Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

A Paperless Degree?

Posted by Jock Coats on October 10th, 2011

One thing I am setting out to try and achieve in my studies is to get through as much of my degree as possible without producing or consuming paper.  Not out of any particular environmental concern (though not using scarce resources, for an economics student at least, must surely be a positive!) but just because in many situations electronic is now better than paper.

Unfortunately at the beginning of each module, and at various stages along the way, lecturers tend to hand out paper by the truck load, whether it be module handbooks, weekly lesson plans or question sheets for seminar work.  They also demand, generally, two paper copies of coursework, as well as one copy submitted electronically via TurnItIn, the anti-plagiarism system.

But apart from that, how well am I doing?  Well, I have two key gadgets – my iPad and my Kindle.  Sadly, most of the actual text books I need are only available in dead tree versions.  However much of the background reading is available in Kindle form.  But even with that, of the 26 books originally in my reading list before starting on the course, only ten were available on Kindle or, indeed, in any electronic format.

Brookes uses a Virtual Learning Environment called WebCT – though it will be one of my main jobs at work to move us to Moodle, linked to severa electronic resource databases like Equella and Mahara over the course of the next year.  But for now, most of the paper handed out in lectures and seminars is posted on the VLE as well.  File formats raise some issues: most are posted as MS Word documents.  I would certainly prefer PDFs, mainly because first, Word is a great big piece of bloatware that takes ages to open each time I want to refer to something and second, they are editable which I suspect is overall a recipe for some shenanigans later (maybe someone could claim the coursework deadline was different in their copy and so on).

I have worked out that if I open the Word versions, and, on my Mac at least, use the printing function to email a PDF to my kindle.com address, I can get a reasonable quality of handbook etc onto my Kindle.  Some format better than others, so I ought to try and work out what works best and recommend module staff to use those techniques.  Also, if a lecturer posts a link to a web page for background reading, I have discovered I can send it to Instapaper and set up my Instapaper account to send a daily digest to my kindle.com address as well.  This is great for general use to – effectively you can create your own daily newspaper from your RSS reader, say, and have it offline on your Kindle to enjoy at your leisure.

However, it’s in note taking that the gadgets score.  Instead of the ubiquitous A4 block pad, I tend to use a mind mapping program called iThoughts on my iPad to take notes.  This, I think, is far and away better than paper.  My typing is way more legible than handwriting at speed, and more especially, I can reoganise each note wherever is most appropriate on the mind map.  If there is Wifi in the lecture or classroom I tend to upload my maps to my XMind account before I leave so it’s instantly available on any other device I want to review them on later (or, since I have for now uploaded them as public mind maps, to anyone else who stumbles across that account – if staff or the university would rather I did not do that, then let me know and I will change to making them private maps).

Studying economics, though, there are lots of occasions on which I need to do little graphs – you know, supply and demand curves and so on.  So at the weekend I found a couple of pretty good apps for the iPad, thanks to this little guide.  First, OmniGraphSketcer for iPad is a freehand tool for quickly drawing exactly the sort of stuff that economists like to bamboozle the rest of us with.  I’ve used other OmniGroup products before, and it is true that this is, as apps go, quite an expensive one at ten quid, but it has already proven its worth just today in a seminar group.  Then, in readiness for having to do some more complicated maths, I picked up PocketCAS Pro for iPad which solves and graphs quite complex equations.

So, so far so good.  What would help to make all this more feasible then?

Well first, universities ought to use their economic clout in recommending text books to pressure publishers to make more of them available in e-formats.  Not only are economics and politics texts books rather expensive at anywhere between about £30 and £50, but they all weigh a ton.  The more I can get into my 350g Kindle the better.  Economics and politics are popular subjects – most of my modules have at least 150 and often 250 attendees.  Repeat that across the sector (many of the books are pretty standard) and that’s a lot of buying power that could be brought to bear by academics, and many have regular new editions.  There should be no excuse for any new edition these days not to have an e-format version.  The sooner we get e-Textbooks available in the UK the better.  And the ultimate sanction ought to be to switch to using so called Open Learning Resources wherever possible.

Second, there could be more focus on consistency and choice in the format of electronic resources generated by the university.  PDFs of module handbooks, past exam papers, seminar handouts and so on should be mandatory.  Better still, the repository such things are stored in could handle conversion to several different standard formats and the individual could perhaps set their preferences in the VLE to default to a PDF, or a .mobi or a Word document or whatever the individual wants.

And third, if we have to submit work electronically, why bother with paper versions?  Let’s start marking the electronic copies, and if academics cannot manage that, then they, not the students, can arrange to print them (and maybe to scan in marked and annotated versions for sending back to students).  On most e-reading devices you can write notes – I have PDF Expert and iAnnotate for the iPad for example to allow me to annotate PDFs and of course you can write margin notes on the Kindle too.

Finally, I would like to be able to post or annotate online resources for others to use.  Social bookmarking is an essential part of a VLE nowadays.  And I hope to be able to build that in to our implementation of Moodle for next year.

But, does any of this matter I wonder?  Last week, in my Skills for Economic Enquiry class the market we had to comment on was “e-Reader” devices.  It certainly seemed that of the thirty or so people in my seminar group I was the only one to have one.  So may be all this is still a rarity.  I hope it becomes more mainstream though.