Editorial: Paper or Plastic?

directon sign 847499_lowFor the record, I have never once in my years of teaching had a paper quiz freeze, crash, fail to launch, or mysteriously lose my data after it is complete. This is part of my inherent bias against electronic testing, and I can state it simply: PAPER JUST WORKS. You type it up, print it off, hand it out, collect it, grade it, input the scores, and you’re done. And on a side note, I believe that I am not alone in enjoying the tactile experience of holding and marking on a piece of actual paper, as opposed to trying to annotate something on my computer screen.

Here’s my theory on this: we are very close to a tipping point in how we interact with data. My generation (I am 44) thinks in terms of paper—send me a document and my knee-jerk, instinctive reaction will be to print a hard copy to read. Email me some important form or document and I will most likely print a paper copy to stick in a file drawer, simply because in my world paper copies were once the only ‘permanent’ option.

Don’t underestimate how strong this bias toward physical documents can be. As Kindle and similar “readers” ooze into the space now occupied by paper books, one manufacturer has demonstrated a dual-screen reader. This hinged device unfolds in the middle, and in use looks very much like an open book. Ironically, as one commentator pointed out, two screens probably will mean half the battery life and twice the cost, the hinge is the most failure-prone component in the device, and (unless you are some sort of weirdo) you can only read one page at a time anyway. Yet the market is all abuzz over this reader whose form directly mirrors a communication paradigm which dates back to the first century AD.

Now here’s the rub: students today don’t share our affinity for paper. I began to suspect this last year during a May short course. One day I forgot to print an info sheet the students would need in the lab that day. I quickly logged on and posted a copy for them online, telling them, “You can print a copy from Blackboard.”

Later, in the lab, I made a startling observation: as far as I could tell, not a single student had actually printed the document. Some were viewing it directly on their smart phones. A handful opened it in a separate window on their screens and would tab to it as needed. A few had opened it on the screen of an adjacent machine so they could look at it whenever they needed to. Granted, some may have skipped the printing step because their campus printing account was exhausted; but I suspect there is something deeper going on here.

My second data point is the number of students who obviously have computers, but who do not seem to have printers. On Friday mornings when my seniors turn in their cases, probably half of them come to campus early in order to print the documents they created at home. Maybe their problem is the high cost of ink, but in my world, where we embrace the paper paradigm, a home computer without a printer is somewhat useless. In their world, documents don’t necessarily ever hit the printed page, causing one to ask whether the term ‘documents’ is still relevant.

Have we reached a major tipping point? I suspect that many of my freshman students have the same sort of inherent bias toward screens that I do toward paper. Their response to our quiz experiment, in which despite the horrible interface the vast majority preferred an electronic format, suggests that they may be the leading edge of the screen generation, for reasons not necessarily logical or practical, but with biases just as strong as ours.

And in that case, the burden of adapting to the learner’s needs will once again fall on the teacher.

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