Seeing the wood for the trees in education
Universities and schools are increasingly going paperless. But what advantages – and challenges – can this bring? Alex Diggins reports
Paperless systems management has little of the cachet associated with jazzier tech subjects like AI or The Internet of Things. Yet, in fact, paperless systems have proved quietly revolutionary: nudging businesses, universities and schools towards more streamlined, cost-efficient and sustainable ways of working.
Paperless systems developed alongside the burgeoning of the internet and the growth of the knowledge economy. This breakneck transformation of the world economy – from a model where growth depends on production, to one in which data is all-important – has had countries scrambling to catch up. And there are two ways they have adapted: by prioritising their education systems; and by encouraging schools and universities to ensure their back-end systems are as well-oiled as possible – guaranteeing a smoother transfer of data.
A significant amount of money is being spent on shaping the UK’s education system up to this brave new world. Research by Full Fact, an independent think-tank, found that funding for pupils aged 5–16 is expected to be nearly £39bn for 2017/18. And the HE sector is expected to have over £12bn pumped into it in 2018/19, according to Government figures.
These investments in a knowledge – and paperless – economy cannot come soon enough. The UK was placed 15th in the 2017 Knowledge Economy Index; a respectable figure, but well behind Sweden and Finland, the countries at the top. Embracing paperless ways of working, then, from online data storage to BYOD models whereby students learn on their own devices, has immense potential to improve the UK’s standing in this all-important measurement.
How? Start with waste. The scale of paper use in the developed world is breathtaking. It is estimated that over 40% of wood pulp goes into paper production; and that every person in the UK consumes the equivalent of nearly four-and-a-half trees in paper a year. Clearly, not all of this paper will be wasted. But equally clearly this rate is economically and environmentally unsustainable – at a planetary scale, but also at the level of individual institutions.
Schools and universities tend not to have overly generous budgets. Once facilities, staff, marketing and other associated costs have been factored in, expenditure on back office software can fall far down the list of budgetary priorities. This is an oversight, argued Michael Helder, VP of Nitro, a PDF software provider. Institutions which keep a close eye on the purse strings, and are scrupulous about evaluating the costs of their current administrative systems, stand to reduce waste – and save money. As such, he noted, “We are seeing a rapid increase of organisations embracing paperless working environments.” Especially, he added, “in the education sector.”
As well as reducing the deluge of printouts, paperless also promises to increase the efficiency of a school or university – and thus reduces their costs. Take Nitro’s software. It allows institutions to e-sign documents as well as store administrative records in one dedicated cloud folder, via a partnership with Dropbox. This functionality, Michael argued, has “completely replaced the inefficient and clunky paper-based process of print, review, sign, scan and send.”
On the clock
Greater efficiency does not just mean financial savings though. Going paperless also means employees potentially have fewer niggling obstacles in their way to a productive work day. In an education context, this means teachers and lecturers have more time for their hands for the most crucial aspect of their job: teaching. By not having to track down parents to gather that crucial signature for a school-trip permission form, or hunt through ever-multiplying stacks of paperwork to compare a pupil’s progress, it is argued, educators are more focused and productive.
That narrative can be contested. To take one example: research by the University of California, Berkeley among workers at tech and finance firms found that even apparently slight distractions – an email pop-up, for instance – ate in into their concentration severely. Employees were derailed from their tasks for up to 25 mins by a single distraction. Scaled up to school or university level, this accumulation of individual distractions could potentially have damaging consequences for learning, teaching and administrative efficiency. Institutions, though, should not dismiss the potential time savings of paperless – just be aware that it is not the magic bullet solution to the crisis of concentration and productivity.
That said, it could help save time. Adam Smith of PS Financials, a financial software company, points to the advantages of a paperless school office: “The management of expenses is an area that could be significantly simplified,” he noted. In combination with AI, the repetitive, regular tasks which occupy so much administrative time, such as a “regular expenses, submitted each month,” can be easily automated once they go paperless. Which, as Adam observed, “could save huge amounts of time”.
Putting pen to paper(less)
Paperless can also help institutions reach pupils – and their parents – quicker and more efficiently. BESA (British Education Suppliers Association), for instance, produce monitoring systems so that schools and multi-academy trusts can effectively track, flag and escalate safeguarding and attendance concerns. Safeguarding Monitor is an all-in-one safeguarding portal: pupils are assigned a flag system (red – of concern; green – no concern) which can be updated in real time by staff anywhere in the school. Issues can thus be raised, and dealt with, as soon as possible.
These tools are only as effective as long as staff use them, though. User experience, therefore, becomes a vital part of the paperless package. “Many institutional systems in education over the last couple of decades have been notoriously poor when considering user experience,” admitted Yaz El Hakim, Communications Director at Kortext, an ebook provider. At Kortext, he observed, improving user experience is a priority: “[We’ve] developed learner experience and smart tools that allow users to engage with their e-textbooks more intuitively.”
Aside from ease-of-use, another point of friction in paperless systems is a fear which will be familiar to tech observers everywhere: automation replacing jobs. “Entrenched habits” die hard in education institutions, Yaz noted: “Insecurity that is created by change [is] often associated with some level of redundancy.” Adam of PS Financials agreed: “As humans we are often suspicious when a computer is recruited to be our new assistant.”
These qualms are best soothed through transparency, Yaz argued. Pointing out the savings to the institution and the increased efficiency at work to employees is one way of managing this transition. Another, perhaps more persuasive, idea is to stress that “efficiencies don’t always mean redundancies”. In fact, Yaz said: “Many existing roles benefit from professional development and even new roles can be created.”
Paperless: the future?
Aside from some apocalyptic collapse, or a fundamental reimagining of the world economy, a shift to paperless appears inexorable. The question for institutions, then, is how they manage this transition. Protecting the welfare of students and staff – and managing their expectations – thus comes under renewed scrutiny. When going paperless, it is these conversations, not just an emphasis on efficiency, that need to be had. The inevitable should never come as an unpleasant surprise. After all, as Yaz said: “To a large extent, most of our everyday content and working processes will be digitised – you heard it here first.”