Paperless Schools and Linux Notebooks for Every Kid

by Ostatic Staff - Jun. 27, 2008

I was very interested in this piece from Computerworld U.K., titled "Can we give every school child in the U.K. a Linux notebook and still save money?" It provides a cost breakdown of what it would take to give every student a Linux notebook, compared to the costs schools in the U.K. currently face for software licenses, other technology fees, and printing and photocopying. According to the author of this story, the fees for printing and photocopying alone at schools are staggering--to the point where if electronic materials replaced much of the printed materials, there would be enough money to give each student a low-cost Linux notebook. Would this work in the U.S.?

According to the Computerworld U.K. piece, at a typical secondary school in England the number of paper sheets passing through faxes, photocopiers and printers comes to 4,450,000 per year. In the school that the author focused on, this came out to 8,000 copies per child, per year.

If this seems ridiculously overstated, I happen to have two kids in school, one entering high school and one in 5th grade. They are in school at least 200 days a year. On an average day, they bring home about 20 sheets of printed materials in their overstuffed backpacks. This already comes out to 4,000 sheets for each kid, per year, and that's just what they bring home. There are more printed materials in their classrooms each day, and many more generated from the central operations of their schools.

I would say that the Computerworld figure of 8,000 sheets per student, per year, might be a bit high for a U.S. student, but not outrageously so. Anyway, if you go through the whole calculation in the Computerwold post, the costs for paper, toner and all the rest of the expensive items needed for paper-driven schools vastly eclipse what it would cost to buy each student a Linux notebook computer. (Asus Linux notebooks are very popular now, come loaded with open source applications and no software licensing fees, and can be had for under $350.)

If a U.S. school could actually go largely paperless, and distribute its materials electronically, I don't doubt that each kid could have a Linux notebook, and the school would end up saving money. That said, though, the fact that the Pied Pipers of the paperless office never proved right is instructive here. Kids are very used to the interface and usability metaphors of working with paper, and in their early school years they have to work with a lot of paper to develop handwriting skills, etc. In all likelihood, it would be undoable to go largely paperless. Some ideas look better on paper than they do in reality.