktop alongside books and the laptop. They were busy studying ways to address the needs of the Snake River (see workshop activities at "A River in Trouble" - http://fnopress.com/bigsnake/index.htm). As their Inspiration™ diagrams grew larger and more complex, they crept outside of the viewing range of the laptops.

Wanting to see "the big picture," participants often printed out the six pages of the diagram and then taped those pages together in a large mind map.

In some cases, the mind map sprouted a flock of yellow sticky notes.

Wisely, these teachers were supplementing the digital resources with print resources. The paper technologies proved superior to the digital in a number of respects. Viewability and flexibility were features of paper that were high on the list.

At technology conferences, I often ask audiences if they print out articles found on the Web in hard copy in order to read them. The percentages that do such printing range between 70 and 90 per cent. Many of these folks are early adopters and technology enthusiasts, but they explain their printing in terms of convenience and the ease with which they can mark up, underline and interact with this older technology.

Since starting FNO Press four years ago, I have been astonished by the large number of books sold to educators who might find much of the same information and many of the same articles available for free online at FNO. Sales of these books will top 15,000 copies in 2001. There is something about a printed book that works very well for people even though many books can be downloaded as eBooks from the Web.

Books and magazines piled up awaiting attention.

The computer is fine for e-mail and browsing, but there is something about curling up on a comfortable chair with a book that laptops and handhelds simply fail to match.

The Myth of Supercession

Paul Duguid explains in "Material Matters" - an essay contained in The Future of the Book - that many people foolishly assume that "complex new technologies will sweep aside their predecessors." Supercession, according to Duguid, is "the idea that each new technological type vanquishes or subsumes its predecessors: 'This will kill that.'" He provides examples of technologies such as hinges and pencils that have endured long past their predicted demises.

How does this relate to schools? Many technology cheerleaders promote new tools and digital schools without really knowing much about the consequences. In some cases, leaders call for laptops for all children in a school or grade or district or county or state as if such equipment will radically improve student learning.

It is actually possible to over equip a school, as the January issue of From Now On will explore. There are times when digital is inferior. There are times when laptops should be shared and times when they should be laid aside.

The Future of the Book, edited by Geoffrey Nunberg

Available from Amazon
(click here)

Paper still works. Smart schools will resist thinly veiled marketing appeals to modernity that promote new tools without paying much attention to worth.

The new new thing* is not always the best thing.

*The New New Thing : A Silicon Valley Story by Michael Lewis)

Available from Amazon
(click here)

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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