Paperless Makes You Stupid

Interesting ad in Fast Company, a business magazine that focuses on design and innovation. Featuring a cute little kid proudly holding up his A+ math paper, the copy tells us that “It’s easier to learn on paper” and that “Reading on paper is 10-30% faster than reading online, plus reviewing notes and highlighting is significantly more effective.”

Of course the company behind the ad sells paper, and we can only assume, would like the reader to buy more.

A website behind the ad campaign cites nine different papers and studies to support the overall contention that reading online and with digital readers is not good for “today’s students”. I don’t suppose the fact that two of them are more than ten years old and six others predate the release of the first iPad makes any difference.

However, what strikes me about the ad are the assumptions the copywriters seem to have about what education is and should be.

Learning math is correctly performing 36 calculations by hand. College is largely about reading standard printed textbooks and highlighting the text. Research papers are forever.

Teaching is all about transmitting information.

Paper has been around for almost two millennia and it has proven itself an effective and enduring method of transmitting information. In fact, learning from books continues to be one of the building blocks of a child’s future.

Let’s face it, that view of education is largely the same one held by most people in this country.

Replacing Paper

When Amazon first released the Kindle late in 2007, it was supposed to save the publishing industry by having us all reading everything from periodicals to textbooks on them.  A few years later, that claim was made for the iPad.

Instead of physically delivering information on paper, these and the many other “coming soon” tablet devices would provide the material, with enhancements, in an easily distributed digital format.

Of course, I’ve been around long enough to remember when similar statements were made for laptops and before them personal computers. Anyone remember the paperless office? Anyone work in one?

While it certainly hasn’t yet replaced paper in my life*, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more material on my iPad since it arrived six months ago.

That effort would be going much better if it wasn’t for a few obstacles placed in the way by someone. Apple? The app makers? Publishers?

The two most visible reading apps are Apple’s iBook and Amazon’s Kindle, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve only paid for a couple of ebooks due to the rather obstructionist DRM attached to most files.

Another annoying functionality road block is that neither app will allow me to copy a selection of text and paste it into an email or blog post, again limiting the usefulness of the format.

Sure, I can’t do copy and paste with an analog publication either, but wasn’t switching to a digital format supposed to make the material more useful than paper could? I seem to remember some visionary making that promise.

Anyway, if I had to make a choice between the two, iBook is the better reading app, both in terms of it’s features and the fact that it’s possible to add material other than what you buy from the attached store, a feature that’s not easily available with the Kindle app.

If you’re buying books, on the other hand, Kindle has the advantage since their store features a much bigger selection, slightly lower prices, and the ability to sync your digital files on multiple instances of the app (computer, phone, iPad, Kindle).

However, the reading app I use most often, and the one with the best overall functionality, is GoodReader.

Although sold (it’s only 99 cents) as a pdf reader, this app is a whole lot more. I get way too much stuff as Word documents and GoodReader will let me view (but not edit) them as well, generally doing a great job of retaining the original format.

The app also makes it very easy to copy materials from any computer over a wifi connection, download directly from web URLs, and get files from online storage services like Dropbox or Apple’s Mobile Me.

And the best will be getting better since the GoodReader developers say that they will be adding pdf annotations in the next version.

As to the growing collection of other iPad newspaper/magazine replacements, I’ve found very few worth raving about.

Like Flipboard, the most recent hot app. Very pretty, very slick, not especially useful.

*For some reason, there seems to be more paper, not less, although that might be due to heightened awareness of how much stuff is needlessly printed.

Moving Thoughts

Well, this is the week of our big move. By Wednesday afternoon, my little group and our colleagues in the same building, must be packed up and ready for the movers.


As I’ve mentioned before, most of our department, along with large chunks of two others in our overly-large school district, are being moved from various locations to a single building in another part of the county.

From a 50’s era former elementary school with a leaky roof to a generic cube farm elsewhere in the county, formerly occupied by a dot com survivor.

While I’m actually looking forward to the new environment and the opportunities/challenges the altered working relationship will bring, the process of actually packing up all the crap in my current space has been interesting.

As I was going through the stuff in my current cube, I realized there isn’t much to move.

So little that I’m almost tempted to just trash everything that is there and start over in the new location.

I also recalled a similar move to the current building our group made about ten years ago and how, at that time, I had to move many shelves packed with binders and books, plus lots of drawers full of paper.

This time around, no binders, few books, and little paper. Almost everything I now use is in some kind of digital format and is on my laptop or some node on a network.

Which is why this move is causing little stress, certainly not at the level it is for some of my other colleagues.

Because I’ve learned to make my work space almost anywhere I have a computing device linked to a good wireless connection. Not even sure I care where the printers are.

Bring on the change!

Picture: van by penelopejonze, used under a Creative Commons license

More on Paper

In a comment to my ranting about the evils of PDF, Dave makes a couple of good points, one about the way people approach working on screen vs. on paper, and another about the whole issue of saving paper.

First, he recalls a very useful way to distinguish between the way people approach working on screen vs. on paper.

[Digital] natives start with an all-digital process and incorporate analog processes as necessary. An immigrant starts with an all analog process and incorporates digital processes as necessary.

As much as I dislike the whole natives vs. immigrant metaphor, I like this analogy. It really is all about a mind set that sees digital solutions before analog ones.

And then Dave challenges the whole idea of reduced paper use as having a big impact.

He’s probably right that the money saved is relatively small and that there are many other products that have a much bigger environmental impact.

But I’m still going to push it. Let’s just consider saving paper as a relatively easy gateway into getting people to make other much more important reductions.

BTW, Dave, when are you going to start your own blog? :-)

PDF is Bad For the Environment

This month we’ve had a lot of talk about saving paper around here, and the fact that this is Earth Week was only a minor factor.

The catalyst came from one of our trainers who noticed all the paper wasted at her school and implemented a plan to use less at her school and recycle the money into technology purchases.

Her program has worked very well in that one location but it got me thinking about how and whether the concept could be spread, especially in the paper-hungry environment of the central office location in which I work.

My doubt really has nothing to do with being green or saving money since many people want to do both. Or at least say they want to.

However, less printing requires major alterations to the way people communicate, something that doesn’t seem to be happening very quickly around here despite years of trying.

And I blame PDF for that. Or at least it gets part of the blame.

Although Adobe has some wonderful examples of multimedia brochures and interactive forms done in their electronic printing format, that’s not the way most people use it.

No, most PDF files are not created to make them easy to read on the screen. Instead they are simply digital reproductions of documents that were designed to be printed in the first place.

So, instead of me printing the paperwork and distributing it to the masses, I convert it into a PDF file and post it on the web or send it in an email. Each recipient then downloads the document.

And prints it. Well, maybe not everyone but enough that my saving paper is pretty much offset by someone else using it.

Examples of this phenomena are not hard to find. As I poke around in offices and schools I see printers spitting out PDF documents, along with emails and web pages, all of which could be read on a screen, bookmarked or stored electronically, and recalled when needed.

Instead they go onto paper which is then stored in binders (we LOVE binders around here!) and manila folders for later use. Or for later disposal when the file cases get full and clean out time rolls around.

Ok, so maybe I’m exaggerating things again (who, me? :-) and it’s not entirely the fault of Adobe and PDF.

We can’t blame the technology when the larger problem is that we really have never done a good job of teaching people how to format material for the screen.

And we certainly need to do a lot more to help them understand how to use blogs, wikis, and all the other collaborative online tools to work on screen from start to finish.

I never bought into the idea of the paperless office that was pushed by computer manufacturers (and, strangely enough, by Xerox) in the 80’s.

But when I see all the printing generated around here, especially as people get ready for the opening of school training sessions and more in August and September, I just have to believe there’s a better way.