The paperless university

As I leave the turbulent start-up period of a new term behind and am briefly in the calm water period before mid-term exams and assignments, I have time to contemplate a student’s question posed to me in the first class. The student was upset that he had to pay for printing course documents as they were only available electronically. “It’s just like the banks,” he complained, “the costs are passed on to the customer but we get less service.”

I was startled by the question and the analogy. Over the past few years, I have grown increasing comfortable with WebCT and in providing “electronic-only” information to students. I had assumed that students preferred e-information, and if they wanted a p-information (information on paper) they would print out the information they required.

One could imagine a number of reasons why a university might produce electronic-only documents. It may create a perception that the university is technologically advanced and is contributing positively to the environment by reducing the amount of paper and ink used. Economically, not printing information on paper reduces printing budgets and the staff time spent managing this activity. For faculty, it shortens lead times for submission of course outlines and other documents for printing at the start of the term. It means that they no longer have to carry course documents back and forth to the classroom. Moreover, updates and changes can be made quickly and easily.

As the expression goes, what’s not to like?

While the reasons above support my original decision, I began to think about all the assumptions I had unconsciously made in moving to the provision of electronic-only course information:

– every student has access to a computer where they live or work;

– the financial cost of printing to a student is minimal;

– the environmental impact of printing is the same whether documents are printed on high speed printers or personal printers;

– the damage done to the environment in the creation, use and disposition of computers is the same as for paper;

– reading from an electronic copy results in the same level of comprehension as reading from a paper copy;

– students have the same understanding of the course requirements whether communicated electronically or on paper;

– the burden on the professor to ensure that students are informed of, and understand, course requirements is unchanged;

– students make no distinction in their perception of, or relationship with, a professor who provides paper copies and one who does not;

– the relationship between the student (future alumnus) and the university is unaltered by moving to the provision of electronic-only information.

Research on suppressing paper and providing information in electronic-only formats in universities, as well as other types of organizations, has been limited.

When the decision is made to remove paper from the transmission and management of information, little beta-testing is done to understand what might be lost. In fact, many of the advantages to individuals of information on paper are lost when the same information is made available in electronic-only format.

Have we considered the potential learning outcomes of not providing paper course outlines, descriptions of assignments and other course documents to students? Are we increasing, maintaining or reducing student comprehension of the material? Is encouraging the use of electronic devices in universities a positive and sustainable environmental action? How does changing the media we use to provide information affect the relationship between the student and the university?

The student I mentioned at the beginning of this column created a link between providing electronic-only course documents and the way banks behave. I am feeling vaguely uncomfortable with that thought.

Should I be rethinking my electronic-only course document provision?

Joanne McNeish has been an instructor at the Sprott School of Business for three years. She successfully defended her thesis entitled “Consumers’ Resistance to Discontinuing an Existing Technology, The Paper Bill” in June 2010.

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