Higher education continues to evolve with each new technological advance — from the use of Virtual Learning Environments, to the prevalence of online schools. However, one thing that remains constant is the use of paper. While many schools have started using tablets and other gadgets instead of books, there are still critics out there who believe that traditional books and paper are part of the whole experience.
Of course, the resources required to run a university come at a very high cost. Some activists and student groups have even taken it upon themselves to push for paperless universities in order to curb the environmental costs of university resources.
This begs the question: should universities go paperless? Let's look at the pros and cons.
Helps enforce digital security
Companies and organisations can no longer afford to ignore cyber security, especially with Cyber Defense Magazine warning that there has been a significant rise in breaches recently. Universities, with so much student data and information in their systems, run the risk of compromising sensitive intel. This means that they need to invest in tight security systems. Cloud-based, encrypted systems are known to be much safer than leaving physical records stored away in a cabinet, with the added benefit of being able to frequently change security credentials.
Lowers environmental and financial costs
We often overlook the real cost of stocking up on everyday supplies such as paper. Going paperless can help decrease administration costs, as you’re cutting usage across all levels of the institution. Paper wastage also creates a significant carbon footprint. For medical institutions, these costs have led them to make the paperless switch. Now, doctors have the ability to open patients' records on the system and send prescriptions directly to a pharmacist, which is also a more convenient option. Likewise, schools no longer have to keep sending out letters, announcements, notes, and much more — that only ends up getting thrown out after a while anyway.
More streamlined processes
Technology’s greatest asset is its flexibility, making it easy to sign documents, store them for filing, and to help ease administrative work. This efficiency can also be seen in the logistics industry, with Verizon Connect noting how eliminating paperwork can help lessen miscommunication and human error. This is mainly due to businesses often having difficulty aligning their operations but with paperless systems, the technology allows for more streamlined and orderly strategies to be implemented. Similarly, checking paper submissions can be intensive work for teachers. But with students taking their tests and homework online, there will be no more sifting through paperwork for hours on end.
Doesn’t accommodate all learning styles
Pushing to have all coursework submitted or done electronically might be confusing to some students. Although most university students are currently digitally literate, the platforms used by the institution may still require some form of learning curve. In particular, students with special needs may require a more traditional learning approach, and so implementing technology into lecture halls may be a challenge.
Professors and admin may need training
It will take time to train educators how to use new tools. A study on library management done by the University of Xi’an highlights that technology will be implemented differently throughout various departments, thus increasing the workload for those conducting the training. This training may also be perceived as yet another administrative burden, but one that’s required nonetheless.
Potential lack of resources
The idea of a paperless university operates under the assumption that all students have access to technology. This assumption couldn’t be further from the truth, as the diversity within higher education means that there’s a high probability that there are students from all kinds of economic backgrounds. Some universities are tackling this challenge by offering laptop loan programs and fitting their libraries and study halls with computers, but it’s impossible to account for each individual student’s needs.
Overall, the disadvantages mentioned show that true success will come from how universities implement going paperless. The great benefits of going paperless and tech-forward will require a proper assessment of how these policies can fit seamlessly into an institution’s specific population, as well as the processes already present.
About the Author
JBartels is an educational administrative consultant whose focus is on tertiary education.