1.2 million sheets a year and they call it paperless

1st February 2008 at 00:00

College and paper consumption. It doesn't have quite the same ring about it as "love and marriage" or "horse and carriage", but surely they are just as inextricably linked?

While others seek to conserve trees, most colleges are responsible for removing a Sherwood-sized patch from the planet every year.

Notice my use of the word "most". There is one further education college at least, located in the heart of England, which dares to buck the trend. And while the staff may not hug a tree every morning before work, they certainly chop down fewer of them.

Stephenson College decided from the outset that this would be so. That's why, before it opened its pound;15 million building in Coalville, Leicestershire, back in 2005, it was designed with the paperless concept in mind.

In place of paper there is information technology. And running the whole hi-tech caboodle is Fraser Wight, Stephenson's network manager. It would be unfair to describe Fraser - who says he has been at the college "from the beginning of it all" - as a zealot. But he certainly talks about the Stephenson "concept" with zeal. Sadly, almost the first thing he tells me is that it is a mistake to think of the college as paper free.

Paperless, Stephenson-style, means less paper, not no paper, he says. Indeed, when you hear the figures, you might conclude that the place is still swimming in the stuff. The printers churn out 1.2 million sheets every year; but that is down from 1.6 million previously, and the number of students - the roll is 14,000 - has risen.

Fraser knows how many sheets of paper they use because he has counted them. Not every sheet personally, you understand - he is still allowed weekends - but cutting paper consumption by a quarter is something he is proud of.

What makes Stephenson really distinctive is not so much its reduced use of paper as the way it chooses to store, or rather not store, paper-based information. Those heavy metal filing cabinets beloved of so many of us are history. As are conventional staffrooms, staff desks and personal computers.

This is where the design of Stephenson's new building was so important.

"Did we want to build a building and fill it with cabinets and individual desks with PCs on them that nobody uses for three-quarters of the day?" asks Fraser. "And end up having to make the college three times bigger?" They didn't.

Instead, it was decided that all information would be stored electronically. Lecturers have been issued with laptop computers, which they carry everywhere with them. The college wi-fi system means they can get the signal anywhere in the building - presumably in the loo, too, if desired. Should they prefer to log-on in more orthodox surroundings, there are rooms with pedestals in them where they can lay their laptops and tap away merrily.

And if they have an internet connection at home, they can work there for part of the day.

Naturally this brave new paperless world is not only for lecturers. Indeed, Fraser is at pains to point out that the concept is designed for the benefit of the students. When they start, each of them is issued with a computer memory stick - much more portable than the conventional ring- binder - pre-loaded with information about the college and their particular course.

You won't find any of them sitting chatting in the library, either. That's gone too. There is no central resource area of any kind, Fraser proudly declares. The college is organised around a series of clusters which, as well as the open-plan rooms for staff use, have student study areas and classrooms.

Like their lecturers, students can access all the resources they need from home, not only the college's own virtual learning environment but also various websites to which the college subscribes.

So, given that Stephenson is like nothing so much as a starship Enterprise dropped to Earth in the Midlands, why is it such a well-kept secret? Actually, it is no secret at all, Fraser says. There have been numerous articles in both the national and local press.

And - another statistic he has at his fingertips - 86 other colleges have come to visit, some more than once.

Whether any of them have gone away and emulated Stephenson's futuristic ethic, Fraser isn't certain. "I don't get out to other colleges," he remarks wistfully.

What I forgot to ask him was whether the senior management team have given up their desks and offices too. If that is the case, I really would be impressed.

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