Digital vs. Paper

For most of this past school year, my students submitted their writing to me digitally. They would draft in Google Docs, share their drafts with response groups and me for in-process feedback, and then they would submit their polished drafts via From there I could bulk download their papers as pdfs, save them in Dropbox, and then pull them into my iPad one by one (with a digital copy of the rubric) where I responded to them using a note-writing app where I could write right on them with a stylus. From the iPad, I would email them straight to each student.

I like a lot about this process. I have digital archives of their papers both in draft and polished form and a record of the feedback the paper received. This is good and helps me to see a record of my students’ growth in my class. We saved LOTS of paper this year–imagine if all 88 of the students in my three senior classes printed out drafts of each paper and polished versions of each paper and I had to use a hard copy of the rubric for each paper as well–we’re talking lots of pieces of paper that my students and I never generated. I also like that I did not have to carry around stacks of papers to grade. The stacks lived digitally on the cloud and all I needed was my iPad and a wi-fi connection to get to them. Also, my students are gaining facility with digital tools–basic literacy in my mind.

So at the end of the year, my students completed multi-genre papers and I gave them the option of submitting these digitally or not. Some papers were not “papers” but rather boxes or paintings or some other kind of collection of objects. Having never assigned a multi-genre paper before, I wanted to give the students infinite entrance points to the task and allow them to play it out in whatever way made sense to them.

I ended up with stacks of projects on my desk that I had to sort through. And beyond the overwhelming nature of physically seeing stacks of stuff to grade, there was a lot I did not like about this. I refused to take the projects home–after becoming accustomed to carrying just an iPad back and forth to school, I was not interested in hauling amorphous stacks of projects back and forth. I had to grade only at my desk at school and I didn’t like this loss of freedom. And don’t forget all the paper that got printed out just so I could read it–as a final project, the students knew I would not be returning the papers to them.  I did email each student a rubric (that I had written on with my stylus on my iPad–so I saved the paper there). But the amount of paper that was generated for this project was kind of overwhelming to me. Another byproduct was the random collection of objects I had to figure out what to do with. Some students made boxes to house their projects–boxes decorated and full of various things. Boxes that they didn’t wish to keep and that they wanted me to have. But I’m not so interested in my students completing projects for me that aren’t important enough to them that they don’t want to hold on to them. And my office is tiny. I have two filing cabinets but not all the drawers are operational. I do not have space to hold on to this stuff.

So my first experiment with the multi-genre paper went well, and I was on the whole impressed by the quality of my students’ work. But I need to figure a few things out–I want to continue to keep their work digital. And I want to make sure that whatever the project, what my students create is important to them and they don’t want me to keep it. My students could certainly still create a box to house their multi-genre project, but maybe they take photos of it and submit those photos to me digitally. Maybe they set up a webpage to house their multi-genre paper, thereby also gaining more facility with web authoring (a byproduct far more meaningful than the stack of projects that ended up on my desk). I did keep a few of their projects to use as examples for my students for future multi-genre papers in a drawer in my file cabinet (after clearing out most of the past student projects that had already collected in there), but I’d much rather be able to have access to all of their projects in a well-catalogued digital space where I could access their work later to use as exemplars for my future students.

Mister S and I talked a bit about all of this at the end of the year. Our office was swimming over with student projects. He had portfolios from his students, each in a binder that he had to go through as he determined final grades for his students. It was the end result of the new approaches to grading and feedback that he and Mister B tried out this year. I’m hoping they’ll both write more about this at some point. Mister S seemed to think that there was something important about the physical collection of work, printed out, carefully organized and arranged in a binder, handed from student to teacher. Sure, there is something important about that and it’s always great to see your polished work presented carefully. When the bound copies of my 350-page doctoral dissertation arrived in my mail box, I nearly swooned. There it was–my work, all official and everything and in a form I could hold in my hand. I get it. But when you’re dealing with umpteen students the teacher is left with boxes of binders or stacks of amorphous student projects, many of which the students never return to collect. I’m just not sure we need to do this.

And don’t forget the very important digital literacies our students practice every time we ask them to work in digital spaces. They have for years been printing stuff out and hole punching it and neatly arranging it in binders. They get this. But can they design a Google Site that effectively showcases their work in a way that makes it easy for the reader to access it? THAT’s something that they need to learn. And we ELA teachers really have a responsibility to teach them these things–the basic literacies of our world.

So I’m done. No more physical projects accepted from my students (except in certain cases that I negotiate with individual students). Totally digital. This is not to say that my students will never use paper and pencil in my classroom–they do every day. Their writer’s notebooks are a critical learning and thinking tool in my classroom and my students know they must have them with theme very single day. But that’s just the thinking space, the playing with ideas space, the jotting it down space. Though much of my mental work has moved into digital spaces, I still keep notepads with lists to help me remember things. I’ve got one sitting here right next to my computer. There are some things that it just doesn’t make sense to move into cyberspace, and this is often a very individual distinction (I know lots of people who make the kinds of lists I make on paper on their various electronic devices, for example).

But when it comes to our students’ polished work, I think we teachers–especially the ones who teach literacy primarily–have an obligation to use every task as an opportunity to hone our students’ literacy skills with the things that they will need most in their future. Something tells me that organizing work into a three-ring binder or decorating a shoe box to house the pieces of a multi-genre paper (no matter how much I really did enjoy holding in my hands the objects my students created for this project) are not critical literacy skills they will need in their future. Our students need to be able to navigate digital spaces and craft them as effective communication tools. Simply moving that three-ring binder on to a Google Site or a Blogger blog or some kind of wiki space achieves that goal.

This also opens up all kinds of other possibilities for communicating ideas. You can’t embed a video or a hyperlink on a piece of paper in a binder. But yet our students need to know how to communicate effectively in digital, multi-media spaces.

So I’m done with physical papers and projects. I’ve spent the last two school years experimenting with inviting my students into digital spaces to manage their thinking and work for my class, but now I’m ready to really go that way. I hope my future students are ready!


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9 Responses to Digital vs. Paper

  1. berkeleystudent says:

    I greatly enjoyed this post. Developing digital literacy before college will be a huge time saver for your students!

  2. BonnieKat says:

    Hey DocZ! First of all, I really hope we can make some time for you to walk me through your process in the fall–I need to see how a few of those digital pieces work–I lost you somewhere along the line. I am working on some of the same digital literacies for myself and need a coach!

    Secondly, I tried digital portfolios for my journalism class this year with great results. They were able to document mistakes made, learnings of new processes, and other experiences that will help them teach next year’s newspaper staff. I can pull out parts to add to the digital staff manual I am building. Much better than portfolio binders we have used in the past where the only audience is the teacher.

    • DocZ says:

      Hey Bonnie–I’d love to see your digital portfolios for journalism. I’m always trying to figure out the best way to assess things in that world. Thanks for reading the blog!

  3. Tina says:

    After moving into the library after being in the classroom the move into the digital world is what I’m trying to model for my teachers and students. My frustration is lack of connectivity that we have for students. We have one computer lab that is open two period a day, laptop carts that don’t work or don’t connect to the wi-fi, or just plain broken. We definately need to be in the “cloud” in order to prepare students for the world they will see upon leaving school, now to get the IT department to come out of the dark ages and help us get there.

  4. Pingback: Digital v. Paper « Gone Digital

  5. Rick Brennan says:


    Even though my company is a hard-core engineering firm, we do a surprising amount of writing. Most of our documents are intended for an audience outside the company, so we care about the quality of the final product. We’ve realized peer editing using electronic tools is a powerful method for producing high quality prose. Our process is pretty simple. We create and edit our documents in Microsoft Word, and turn on “track changes.” At least three folks collaborate on any important piece. The author has the lead, and starts the round robin editing with an initial draft. Changes and comments are added by each collaborator in sequence, and the document gets marked by adding his or her initials to the filename after each participant works on it. When the last collaborator is done, the document goes back to the author for acceptance or rejection of changes, and consideration of comments. Then the process starts again with a clean document, with the initials replaced by “version x”, and continues until there are no substantive changes during an editing cycle. We usually get an acceptable document with three rounds. Sometimes it takes more, especially if the topic is controversial.

    Seems you could use this approach with groups of students. The process has made our folks much better writers. Not only do they get help on their own writing; they regularly participate in the process for other author’s documents. It’s quick, efficient, paperless, and powerful. The added benefit of getting to know each other better and exploring alternative writing styles is also of great value.

    Used creatively, this approach might reduce a teacher’s need to grade each and every paper . . .

    Just a thought.


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