Education providers must approach paperless with caution

Dan Sandhu, CEO of Sparx, argues that bookwork must continue to play a central role in learning alongside effective edtech

In a January interview with The Telegraph, Kathy Crewe-Read, headteacher of Wolverhampton Grammar School laid out her support for and vision of the ‘paperless’ school. Her assertion was that with most offices eschewing notepads for iPads, schools should adopt the same future-forward approach.

The idea of the paperless classroom certainly isn’t new – and neither are the arguments that surround it.   A paperless school offers clear benefits. As Crewe-Read told The Telegraph: “Everything is stored digitally on iPads, nothing is lost. Science experiments and class discussions can be filmed and recorded digitally.

“Pupils can write digitally or type on their iPads too. All worksheets are on the iPad at the press of a button. There is no handing out books or sheets of paper, nothing can get lost.”

However, it’s interesting that Crewe-Read’s students still choose to use a ‘universal exercise book’ system where they can write ‘old-fashioned’ notes which are then photographed and stored on their iPads. It’s clear that despite an overarching paperless strategy, her own students still value the paper and pen alongside their tablet and stylus.

Blending old with new

Eyebrows are often raised when I argue for the presence of ink and exercise books in the classroom. After all, as the CEO of an edtech company that delivers its maths learning content via tablet computers, it seems like an obvious own goal! In fact, it’s clear from our research with schools that pens and iPads are actually important partners.

Our own collaborative work with schools developing tech, not to mention many academic studies, show the benefits of handwriting and bookwork. A 2008 study from Carnegie Mellon University found that handwriting resulted in similar learning gains in much less time than typing. Similarly, researchers from Princeton University found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than those who took notes longhand (2014).

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We’ve concluded that, based on current evidence, ‘traditional’ bookwork used alongside our personalised learning platform aids retention and helps teachers better understand mistakes.

Of course, there is an argument that there is no threat to handwriting in going paperless. You are simply replacing the paper with a digital alternative. Our approach, as always, is to look at the evidence – which is far from decisive on this subject.

A 2015 study published in Human Movement Science assessed the effects of using a stylus and tablet on children’s writing skills, and suggested disturbance to the style and movement in writing with a stylus over a pen. Similar research has uncovered issues relating to the frictionless nature of tablet/stylus interaction as opposed to paper and pen. On the other hand, a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggested that for those familiar with its use, writing with a digital pen may improve learning relative to the use of an ink pen.

As with so much in the edtech sector, the evidence is far from clear and there is more to understand.

What next?

While the vision of a paperless world is exciting, we must accept there is still much to understand about the consequences of replacing pens, pencils and paper with digital equivalents. Before we throw out the old, I’d argue that much more research needs to be conducted into the new. Further consideration needs to be made of any inadvertent or hidden effects we may experience from pushing forward with paperless.

I’d argue that while we should embrace innovation, we shouldn’t rush to replace what we know with what’s fashionable before taking full stock of the consequences. Some may argue I am being overly cautious. When it comes to the long-term effects on our children, I’d argue that caution is the only sensible and sustainable approach we can take.