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Professor embraces paperless philosophy

All that Kyle Jutras, a sophomore majoring in math education, and his fellow classmates need to bring to their honors class are open ears. That’s because all textbooks, notes and assignments are provided online.

The class, which is based on Edward Renner’s virtual lecture podcast series Forums for a Future, meets three times a week – twice in a traditional classroom, where students discuss their opinions of the online content, and once in a mandatory virtual class, where they hold discussions with other classmates.

Jutras, a student in Renner’s honors social sciences class, said his instructor’s “paperless philosophy” makes it easier for him to manage classwork.

“This course really caught my attention,” he said. “I’m a big computer person.”

Renner said he developed the idea for the class when he noticed that delivering mass lectures to audiences, particularly in the digital age of multitasking, was inefficient.

“The way we used to teach isn’t working,” Renner said. “People who grew up in the digital age – millennials – are not going to change. We, the instructors, have to change.”

Renner said the students do not have to pay to use the podcast.

Three years ago, before using his paperless method, Renner required that students purchase up to three textbooks for the same course. However, he said he found that “millennials don’t like to read textbooks,” and now utilizes excerpts from a dozen books made available to students via Blackboard.

“You can either read 10 examples of the same thing or one striking example,” he said.

Renner said memorization is becoming futile in an age where students can easily extract information at any given time due to technological enhancements. Instead of requiring exams based on memorization, his students must actively engage in the learning process by responding to one another in an online forum.

Students have access to his lectures at any time, which he said enhances the quality of class time. A topic that had previously taken him 20 minutes in class to explain is now condensed to a three-minute video online.

“I have more fun teaching,” he said. “Students begin to talk to each other as people, everybody knows each other’s name, students’ thinking becomes a public process.”

Melissa Adams, a freshman majoring in psychology, said the course is more engaging because of its tech-savvy nature.

“I like using my computer,” she said. “I don’t have to write stuff (on paper). It makes it easier.”

Although he said he did not know of any other classes at USF that use a paperless philosophy, Renner said many schools across the nation are using online materials.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, students were given e-tablets to replace the standard notebook during a neuroscience course as part of a study. The results found that students in the bottom 25 percent of the class improved a letter grade after the e-tablets were introduced. The model was later presented at conferences nation-wide.

“We have to rethink political, economic and social structures,” Renner said. “It’s our civic responsibility. What is it going to take to live in a global age?”