Thursday, September 29, 2011

Perils of Going Paperless

I've been trying to go paperless this semester. Homework is done in the form of "blog posts" on Blackboard (I know, I know, lay off. Baby steps). Papers are submitted electronically. Free writes have been replaced with discussion board questions. I've embraced (or at least I've tried to embrace) electronic interaction. 

But (and, from the title, you knew there'd be a but), it has had it's problems. The first one is that we're almost halfway through the semester and I know only a few of my students' names. I've admitted to this shortcoming before, but now that I don't hand back work to them on a daily basis, I've lost one of the only ways I had to really put names to faces. Now, this is a terrible thing to admit (sorry any of my students who might happen to be reading this). But I wasn't prepared for this consequence of going paperless. Now, I'm struggling with my picture roster, and frantically searching for Prof Hacker posts on the subject. It's not too late, right? 

Another unexpected side-effect of going paperless has been how my lectures have been effected. I teach one-hour periods. In the past, the students typically wrote 10 minute free-writes at the beginning of class, to get us all focused on the task at hand. Now, I've moved the question I would normally ask in the free write as either an online discussion question or a blog post question. This has been advantageous because I am able to read what the students are thinking and where they are in their understanding of the readings before I go into class. But, now my classes seem to finish 10 minutes early, after 50 minutes. Like, when it ended all the other times when I would do the 10-minute free write. My internal teaching clock is still set to 50 minutes. 

Other problems have no been totally unforeseen. Many of my students comes from economically precarious situations, so their access to a reliable computer and internet connection can be... inconsistent. So students, at least for the first few weeks while they learned the lay of the land (where the computers are on campus and when they can access them), were often late getting work in, and I was spending a lot of time explaining (and re-explaining) how to access blackboard, and where tech support was on campus. 

But even when I tried to help my students by bringing them to the computer lab, I hit snags. Can you imagine computers that a) don't have Flash installed and b) won't let you install it? Yeah, neither could I. Until it happened and half my students couldn't complete what I had planned to do in class. Or how the computer in my classroom died and it wasn't fixed for two weeks, severely impacting my ability to put handouts up rather than printing and distributing them. While I appreciate that many of my students have limited access to technology, I get frustrated when we can't help them prepare for the late 20th century, let alone the 21st century. 

So, I'm still figuring this out. And, let me tell you, it's the unreliable technology (don't even get me started on Blackboard) that's really making it hard to keep doing it. And, yes, I know that using Wordpress, Google Docs, Twitter, are easier, more reliable, and more user friendly. Next semester. There's always next semester.

And, unless the students choose pictures of themselves as avatars, I still won't know their names. Wait, on second thought...


  1. When students don't all bring laptops with them or own computers at home, it certainly throws a wrench into things. I think while we are pushing students to become digitally literate (I'm one of them), access is one of the biggest challenges. Those without access are getting "classed down," and it's no fault of their own. Perhaps, bringing in tools that can go mobile (you mentioned Twitter, for instance) might help you. And maybe you don't have to replace freewriting. Maybe you can have them do it in the lab and post to a db while they're there or do their work via text messages/mobile uploading?

  2. I haven't used Blackboard in a while, but I wouldn't give up on it yet. A university's LMS can be a huge time-saver.

    My university uses Sakai (which everyone also complains about), but I make very efficient use of the chat rooms, forums, blogs, resources, assignments, email, etc.

    Major benefits: students are already plugged into the system and they are already familiar with it (or need to become so). When you have many sections, you can't possibly set up WP or Twitter, etc, and keep it all under control!

    Anyway, my suggestion is to make the most of Blackboard!

  3. Yes, I have seen these as difficulties before. I'm not totally paperless this semester (and probably won't be soon), but I have given a quiz as a text, had the students email me their homeworks, and had them post shorter essays on the blog (

    I'm handing out papers and I still have a few students whose names are escaping me.

  4. Not learning my students' names is difficult for me as well, more so because, like you, I do much more online.

    How well have the blog posts/online discussions gone for you so far? I'm tempted to do this myself. Technology can make some things easier (provided access isn't a problem), but nothing can make a student become more thoughtful unless s/he is willing to make a commitment to that.

  5. You've read my mind. We're all seem to be in the same place...part way through the semester and wondering if our chosen strategies are worth it. (I'm always questioning mine.)

    I have a Blackboard grading post in the works, and I share many of your concerns. It think each instructor, at each school, and even with each class, has to make particular and specific decisions about what does and doesn't work. I've been using Blackboard for assignments and grading for at least a year, but I'm don't feel like I have it down least not in a way I'm satisfied with.

    It's a work in progress...thanks!

  6. Hmm. This is a face-to-face class, right?

    I have my class set up sort of like you except for that the students do Wordpress blogs. I have met with each student individually. I do lots where we go around the room and students say something quick. I'm getting their name and hearing from them. How many students in your class?


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