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Back to the future with a piece of paper or three

Clearing up after students at the end of the block feels like clearing up after T in the Park. Surrounded by acres of newsprint, piles of photocopied handouts and sheaves of abandoned printouts from the web, there seems to be no system that would impose order on chaos. I feel as surly as Satan. I am a convert to the paperless office. So why am I condemned to paper hell?

It's not as if we're not wired. We have email systems, internet and intranet, shared documents, virtual learning environments and enough acronyms to make an enormous plate of alphabet spaghetti; OCR, CMR, WCMs and even a DAM for when you get totally confused.

The bad news is that we like working with paper. Research shows that, when email is introduced into an office, paper consumption leaps up by around 40 per cent. We're addicted to paper, it seems, and the more we move towards an electronic environment, the more paper we're using up.

There is an obvious reason for this. You see, a computer is just not cuddly. You're denied the satisfaction of ripping out a page, screwing it into a little ball and tossing it into the wastepaper basket (or not).

Pressing "delete" doesn't really satisfy a drama queen.

Clicking open an email icon isn't the same as ripping open a paper envelope. Cross-referencing isn't so easy on the computer and the page that got away is always the one that you really, really want. And worst of all, you can't make a paper aeroplane out of a computer.

That's the nub, really. Paper is so versatile. I bet if I set you a task to think up 100 uses for a sheet of A4, you'd be scribbling away merrily - on a sheet of A4. You can use paper to fan yourself when you're hot, make a newspaper into a jaunty hat, or roll it up and whack the dog with it when he chases the rabbit.

Computers don't smell nice the way a new book or magazine does. Then again, they don't smell bad either. The reason I never studied history or geography at degree level was probably because in primary school, the class set of books smelled rotten - greasy paperbacks that were a definite turn-off. If we'd been using computers, now, I probably would be able to remember the date of Trafalgar or the capital of Paraguay, no bother.

Bill Gates is still confident that paperless heaven is just round the corner. He maintains the revolution will be spearheaded by students who will have been educated in an environment using electronic tablets and who will want to continue to read books, magazines and communicate electronically.

I wish he would talk to my students. This week, two of my learners asked me to go over the tasks they still had to complete. They have paper task sheets, as well as nifty record sheets which give a complete picture of their progress - or lack of it - at a glance. Despite this, it was vital that I go over it all with them, so that they could sit down with notebooks and write it all out again in chaotic longhand.

So paper hell. Nor am I out of it. The paperless office remains a myth.

Take away our paper and we'll find something else to write on.

Witness the T-shirt of a learner shuffling along the top corridor. It looked like the morning after the class night out. He was dishevelled, unshaven, his T-shirt was crumpled and stained, but you could still read the slogan printed on the front: "Do you believe in love at first sight?"

Now that just wouldn't have had the same poignancy on a computer screen.

Dr Carol Gow lectures at Dundee College.

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