Turning the Page

To effect significant change, significant chances must be taken. In actuality, in most scientific endeavors, there are two paths: refining or building upon the work of others and genuine innovation. One is not inherently better than the other, but the second is certainly more remarkable. While technology's own better, faster, smaller pattern, innovation has proceeded at a dizzying rate. Sometimes it's important to slow things down long enough to give credit where it's due. In that spirit, hats must be tipped to men like Charles Babbage, who in 1820 designed his Difference Engine.

While the name Difference Engine is vaguely evocative, the inventor and mathematician Babbage's intent was anything but vague: He designed it to automate the production tables of mathematical functions with the hope it would eliminate the calculation and typesetting errors people introduced into these aids for scientists and engineers. Out of the Difference Engine, our computer-enabled world has grown and myriad innovations have sprung from its branches or sprouted from seeds rolled far from the tree.

Today, innovators often take the guise of venture-capital-funded whiz kids, but many still toil away in the hallowed stacks of academia. Look at an issue of MIT's Technology Review and you'll marvel at the continued creative spirit in technology. Of its own ventures, Technology Review (published since 1899) recently reported that it would offer digital subscriptions, placing it among a fast-growing crowd of publications using this form of distribution.

While convenience and immediate gratification are swell, thus far they have not outweighed the unappealing jumble of text sans graphics found in Web publishing, much less the "will I take this magazine to the beach...if that means I have to lug my laptop" aspect. But in academia and business, digital content's searchability, hyperlinked cross-references, and instant archiveability have begun to turn the tide. After all, on some level, this is how we expect to encounter information now. With improved delivery methods, including the more visually appealing and usable "replica" models (as used by MIT) and ever-smaller and more readable handheld devices, digital content may actually begin to edge out paper for research and information-intensive environments.

But a paperless world: How long has that idea been bandied about? I hear "paperless office" and I long for a magazine to read so I can extricate myself from the conversation. There are just too many arguments for paper: It is more convenient, portable, it looks nice, and so on. But to make the change, maybe we just needed someone to come along and take a really big chance.

The Des Moines Area Community College's newest branch, the DMACC West Campus and Synerg.e Center has plans to operate entirely paper-free. They don't have books. They don't have a library. They don't even expect students to copy what's on the board.

Instead of a library, the school has a resource center equipped with Web workstations, ebooks, and online journals. The resource center also houses several meeting tables, audio-visual materials, and a few paper magazines--but no books. Last year, about 75 telecommunications students participated in a pilot program to go paperless. Each student used a Compaq iPaq handheld to access etextbooks, syllabi, and class materials, and to take notes and exams. This fall, the paperless program has expanded to include all technology courses and some business and liberal arts courses.

The campus has its own wireless infrastructure. Faculty use smartboards on which professors can jot notes that students can then download to their handhelds. All data, including each student's work, is kept on the school's storage area network and is Web-accessible. A memory module slides into the back of each iPaq that stores student work so it can be synched with a home computer or laptop.

While the campus is reportedly only about a quarter of the way to its paperless objective, they feel that a mind-shift away from relying on paper is one of the major hurdles to overcome and have implemented a limit on the amount of paper students can print to deter the practice. Though professors have had to do extra legwork to locate or even create digital texts, their efforts should help pave the way for rich media-enhanced educational experiences.

So, while our images of library all-nighters spent combing the stacks fade into folklore, I concede that efforts like these might help prod even a print-loving Luddite like me to make the technological and psychological shift into a paperless world.