Paperless Classrooms

Morgan Pope
December 11, 2014

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2014

Introduction: E-readers and Tablets Entering Education

Fig. 1: The shininess of the iPad. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

E-readers, with their slim form factor, impressive battery life, and relatively low cost, have for some years been proposed as classroom tools, especially at the university level. [1] Recently, the emergence of even sleeker, more engaging tablet devices, like the iPad, have increased interest in this technology (Fig. 1). Some have even advocated using tablets in elementary school classrooms. [2]


The introduction of devices like the iPad into various classroom situations raises many important questions, ranging from educational engagement to ergonomics to whether or not Steve Jobs really was the most important person to have ever lived. In the context of energy, however, the discussion centers on potential emissions benefits due to a reduction in printed paper resources. [1]

Environmental Impact

Giving each child an iPad or an E-reader can potentially remove the need for textbooks and handouts almost completely. Of course, this must also be balanced against the impacts of manufacturing the tablet, electricity costs during use, server and network loading, and eventual disposal of the device. A fairly thorough life cycle analysis of the two competing systems of content delivery was completed in 2003 by Kozak and Keolelan. They analyze E-readers as replacements for textbooks in a four-year college curriculum, and conclude that a traditional book system produces almost four times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as an E-reader system (more than 200 kg CO2-equivalents versus 60 kg CO2-equivalents, respectively).

Fig. 2: Graphical display of the number of books replaced by one E-reader over four years in Elementary School and College. One blue square per book.

Differences in an Elementary School Environment

I was interested in how the findings from this study might need to be adjusted in the context of an elementary school classroom. Kozak and Keolelan assume a four-year use cycle for both books and E-readers, with a total of forty 500-page textbooks being read by each student in that time, or 20,000 pages of content. [1] To estimate how many pages of information might be used in an elementary school classroom, I looked to the study of pages read per day conducted across first, third, and fifth grade classrooms by Richard Allington. [3] He reports the most pages read in a five-day period across various groups to be 39. If we assume a 180-day school year, we can calculate a maximum of 5,616 pages read per child over four years of study, equivalent to about eleven 500-page textbooks (see Fig. 2).

Emissions Adjustment

In Kozak's masters thesis for the University of Michigan, he breaks down the greenhouse gas emissions for the two products into categories of material production, manufacturing, distribution, use, and end of life. [4] Using this information, we can see how some differences in use between college and elementary school might affect the environmental analysis. The costs for materials production, manufacturing, distribution, and end of life for the E-reader remain fixed, since one device must still be produced per child. The emissions for all categories in the traditional book system, as well as the electricity use for the E-reader, can be scaled down by the ratio of pages read in elementary school to pages read in a college setting. The resulting numbers are shown in Table 1, with the calculation showing that the traditional scenario may be expected to produce about twice the emissions of the E-reader (61 kg CO2-equivalents versus 33 kg CO2-equivalents).

Greenhouse Gas Emissions: College vs Elementary School Book, kg CO2e, College E-Reader, kg CO2e, College Book, kg CO2e, Elementary School E-reader, kg CO2e, Elementary School
Material Production 98 2 28 2
Manufacturing 66 17 19 17
Distribution 1 1 .3 1
Use 53 38 15 11
End of Life 0 2 0 2
Total 218 60 61 33
Table 1: Greenhouse gas emissions for E-readers versus traditional books, for College and Elementary School (adjusted based on relative number of pages read). [4]

Conclusions and Limitations

From a greenhouse gas perspective, this analysis suggests that an E-reader is preferable to traditional paper products, even in an elementary school classroom with a reduced paper load. However, Kozak and Keolelan analyze a device which is older and less expensive than the iPad, and constrain themselves to downloading only specially formatted, pure-text file formats. I suspect that additional manufacturing impacts of a modern tablet device, combined with the additional power and server loading from more image-heavy applications (as would be expected in an elementary school classroom) might make the two options more similar in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Given that, I feel that the debate should focus more on the possible educational outcomes of the switch.

© Morgan Pope. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] G. L. Kozak and G. A. Keolelan, "Printed Scholarly Books and E-Book Reading Devices: A Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Two Book Options," IEEE 1208092, 19 May 03.

[2] J. Roschelle etal. "Ink, Improvisation, and Interactive Engagement: Learning with Tablets," IEEE Computer 40, No. 9, 38 (September, 2007).

[3] R. L. Allington, "Content Coverage and Contextual Reading in Reading Groups," J. Lit. Res. 16, No. 2, 85 (1984).

[4] G. Kozak, "Printed Scholarly Books and E-book Reading Devices: A Comparative Life Cvcle Assessment of Two Book Options," Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, Report No. CSS03-04, August 2003.