Navigating paperless learning: ‘Are we losing out on fine motor skills?’

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WATCH ABOVE: Whether it's online courses or apps in the classroom, pencils and paper are taking a backseat to technology in a growing number of schools. But at what cost? Laurel Gregory reports – May 1, 2018

Our son recently started to write his name using a pen and paper and he is over the moon about it. He gets razor focus as he puts the “legs” on his E and plunges his hand down to get the lines of his W just right. He prints E-W-A-N (backwards N, usually) and then glances up at us, beaming with pride.

As excited as I am about his accomplishment, I find myself wondering exactly how much he will use his newfound skill in the future. By the time he reaches elementary school, how much of the curriculum will actually involve printing and writing?  And, even if he hones this in his formal education, how much will he put this to use as a high school graduate in 15 years?

Schools across the country are embracing the benefits of technology in the classroom to varying degrees, while still using pens and paper for some assignments.

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Others feel schools have a responsibility to prepare children for the real world — one increasingly dominated by technology.

READ MORE: Longhand writing may be a thing of the past for kids 

Dr. Michael Rich, a Boston-based pediatrician and the founder of the Center on Media and Child Health, says the secret to striking the balance is consistently and consciously choosing the right tool for the right job.

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“Are we losing out on fine motor skills? Are we losing out on the ability to take notes with handwriting, which has been proven time and again to be far more effective in terms of retention of ideas than doing it on a lap top?” Rich asked.

“We need to go back to: ‘Is this the right way to do this? Is this the best way to do this?’ And sometimes the old ways are better but they are not always better.

“We also have to remain flexible to rethink all the time and be able to move to new ideas that actually are better or more efficient while still not losing the good that we’ve had before.”

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In an effort to prepare its students for the future while committing to environmental protection, Armour Heights Public School in North York, Ont. is trying to navigate that balance. The school is paperless more than half the time, using Google Classroom, iPads, green screens and robotics for projects. Students, however, still use white boards for writing in group projects, along with pens and paper for some schoolwork.

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“Students are much more engaged now than ever in my years here. They just seem more connected to the tasks,” Principal Corey Birnbaum said. “It’s really important for kids to be exposed to different forms of writing — be it paper/pencil, typing, even typing with their thumbs.

“These are all very real ways of writing and communicating and we need our kids to engage that way in the 21st Century.”

Teacher Karine Klement says using technology in place of paper often allows students to tap into their creativity in new ways.

“When they are creating their slide show presentations, they are not limited to their hand-drawn illustrations; they can search on Google and from other sources. Some of them have collected pictures in their drives. They can access those pictures and just make their slides that much more effective when they’re communicating their learning.”

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For Birnbaum, the most rewarding part of using less paper has been seeing his students thinking as critically about the medium for a given project as they do the subject itself.

“It’s amazing the conversations I hear because they feel so connected to it.”

I wonder what kind of conversations my son will have about technology for his Grade 12 assignments in 2033.

With the pace of technological advances, it’s hard to fathom.  I don’t want to be a Luddite but I have to admit, watching him swipe a game on the iPad just doesn’t have the same thrill as seeing him spell his own name.

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