By Mike Marsee
They haven’t thrown out all of the paper at Thomas Nelson High School, but they have gotten rid of a great deal of it. And at the same time, they’ve torn down walls between students and teachers.
School leaders at the Nelson County school say faster, easier communication is the most important result of their move toward becoming a paperless school, with everything from lessons to newsletters going online.
“Anywhere where ‘walls’ have traditionally been, they’re gone. Creating, collaborating and sharing via Google Drive and Blogger allows for everyone to see across the school,” said assistant principal Heather Warrell.
The move also has strengthened the school’s connection with the community by creating increased transparency that Warrell said has been good for all concerned.
While the change has saved money in terms of paper purchases, school leaders say that wasn’t what motivated them.
“It’s really just the hook. People can connect to the idea of a paperless school, but what this can do in terms of collaboration and transparency and the notion of ‘work smarter, not harder,’ has revolutionized the way we run this school,” Warrell said. “So yes, it does contribute to opportunities that are paperless, but that’s really not the overall benefit.. It’s a force multiplier.
“People have asked me, ‘How much money do you save in copies?’ and I said, ‘That’s really not what this is about. It’s about transparency, breaking down the walls, the opportunities for collaboration.’ I think that’s the part that once people see it, they’re very intrigued.”
Following a presentation by Warrell at a breakout session on paperless schools at EdCampKy in October, several districts have visited the school to see the implementation in action.
Thomas Nelson opened 2 1/2 years ago, and Principal Wes Bradley started the process of putting much of the school’s business on Google Drive, which allows users to access its applications from any device, and Blogger, a Google-owned blog publishing service, and outfitting his students with Chromebook computers.
“It took us until March of the first year, eight months, until I basically asked PLCs (professional learning communities) to begin running through blog websites. From there, all meetings we had went through the blogs. Not only does it save an incredible amount of time, but it put the most important information right at the tips of our fingers when collaborating,” Bradley said.
Then came the Chromebooks, which primarily use applications and data in the cloud rather than on individual machines and are much less expensive than conventional laptops. The school started with four carts containing 30 computers each and continues to earmark nearly half of its annual school-based decision making (SBDM) allocation to purchase more.
“It’s what teachers and students continue to ask for,” Bradley said. “The Chromebooks were really a cost-effective way for us to move towards more of a differentiated and collaborative classroom. You’ll see a variety of ways that teachers are using them.”
Melissa Case, the school’s media specialist, said she never imagined those ways, but she has come to appreciate them.
“It’s awesome,” Case said. “When I started teaching 15 years ago, I never dreamed that it would be possible to plan and assess learning without using paper. There are times when it’s very relevant to use hard copies, but for the most part, it’s extremely effective to collaborate, teach, learn and assess all within the cloud. We’ve definitely come a long way since I began my career.”
She said moving much of her work online has been good both for her and her students.
“It’s convenient for kids to leave school, go home, log in and their work is waiting for them. They don’t have to worry about hitting the save button, they don’t have to worry about their computer crashing, and their work is right there in the drive when they return to school,” Case said. “Also, from a teacher perspective, when work is assigned in the cloud, we no longer hear, ‘I lost my homework,’ or ‘I did the assignment, but I left it at home.’ It’s always in the drive and can always be retrieved. Once you find the document, you can simply click the ‘see last revision’ link to show everything, including revisions, that the student has completed. Excuses for incomplete work are minimized.”
Case said it’s a timesaver for both teachers, who can grade assignments more quickly and even provide feedback while students are working on a lesson, and students, who can make changes to their work on the fly.
Warrell said teachers are using the computers now more than ever to collaborate with each other and with students and parents. And while there aren’t enough Chromebooks to cover every class yet, there are enough in place to have an impact on students’ study methods.
“I take four AP classes, and I think I bring two notebooks to take notes in off the board when they’re lecturing, and other than that all my assignments are on Google Drive,” senior Grant Ross said. “My AP biology teacher drops all my notes from his lectures into my folder on Google Drive.”
Warrell said when a teacher such as Case puts a lesson online, it’s easy for all concerned to stay informed.
“They’re in her planning folder, which is shared with her PLC, which is shared with me as her instructional coach, which is shared with her students, which is linked on her blog so her parents can see, so all walls are down. There’s total transparency for all stakeholders, for all members of our learning community,” she said.
Human geography teacher David Mudd, a 20-year teaching veteran, said he is transitioning between traditional lessons using notes and handouts and lessons using paperless presentations, but he has seen value in working online.
“I think the kids learn more; that’s the bottom line,” Mudd said. “It’s not just me standing here talking. I can give them tasks and they can learn on their own and work with each other and help each other. I think it’s just deeper learning.”
Mudd said he thinks students will be able to do much more as they and teachers rely more heavily on their new systems.
“It’s exciting for me to be able to see the potential,” he said.
Future Thomas Nelson students will be better equipped to use the technology thanks a project in which some current students are reaching out to Nelson County middle school students.
“A couple of us in our STLP (Student Technology Leadership Program) group, we’re doing a project to go to the feeder schools and actually teach them how to use a Chromebook, so when they get here on the first day they’re ready to run using the Chromebooks,” junior Jacob Mattingly said.
Much of the school’s administrative work is also completed using the technology. “Everything is created and shared and updated by the team,” Warrell said. “How we support kids and track their progress is all done through Google Drive, and it’s shared with all the people that are that kid’s safety net, in real time.”
Bradley said the school’s blog is used to house things like the calendar and parent newsletters, which are often updated with documents that already exist. He also said documents for all meetings, including those of the SBDM council, are also paperless and run through blogs.
“At this point everything is linked to living documents. Instead of using hours to create a parent newsletter by yourself, our teams of teachers are taking five minutes to copy, past and organize already created work to communicate on a wider scale to parents as a team,” he said. “Instead of using email, we’ve worked to ensure that our stakeholders have the most important information in real time at the tips of their fingers. We are excited to continue learning about the possibilities.”
Wes Bradley firstname.lastname@example.org
Heather Warrell email@example.com
Melissa Case firstname.lastname@example.org
David Mudd email@example.com