Printers are costly, wasteful, and a nightmare to fix. I hate printers. So I undertook a little social experiment — what would happen if staff  had to use Google Docs instead of printed pages…

I was looking through our printer stock recently and found myself disgusted at the amount of money being poured into printer consumables. Departments understandably balk at even the smallest charge on their limited budgets, but whack a £150 toner on there and nobody bats an eyelid.

Printers are just something department expect to have. You have computers, keyboards, mice, and a printer — preferably colour. Asking a teacher to forgo such a luxury is the equivalent of asking a builder to drink his tea from a china cup — it’s just not right.

For most printers are little more than a comfort blanket, people just like to know that the stuff on their screen can be made physical, even if that does mean layering ink onto thin sheets of dead tree. Each year my school spends several thousand pounds on ink and toner, most of which just sits on a shelf for months, and most of which is unnecessary.

Through a completely unscientific survey based on completely spurious numbers, I estimate that 90% of printing is unnecessary, and the remaining 10% is only essential because exam bodies and the Government is so behind the technological curve that they only officially acknowledge documents printed on pulped plant matter.

In an attempt to aid my sanity, I carried out a bit of a social experiment. For management meetings usually I would print off the agenda, the minutes of the last meeting, and other relevant information. The reams of A4 sheets would then be distributed to staff for their perusal. But at the most recent meeting I tried something different. I asked everyone to bring along a device that could access the Internet. At this meeting the only way they could get the information they needed was through Google Drive.

As asked staff arrived with Chromebooks, Macbooks, iPads, and a Nexus 10 — just the one. Interestingly there were no Windows devices to be seen. Now admittedly, the meeting consisted of some of the more IT literate staff in the school, so the experiment is hardly scientific, but it did provide a good indication of what would happen were mobile devices more accessible in school.

To my surprise everything went very smoothly. Documents were opened, spreadsheets were updated, and childish inappropriate words were typed on the screens of other participant. What this proved is that the resistance to forgo paper for digital technology is mainly an issue of accessibility, with a little bit of habit thrown in.

The argument I hear most often is that people prefer to have paper copies. This is nonsense. They simply haven’t tried the alternative. All it takes is for someone to take the initiative and suggest that there might be a better way to do things.

The are a few edge case scenarios for which printing is essential, but in general most printing could be stopped. Student work can now be shared with teachers digitally, parents get SMS text message and emails home instead of letters, and meetings can be held with electronic agendas.

I’ll be continuing to promote this idea in my school. I’ll let you know how I get on.

How do you deal with printing in your school? Let me know in the comments.

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About Author

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Karl is an award winning Director of IT for the Royal Grammar School Guildford, based near London, England. He has been working in education for more than ten years and founded ClassThink in 2013 to share technology best practice with other schools. In 2014 he won the NAACE Impact Award for support services in schools, and writes edtech articles for Education Executive Magazine.

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