Paperless Writing Course

Lecturing Fellow Michael Ennis, Thompson Writing Program, was one of seven Duke faculty who participated in a CIT Fellowship program in Fall 2011 focusing on Sustainability in Teaching Practice. This post summarizes some of Ennis’ teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Ennis and the other CIT Sustainability Fellows are part of the larger group of Trillium Fellows, faculty who are committed to incorporating sustainability content into their Duke courses in alignment with Duke’s 2009 campus Climate Action Plan. For more about the Trillium Fellows, contact Charlotte Clark.

As with many of the other Trillium Fellows, the most significant effort in making my class sustainable consisted of going paperless for my Fall 2011 first-year writing seminar.  Going into the semester, I had several apprehensions about doing this, some of which turned out to be no problem at all.  However, I do think certain activities were negatively impacted by the use of computers in the classroom.

My first concern was that students would find the paperless distribution of readings inconvenient and confusing, and that they would find reading pdfs on a laptop difficult, especially for highlighting and annotating.  As it turned out, I came up with a fairly streamlined system for course readings on Blackboard.  Under Course Documents I organized the readings into folders by day.  This enabled some flexibility in the reading schedule, which was quite nice.  Students knew they were responsible for reading whatever was in the folder, so I could switch them up from the syllabus to respond to questions and interests of the students.  I gave students the option to print the readings, or use their laptops in class.  Most chose the latter and claimed they preferred reading on the screen.  They claim that this did not present a hindrance to note taking, but I think that it did.  During in-class discussions, students who had printed copies seemed better able to navigate the essay and direct our attention to key passages.  This is, however, my impression, and I did not measure or test it.

While students preferred this method of distributing readings—in a survey they cited cutting textbook costs and preferring reading on a computer as key reasons—it did create some extra work for me.  There were a couple of texts that I would have liked students to read more of, but had to limit myself to a portion that remained within the bounds of fair use.  This required more prep in putting the course together: having one collection of readings makes constructing a syllabus much easier, and this method required piecing the readings together.   Overall, going paperless for the readings was a success, and I am continuing it this semester.

I did find going paperless for writing workshops more of a challenge.  Students did not mark up papers as much as we discussed them in class and were much less apt to point to specific passages in their peers’ writings.  I also felt students became more prone to surfing the web during these workshops, which is unacceptable in general, but particularly offensive when discussing another student’s work.  For that reason, this semester I have reverted to using paper for in-class writing workshops, but have requested that the presenters try to fit it on 1-2 sheets of paper.  So far, they have been much more focused and productive this semester.

I also graded on the computer.  I streamlined my commenting by using the clipboard function on Word.  By using the “Insert Comment” and “Track Changes” functions, I felt that my commenting on student writing was at least as comprehensive and less time consuming.

One concern many of my colleagues raised was preventing students from surfing the web during class discussions.  This was a bit of a problem, but I believe I minimized it simply by calling on students.  I did not do this to embarrass anyone, but just to establish early on that everyone needed to be paying attention and ready to contribute.  I also made sure to ask students to close their laptops when it wasn’t necessary to use them.  These measures worked fairly well, especially in the context of a 12-student seminar.  However, I am sure larger classes will still struggle with student surfing.

Overall, the experiment worked well, but in the future I may still use paper for writing workshops, and at some point again I will have students buy textbooks.  However, I will probably never print handouts, syllabi, and assignments again.

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