Saturday, November 18

Scott Bays: UCLA must go digital for written assignments to reduce paper usage


(Harish Balasubramani/Daily Bruin)

(Harish Balasubramani/Daily Bruin)


A two-page essay once a week. Five eight-page essays with title pages, bibliographies and endnotes.

By my estimation, I used almost 75 pages of paper on these written assignments last quarter alone. After I’m done writing this column, I’m going to print four more pages. And there are nearly 31,000 other undergraduate students like me. Talk about UCLA’s unsustainable paper usage.

Per capita, Americans consume upwards of 500 pounds of paper a year – more than any other country on Earth. There’s no reason we should be such heavy paper consumers. With digital technology readily available to most Americans, we can do many tasks without ever using a single piece of paper.

But the problem has only gotten worse as technology has grown more sophisticated. The annual usage of paper products spiraled out of control from an average of 92 million tons in 1994 to 208 million tons in 2014. Around 18 million acres of forest disappear each year to make our paper, contributing between 12 and 17 percent to annual greenhouse gas emission. At the current rate, all the world’s rainforests will be destroyed within 100 years.

And universities like UCLA are at the center of this.

According to a Boston College research, the average American college student produces 320 pounds of paper waste a year. And when factoring in the National Center for Education Statistics estimate that 20.5 million students are currently attending college in the U.S., American college students produce a truly astounding 6.56 billion pounds of paper waste a year. Excusing wasteful practices such as mandatory single-sided printing with “the trees are already dead” no longer stands.

If UCLA truly wants to be proactive and be an example to others, the administration must sensibly demand from its professors that written assignments be turned in and graded exclusively online, perhaps via pre-existing systems such as Turnitin. By mandating all grading be conducted online rather than on paper, UCLA can significantly reduce its paper usage.

Efforts such as these can have a profound effect. According to Nurit Katz, chief sustainability officer of the UCLA Sustainability Committee, a 2016 initiative by the Office of Instructional Development to transition all instructor evaluations exclusively online resulted in saving an estimated 4,900 pounds of paper annually – and evaluations only occur once per quarter. If so much paper can be saved from just that move, imagine how much would be saved by turning in written assignments exclusively online.

But we shouldn’t have to imagine. UCLA must make it a requirement that professors eliminate paper copies of written assignments. Most professors already use Turnitin to check for plagiarism on these assignments, so there’s already a built-in understanding of digital written assignments among most of UCLA’s instructors. However, in order to ensure all professors are ready for the transition, UCLA should first mandate that any written assignments longer than six pages be turned in and graded exclusively online.

There’s simply no good argument for why they can’t grade online either. Digital grading may feel foreign at first, but it would eventually become second nature like anything else.

Besides, going exclusively digital benefits more than just the environment. In addition to enabling to check for plagiarism, going digital significantly decreases clutter for instructors by eliminating hundreds of bulky papers to keep up with. Students can also receive feedback in real time, quickly find notes and would never have to worry about poor handwriting again. That’s without even mentioning putting an end to the hassle of finding a printer or the need to spend a lot to buy one.

However, the method by which students turn in assignments is currently a decision of the individual faculty members, and for most professors and teaching assistants, grading on paper is more convenient than grading on a computer. Regardless of whether this is true, convenience should not trump sustainability. Supporting the environment requires sacrifices. As far as sacrifices go, grading assignments on a computer is as small as they come. It’s a reasonable demand with huge implications.

Most importantly though, this is an issue that affects everyone. Paper consumption is growing while the number of trees to supply our addiction is shrinking, while the greenhouse gas emissions that come from deforestation are increasing and further destabilizing our environment. Global change begins at the local level, and UCLA should continue to be a leader in local change by eliminating written assignments on paper. The administration prides itself on being proactive on issues such as these; paper usage should be no exception.

UCLA can’t sit this one out. We have the technology to move away from paper usage, yet we continue to squander it. UCLA must mandate that professors end this wasteful cycle by going digital on all written assignments. It’s painfully clear that our current path is unsustainable. Let’s demand change.

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  • D_Mitchell

    “Regardless of whether this is true…”

    Not a good way to frame an argument. Online grade = C-