Monday, 30 April 2012

Are we heading for the paperless university?

We often hear talk of the paperless office, but after more than 30 years of the PC and other impressive IT innovations, including the internet, most offices still seem to generate masses of paper and old fashioned paper files. But I've recently been wondering whether universities might nevertheless be moving in the paperless direction. Several strands have come together to set me thinking along these lines. Let's see what some of them are:

It occurred to me recently that I can't recall when I last borrowed a book or a journal from our library! And that's not because I've given up reading. Rather, it's because most new material in areas that interest me comes out first in on line working papers from diverse sources, and most of the journals I read are also available on line these days. Also, colleagues from various other institutions and countries send me a good deal of material, and again, it's nearly all in the form of attachments to e-mails. This is a massive change in the 'information landscape' that has come about over the past 20-30 years, and it is continuing.

Personally, I confess to being quite old fashioned in two respects: I still like the look and feel of 'real' books, and therefore buy for myself the key books on anything I decide to work on; and second, I can't resist printing out a limited number of the articles I want to read, not least because then I don't have to sit in front of a computer screen all day.

Refereeing articles for journals
Increasingly, requests to referee come by e-mail, and the referee is invited to use the publisher's on line reporting system to provide feedback to the editors and to the paper authors. These on line systems vary a bit in quality and ease of use, but they're getting better all the time. Hence on line refereeing is becoming the standard method.

Travel and e-book readers
Many academics, including me, travel a good deal and often take books and various academic papers with them to read on the plane. Increasingly, academics travel with some form of e-reader to cut down on a lot of the weight. I haven't yet taken this course myself, but it can't be very long before I do. It's clearly the future for the travelling academic.

This still requires real teachers and real students, but increasing amounts of our teaching materials - lecture notes, literature sources, essay topics, course outlines, problem sets, podcasts, etc., can be found on course websites and can be accessed whenever it suits the students. We used to hand out masses of photocopied notes and papers, and still do in some courses; but increasingly, we simply tell the students where they can find the material on line, and they can access it using their laptops or smartphones. Individual student queries are often dealt with by e-mail, though we do also meet students to discuss things personally. This will remain an important part of the learning experience, I would expect.

Essays and other student work
When I started life as an academic several decades ago, all essays were hand-written by the students, while student dissertations were sometimes typed (on a mechanical typewriter, just as I used for typing up my PhD), sometimes hand written. Nowadays we accept nothing that is not properly word processed, and even when we require hard copy (i.e. paper), we also normally require an e-mail or on line submission too. The latter enables us to do automatic checks for plagiarism, and also provides automatic templates for entering marks, comments, etc. All this has become quite standard in the last 5-10 years, and probably quite soon we shall stop asking for the paper copies.

This is more difficult to make electronic as students, both at undergraduate and MSc levels, usually write their answers in answer books that we provide. Someone then has to read and mark everything. However, we have experimented a little with automated examining in some quantitative/problem solving areas, and it has worked pretty well.  But in most examining, I think paper will remain with us for a while longer.

On the other hand, although PhD theses are always supplied on paper, the last few I have examined have also been supplied electronically, and all the needed report forms have been electronic too. Hence in this area, too, it can't be long before we can dispense with the print out and conduct the whole examining process electronically. Even the viva could be conducted using Sykpe, or some other mode of on line conferencing facility, so that we might even be able to cut down on some travelling (though it would be a shame to miss out on the occasional nice lunch with colleagues).

So where does all this amazing change leave us? Aside from leaving us gasping for breath, it seems to me to leave us with institutions that have automated rather successfully (i.e. made electronic and paperless) many of the important things they do, both in teaching and in research. I would see these developments as largely beneficial.

On the face of it, this should have freed up some academic time for improved student-professor interaction, and at times I think that works very well. But as ever, there is a downside that might need thinking about more carefully. This is the simple point that by making the creation of forms and documents so cheap and easy, the IT revolution we have been going through has also stimulated the demand for ever more forms and documents to be created to monitor just about everything we do in ever greater detail and depth. To put it mildly, I am not convinced this is such a great idea. Just because we can do something easily and cheaply, it doesn't mean we should.

No comments:

Post a Comment