A further update on submitting assignments


From now on, that is the amount of paper that will be used in handing in course assignments compared to what it was previously.

On Friday, we received the following message from the course administrator:

Dear all,

It has been decided that you only need to hand in one copy of your MPhil coursework for the ESD modules from now on, not two. We have been advised that we need to collect a paper copy of your coursework for the convienience of the external examiner. We do not, however,  need to return a paper copy back to you and therefore, we will only return a mark sheet.

There may, exceptionally, be cases where we will ask for two paper copies as the marker may wish to make comments on the papers. You will be informed if two copies are required.

Please don’t forget we need an electronic copy in CamTools too.

This is exciting, as it is a step in the right direction towards reducing paper use in submitting assignments. Is this a result of our campaigning for change?  Potentially, as a number of us in the course are looking at reducing paper use for our change challenge.  Either way, we can celebrate this progress.

I had previously updated on my progress in understanding and removing the barriers to electronic submission of assignments.  The departmental guidelines had been highlighted as a barrier, and this email does raise one more barrier to complete electronic submission: having a paper copy on hand for “the convienience of the external examiner”.  However, as far I know it is unknown if the external examiner will actually want to look at the assignments, and if they do, whether they would want to receive them in hard copy or electronic copy.  I can understand the desire to have paper copies on hand from the point of view of the administrator, as if the external examiner wants hard copies and she only has electronic copies, much time and expense will be spent on printing all the assignment asked for.   However, do we really need to do so given the unknown nature of the external examiner’s potential request?  Perhaps a suggested step would be to clarify with the external examiner what format that would wish should they desire to review assignments, instead of being prepared for a possibility that is less than certain?

Be paperless,


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Confession #6 – Assignment 3, the book report

3 pages this time.

I would say: not so bad.  I did try to avoid handing in the paper copy, but that is part of the larger saga of trying to avoid using paper in submitting assignments.

The bigger story is what I managed to avoid in terms of printed paper.  The assignment was to read a classic book on sustainability and then write a book report.  I chose James Lovelock’s classic book Gaia: a new look at life on Earth, first published in 1979.

Cover from the pdf version of James Lovelock's classic book Gaia

One of the criteria that I had for choosing a book was that I could find it in electronic form, preferably in pdf form rather than an ebook as then I could use my pdf annotation software as opposed to the book reading software.  Gaia fit the bill, although I could only find a scanned version and online optical character recognition software was unable to convert the book to text for me.  I was still able to view in my pdf viewer, and I was able to avoid printing or purchasing the copy of Gaia, resulting in:

171 pages avoided.

Should this be a confession, or a success?  I lean more to the later.

Be paperless,


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More efficient, less resilent? The fragility of new technology…

Not charging.

That is what my iPad tells me when I plug it in.  I nearly crapped myself.  As it’s power slowly decreased, I began to sweat…  would I lose all my data?  Would I no longer be able to use my iPad to avoid paper use?

Luckily, I did not lose my data, and after a couple weeks and taking it into the Apple Store Hospital for Sick iThings, I have determined its charging behaviour and have adapted.  Apple has also offered – without me asking – to replace the whole thing… I just need to make sure I have a copy of my data, and am waiting until I am done term to do the switch out.

As you know, I love my iPad. It enables me to efficiently and easily take notes.  Everything is on there and immediately accessible, but if everything is on there does that make it vulnerable as well? 

This experience has illustrated to me how relying on this new technology has made me  vulnerable to its failure, and how it can be less resilient than the older, legacy technology that is paper.  How many have an old, analog, mechanical tape deck that still works, but your CD player skips and you have replaced your mp3 player at least once because it just out and out failed?  I do.  It is the same with paper.

Going paperless has made me more efficient, but has it made me less resilient?  Perhaps yes, perhaps no.  In once sense, I am much more dependent.  I cannot take notes in class without my iPad, and so I need it to be with me at all times and I need it to have power.  If I have a long day of lectures and my iPad refuses to charge (as it does), I have been left in situations with a rapidly declining amount of power but much lecture/presentation to go.  Closest I came was finishing the day with about 3% battery left, and that took some power management to get to that.   If it had run out of battery just a few minutes earlier, I would have been left without the ability to take notes.  In this, paper is certainly superior, although you could conceivable run out of space in the notebook or the pen could die! However, it is much simpler to borrow some paper or a spare pen from your neighbour than to ask to borrow their spare iPad!!

On the other hand, I would say that I am more resilient to data loss than if I was using paper.  I have made sure to keep my notes backed up to the cloud, so that if my iPad dies, is stolen or is lost, I don’t lose all my notes.  On the other hand, if I was taking notes in a notebook and I lost it or my bag got stolen, there goes my notes for the term!  I can back up my whole set of notes in two clicks, while to back up my paper notes would be an annoying and somewhat tedious task.

The other interesting aspect of switching to new technology is the resiliency of the data form.  I visited the old library at Trinity Hall the other day.  It was fabulous, with books that pre-date the discovery of North America by Europeans, let alone the founding of my country.  And I can still read those books from hundreds of years ago, look at the maps drawn in the atlas of the day, see the strange way in which the island of Britain was thought to look.

Trinity Hall Old Library. Gorgeous, eh?

An old atlas, showing the conception of Britain at the time.

However, if on the other hand, I wanted to look at a document from even 10 years ago, it would be great struggle.  Most of my documents from then are saved on floppy discs, or possibly burnt on a CD.  Only my computer from about 8 years ago has a floppy disc drive, and only because I specifically sought out a computer that did at the time.  Only my aged current laptop has a CD drive – anything that I have bought in the last 5 years has had exclusively USB drives, and no CD drive.  My iPad has no external inputs… only via the web.  I would not be able to read the documents from 10 years ago digitally, but I could read my paper notes from that era with the same ease as the paper from 500 years ago.  Crazy.

So, with using exclusively digital technology, I will need to somehow ensure that I will be able to read these notes in the future, should I want the ability to do so.  I will be able to store them all in something the size of a matchbox (as opposed to a massive library!) but I am vulnerable to format changes and may not be able to read any of it 10, or even 5, years from now!

The joy of new technology:  trade efficiency for new vulnerabilities!

Be paperless,


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A holistic sustainable development lens on this challenge

When I started this challenge, I didn’t think there would be any criticism of it, and instead there would mostly be commendation.  After all, this challenge is first and foremost a personal one:  can I quit paper?  I seemingly have an addiction to paper, given the quantity of paper that I have stored in my basement back in Canada, and quitting that was always going to be a great personal accomplishment.

The secondary element of the challenge is about changing the system that requires me to use paper, whether that is class handouts, assignments, or other, but that was always to be a consequence of trying to accomplish the personal challenge.  I had expected some resistance from ‘the system’ if you will, and that I would need to take specific steps in order to clear the way for me and others to become truly paperless.

I had always looked at this challenge with an environmental lens, and to some extent an economic lens, and that was good enough.  I hadn’t thought of the challenge in the context of a holistic assessment of its sustainability, but some comments have caused me to think deeper.

Sustainable development has various definitions and a spectrum of interpretations, but in general it means balancing three pillars: environment, economic and social.  How does my challenge perform on these elements?


One of the initial motivators for me was that paper has an environmental impact, from an input of trees (reducing carbon in forests), much energy to produce (again, carbon to produce that energy) and disposal in landfill when done with.  How does this compare to using using electronic media as the alternative, as I said I would look at?  It is difficult to say exactly, as the materials used to manufacture my iPad and those used for paper are different so they inflict dissimilar damages on the earth.  We can use emissions of greenhouse gases as a common denominator, as many think of climate change as the pre-eminent environmental challenge and we should “weight” that impact the most.

From the research I can find, using my iPad for nearly 7 hours to take notes would emit the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as a single sheet of paper, or if that sheet of paper is 100% post consumer recycled paper then I could use my iPad for 4 hours.  I am pretty sure I would probably use more than a single sheet of paper in 7, or even 4, hours of lectures!  So far, iPad wins.

But this does not account for the embodied energy in the iPad, from all the metal and other parts that are in its sleek, beautiful body, which accounts for the majority of emissions.  Once you include that, as well as the emissions from transporting it and disposing it at the end of life, Apple estimates that over an iPad’s entire lifetime with “intensive daily use”, the device will account for just over 100 kg of GHG emissions.   This means that the lifecycle GHG emissions of the iPad is approximately the same amount of as from 7,700 sheets of new, virgin paper or over 13,000 sheets of 100-percent post-consumer recycled paper! Yikes, I am going to need to have to have used a massive amount of paper if this is going to make environmental sense!  Perhaps paper is more environmentally friendly…

However, my iPad is a very versatile, flexible devices that does so much for me generally.  To me, it is not clear how much of the embedded energy required to manufacture, deliver, and dispose of my iPad we should account for in terms of offsetting paper use.  If I was not quitting paper, would I still have the iPad and therefore we should only include the marginal increase in GHG emissions from extra iPad use?   Would I have both the iPad and a big pile of paper from class that needs to be filed?  Frankly, the answer is pretty likely.  I got my iPad to go paperless, but now, even if I wasn’t trying to do so, I would still have the iPad.

So what is the verdict?  I would assess that my use of electronic media including my iPad is more environmentally friendly than using paper, but it is not as clear cut as I first thought and it really comes down to the methodological choice of including the sunk embodied energy.


Is using the iPad to take notes more economical than using paper?  An iPad new in the Apple store costs about £400, while you can buy a 100 page notebook at Staples for £2 (2 pence a page), or a 500 page ream of printer paper for less than £3 (0.6 pence a page).  Wow… I would need to use 200 notebooks to match the cost of my iPad, or use over 65,000 printed pages!!!  Mind blowing, and paper wins as the cheaper technology.

Or does it?  Again, we have to be cautious about attributing the entire capital cost of the iPad to eliminating paper.  If I only used my iPad to take notes and to avoid using paper, then we could do so.  But I don’t.  I use it for other things, including email, internet, or playing Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies.  Would I have the iPad even if I wasn’t quitting paper?   The answer is still most likely yes!

If we ignore the capital cost, using the iPad is still not free, as it does have an electricity costs.  Using my iPad consumes about 3 watt-hours of electricity per hour, which costs about 0.03 pence at even the highest cost of electricity.  I would need to use my iPad for about 3 days at 7 hours a day to cost the same as just one sheet of printed paper!!  Clearly, on operational cost, the iPad wins!

Final verdict?  The iPad has a higher capital cost, but a lower operational cost than using paper.  Which is more economic depends on the portion of capital cost that should be allocated to this challenge and which is not.  While the initial motivation for buying the iPad was to go paperless, I now buy it again even if I wasn’t going to be using it to quit paper.   If I was to buy the iPad only for notes and to go paperless, this challenge would be uneconomic; but if the iPad is purchased and being used for other purposes, then it is more economic to use the iPad than paper.


This was the factor that I hadn’t really considered when I conceived of this challenge.  If this challenge was exclusively personal, and did not have any impacts outside of my actions, then the social impacts of my challenge could likely be considered to be zero. However, while the challenge is predominately personal, it does interact with the larger system and others around me; I cannot simply draw the system boundaries around me as a solitary individual. 

First, if we were to take the challenge to the extreme around the world, and ALL paper use was eliminated, this would have a large social impact on those that are employed by the paper and printing industries.  I can’t even venture a guess as to how many thousands (or millions) that may be.

Second, and closer to home and the scale of the challenge, while lecturers bringing packages of printed notes to give out in class is a consistent sight at Cambridge, one impact of this challenge is that some lecturers are doing that less often, and some are exclusively posting the presentation online either before or after class.  From the perspective of our challenge, we should consider this a win:  through constant asking and suggestion, we have managed to reduce paper use.

The social problem is the “non-optional” nature that this lack of paper implies.  With lecturers only putting the documents online, those that use paper are disadvantaged in favour of those that use electronic forms.  As much as I get frustrated when the notes are not available electronically, others may get frustrated when the notes are not available in paper form.  Some people can’t afford to purchase an iPad, other type of tablet, or a laptop. Some people just prefer to use paper.  Others have medical conditions that make it difficult to read exclusively electronically, and as a result they print everything to be able to read it.  If notes and presentations are only electronic, what are these people to do?

The simple answer is that they could just print the notes, either before or after class.  However, this means that they individuals have an increased cost as they now have to pay for printing and expend the time resources to do so, where before they got this for free and conveniently when they arrived at the lecture.  There is a broader question of whether we should be putting a price on use of resources and disposal, or should we let these sorts of activities continue free, but concentrating on the social impact assessment it is clear that there is the potential for an impact, a point that has been raised to me personally.

How could this be mitigated? We wouldn’t want to put up a barrier to going paperless, but if we want to be truely sustainable we need to mitigate the social impact.

One way this could be handled is to ensure that lecture notes go up a minimum of 24 hours in advance of the lecture, to allow those that choose to be able to print them in advance.  We could give a specific printing allowance for that, if we wanted to, but I would argue that this is, or should be, actually cost neutral:  the person is paying for printing the notes either through printing charges, or through a slightly higher tuition as the department has to bear increased printing costs.

A second way would be for those that require printed copies could ‘register’ with the lecture at the beginning of the term, and that way the lecturer knows how many printed copies they need to bring.  This would reduce the amount of printing, saving the lecturer time and the department money, but would require proactive-ness on the part of students and lecturers to ensure that those copies are properly distributed at the beginning of class to those that have registered in advance.  This would also go a long way to eliminating the guess work that lecturers need to undergo as to how many copies they need to print!

In the end, this challenge has some positive and negative impacts.  I would say that this challenge has positive environmental and economic impacts, but those assessments are dependent on a methodological choice.  There is a potential negative social impact, but I also suggested two potential solutions that could over come that impact.

What do you think?

Be paperless,


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An update on submitting assignments

Last time I handed in an assignment, I said that I had not done any efforts to avoid the paper used in handing in assignments, which I was angry at myself for but for which there were reasons.   I wanted to give an update on my efforts since that post, and what I plan to do next.

I lamented that I had not sent another email in the lead up to handing in Assignment #2, and said that I should sent such an email in order to “continue the momentum for me making my point and emphasizing that this issue is not going away”.  In order to correct that regret, I did send an email earlier this week in advance of Assignment #3, but also kept in mind that “security” had been highlighted as the key concern for why we needed to hand in paper copies.  Thus, when I emailed to ask if I could hand in electronic only, I also proposed a hopeful solution to the security issues.  Again, as I likely could have anticipated, I was told I needed to hand in the assignment in hard copy, but this time, the key factors that were highlighted was the “departmental guidelines on submission of work”, which prevents electronic submission, and a desire to be consistent across all students.  A request for an opportunity to meet for 15 minutes to understand the factors preventing electronic submission was not taken up.

I also had an assignment coming up for my other ESD course, ESD 100, in which I had not yet submitted an assignment and for which this challenge was initially undertaken.  As sometimes change comes if you only ask, I had hoped for a favourable response to my request to hand in my upcoming assignment electronically only.  I was then hoping to be able to use that “small win” as a precedent within the broader system.

While the response was sympathetic, it was not positive.   I received a detailed response that highlighted the departmental guidelines (as well as the course handbook) requiring hard copy submission, and that ‘single exceptions’ cannot be made.  Fair enough.  Most useful was this conclusion:  “if a change is to be implemented there will be a need to formally change protocol.”

My next step is to know what the protocol actually is, and how to change it.  Difficulty is that it seems that the actual protocol (or guidelines, the exact name is not clear) is missing in action.  I tried to find the guidelines on the engineering departmental website, but they are not listed under the procedures page at http://www.eng.cam.ac.uk/admin/admin_procedures.shtml and nothing comes up via a search of the webpage.   Does anyone know of where they are?  Dr. Fenner was kind enough to offer to send them to me, but the course administrator has been going in circles trying to find them… apparently no one has the actual document!

In someways it reminds me of the classic joke that we tell of bureaucracy:

If you place five monkeys in a cage, with stairs to a banana, eventually one will try to climb the stairs.  However, once the monkey starts to climb the stairs, all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water.  The monkeys soon learn that as soon as one of them starts to climb the stairs, they get sprayed with cold water; not wanting to be sprayed, as soon as one of their number goes climb the stairs, the rest of the monkeys beat on the errant member and prevent them from climbing the stairs.  If you replace one monkey, the new monkey has never been sprayed and goes to climb the stairs:  the remaining four monkeys will beat on the errant member and prevent him from doing do.  He soon learns to not climb the stairs, and soon joins in if any of the other monkeys tries to climb the stairs.  If a second monkey is replaced, the same thing happens, with the other four beating on the new monkey when he attempts to climb the stairs.  This can be repeated until all 5 monkeys are replaced, and they will all beat on the one of their number to prevent them from climbing the stairs to the banana, without having any knowledge about why they do so as none have ever experienced the cold spray.  And that is how policy is maintained.

The crazy part is that it is not a joke, and was actually a real experiment with real monkeys published in 1967.  However, to goes to show the momentum of “that is how it always been done”, but no one can actually say why!

Is that the case here?  We shall see; I await to find out from the departmental procedures!

Even then, I will need to make a case for why there needs to be a change, and why this would be advantageous for the department and course.  A big element is that it reduces the quantity of paper that needs to be managed, as the administrator has indicated to me that approximately 70% of all paper she needs to store is from assignments.  Paper copies are also a massive data protection risk, and given the exceptionally data-protection sensitive people the British seem to be, I anticipate that will have some influence!

Until next time, be paperless,


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Confession #5 – Class handouts

78 pages.

That is my confession today.  A massive, mind-blowing, 78 pages.

78 pages is the number of pages of paper that I have collected in handouts since I started my challenge.  These are hand outs from class:  a copy of the presentation for a class that is due to start immediately (and the presentation as not yet been uploaded online), an article to read for the next class, details of an upcoming assignment that will be discussed in that class, etc. A typical scene at the start of a Cambridge lecture is a pile of lecture notes at the front of the class, and students dutifully taking them.  The stack of paper can be a foot high at the start sometimes, and for the most part it disappears into the hands of students.

I have tried to avoid taking hand outs, and for the most part take all my class notes on my iPad.  I don’t take all, and in fact it would have been useful for me to record the amount I have avoided over the same time period.  My guess would be that I have avoided significantly more than I have taken, but I cannot put metrics to it.

But I cannot avoid the fact that I have taken the handouts, and thus used paper.  My use usually is a result of two factors:

  1. The document is going to be discussed or used in class imminently
  2. The document has not yet been made available online

When both of these are true, I have taken the document.  If one is not true, then I have generally avoided taking the document.  For example, if the document is not going to be used imminently (e.g. a reading for next class) but will be available online soon, I will avoid taking the document.  If the document went online just before class but I don’t have internet access (e.g. at the Judge Business School, where engineering students don’t have access to the wireless internet), I may also take it if I feel the need to put my comments directly on the document during the lecture;  however, I have not found internet access to be a significant problem.

What I have found as a problem is that Lecturers view online notes as a secondary thought, to be done after the lecture, if at all.  I had one Lecturer even tell me that the notes will never be put online, as he was concerned that students wouldn’t come to class if they could get the notes online – at least with hand outs, the students come to class to pick up the hand outs (what great force is stopping someone from picking up multiple copies for their friends is beyond me…).  Needless to say, I am not taking that class.

In order for me to avoid paper from class hand-outs, two things need to happen:

  1. Lecturers should think (or be required) to put the notes/readings/etc. online first, then print for potential class hand outs (if any!).  If handouts go online first, then that ensures that anything handed out in class can be downloaded instead by anyone with a computer or tablet, and then can use the online version.
  2. There needs to be internet access for all students that attend a lecture.  The balkanization of internet access at Cambridge is a bit hilarious, with different networks and login names/passwords for colleges, departments, even divisions within departments.  Makes it difficult to carry on a paper less lifestyle.

Of the two, the first needs to be the priority.  Other than the department dictating to the Lecturers – who famously don’t like being dictated to – how can we make this change?

Be paperless,


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Confession #4 – A second assignment

Last Friday I handed in another assignment for ESD 200.

As with the first assignment , it involved me printing 2 copies of the assignment and handing it in person.  24 pages of sin, handed in… to the Centre for Sustainable Development no less.  I am beginning to doubt the meaning of those words:  how can they really claim to be a centre, which implies a place of excellence, on sustainable development if they can’t even be sustainable in the first place?

To be honest though, this is probably my fault.  After handing in the last assignment, I thought about what I needed to do to avoid future use of paper in this situation.  I came to the conclusion that I needed to “secure permission to to submit assignments by electronic copy only” if I was going to avoid the use of paper, as I am unwilling to be more activist and risk having my assignment not accepted.

So what did I do before this assignment deadline to secure that permission?  Nothing.  Zero.   No efforts what so ever.  I didn’t even send an email to ask if I could send it by electronic over, I just rolled over and handed it in printed.

Did I just give up after one weak attempt!?  I certainly hope not, but it looks like it.  For starters, I didn’t believe that the answer would have changed since the last time, so just an email seemed pretty pointless to me.  However, I probably should have repeated the email, to continue the momentum for me making my point and emphasizing that this issue is not going away.  But I didn’t.

The real reason – or at least the reason I tell myself – is that I was really ill last week and didn’t have the time (as I was sleeping 12 hours a night) or energy to put in on this.  It was just a struggle to get the assignment done in the first place, let alone think about the process to hand it in.  I came close to just emailing the assignment as I couldn’t get out of bed, but I managed to bike down to the department to hand it in, spending extra effort to ensure that it would be accepted.

So I gave up on trying to cause change because I didn’t have the time or energy to do so.  The lesson for this is this:  don’t get tired, don’t lose your energy, don’t get burned out.  Change only happens when the people trying to cause it have the time and energy to make it happen.  I just didn’t this week.

Be paperless,



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