Friday, February 19, 2010

The cost of not going paperless

(The irony of having my disconnected SMARTboard in the background is not lost on me.)

One of the many things that many of us were looking forward to when we moved to our new building was the idea of moving towards a (virtually) paperless classroom. I most definitely was for sure. Not only does a paperless classroom assist students with the acquisition of 21st century skills, it helps to keep me organized (I can easily sort and file student papers in electronic files on Google docs) and it has the potential to save school districts in general hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (literally) on the cost of paper alone. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the shift to paperless classrooms has stalled this year.

I recently crunched some numbers and came to a startling conclusion: based on the number of handouts I'm giving my students this semester, I will be responsible for nearly $5,000 in paper (just in paper) costs this semester alone. Multiply that times the number of other 9th and 10th grade teachers in our building, and it works out to over $84,000 just for 9th and 10th grade for one semester.  Double that for a full school year and double it again to include 11th and 12th grade, and you're looking at over $300,00 just in the cost of paper for one year. One so many levels, this is unacceptable, particularly in light of having electronic options available. (Realize two things: 1. the district where I work isn't overly large, and so the savings in other districts would be far greater, and 2. while I am talking about my district specifically, this applies to any and all districts throughout the country.)

To illustrate the point: my students just completed a district common assessment. I took the test and answer sheets to the wellness center in the school and weighed it, just out of curiosity. The two day test weighed 17.2 pounds. A ream of paper (500 sheets of paper) weighed 4.8 pounds, meaning that just for my students, approximately 3.58 reams of paper were used, for a total of over 1,791 sheets of paper used.  At a cost of (approximately) $.10 per sheet of paper, that amounts to $179.17 for just one test for one group of students.  Multiply that times four (four groups of students/four academies), and you end up with this one test costing the district $716.67.  These assessments are given four times a year, for a yearly cost of $2,866.67.

I wonder how much it would have cost to have the students take the same multiple choice test online? My guess is that the savings would be significant.

The district where I work could provide one laptop for every student in the high school for half that amount every single year (assuming a cost of $1,000 per laptop), thus enabling our students to learn 21st century technology skills in addition to the curricular materials while adding to the fiscal savings from year to year without affecting the currently adopted teaching model. Even if the students were issued laptops and allowed to keep them permanently, after the first year, the savings actually increase as districts would only have to purchase laptops for incoming students since existing students in said district would already have their laptops from the previous year(s).

The irony is that for many, the cost of providing a laptop to each student in any district is seen as prohibitive, yet I wonder if those responsible for working out budgets from year to year have ever really sat down and crunched the real numbers involved.

The other factor, of course, is that so many educators are downright Luddites when it comes to the integration of technology in their classroom. It is true that bad teaching is bad teaching, no matter what bells and whistles one tosses at it, that is no excuse to not include technology into the daily lessons. The engagement of my students increases dramatically when instead of just reading Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, they are able to watch it on YouTube. Students are more apt to revise their work when it involves simply going back in to an electronic document and making the necessary changes instead of having to rewrite the entire thing by hand. Writing workshops become dynamic and enjoyable when I'm logged in on a student's essay the same time they are and I can give instant, real-time feedback to what they are writing. Do not tell me "if it was good enough for me, it's good enough for them," either. Times have changed.

Public education has a choice: keep up and actually become innovative rather than just give innovation lip service, or be left behind by students in private and charter schools. Private schools are often on the edge of the curve when it comes to innovation; I know, I've taught in both private and public schools. Often the innovation and creativity is due to increased fiscal responsibility: when the parents are writing the checks directly and can access the books anytime they want, there is an increased sensitivity as to where the money is going and how much things cost. Public schools regularly get ripped off. Case in point: I have seen videos for sale in catalogs provided to school districts that cost $40 or more when the same video can be had from any online or brick and mortar store often for much, much less.

It's time for public schools to take the lead. Our children deserve better.

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