Paperless education: yay or nay?: An interview with Dr. Paula MacDowell

Dr. Paula MacDowell, Faculty of Education lecturer, shares her thoughts on technology in education

Image courtesy of Leila Amouzandeh and Matt Koyanagi

By: Leila Amouzandeh, SFU Student

For me, paperless education reminds me of EDUC 358: Foundations of Educational Technology, which I took with Dr. Paula MacDowell. Dr. MacDowell is a lecturer, instructing courses in educational technology and learning design. She is known at SFU for making tremendous headway in the EdTech realm and shaking up learning environments by enriching them with technology in her classroom. In her course, I learned how to use the iBooks Author app and explored a topic of my choice relating to educational technology. In a sense, we were using technology to write about technology. 

Personally, I was interested in writing my chapter on iBooks Author, since it went beyond writing. I could incorporate media elements that would best be suited for my research, such as videos, hyperlinks, scrolling galleries, images, etc. to create a chapter that was visually appealing, bright, and complimented my words. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind who to reach out to discuss a paperless education, because Dr. MacDowell proves that it is possible!


The Peak: When you think about a paperless education, what comes to mind?

Dr. Paula MacDowell: Sustainability, student productivity, increased engagement, collaborative learning, efficient grading, meaningful feedback, and streamlined classroom management.

P: What is your take on technology, specifically laptops and tablets, helping students learn?

PM: Learning with technology is not about a specific tablet, tool, or technique. It is about the freedom that we all have to contribute and create something new: a game, an image, or a unique point of view. 

P: How does using technology in class help students learn? and what about those naysayers who argue that it is distracting or it promotes too much screen time? 

PM: It is important to meaningfully integrate media and technology. Meaningful integration of technology can be a powerful enabler of creative problem solving, collaboration, diversity, and digital knowledge construction. I have very few issues with technology being distracting from learning in my courses, but it is frustrating when the technology doesn’t work as expected or the Internet is unreliable. 

P: Where does technology in education fit in terms of 21st century skills and sustainability? 

PM: Questions that I spend a great deal of time thinking about are, “How can I teach sustainable design principles that lead to attentive practices of sustainable behaviours? How can I improve the reach and effectiveness of student engagement on sustainability issues through digital creation techniques such as designing educational apps for pro-social and environmental change?”

P: What are your thoughts on students as creators? Why is it important for students to not only be digital consumers? 

PM: I believe that learners of all ages benefit from opportunities to be the creators, coders, builders, inventors, makers, and changemakers of our world. This involves an understanding of how our world is designed and that it is capable of being redesigned — not only the material world but also its knowledge, systems, processes, values, narratives, and perspectives. 

P: You often incorporate apps, such as iBooks Author into the courses you teach. As iBooks are an interesting form of a paperless term research paper, Why did you decide to incorporate that into the courses that you have taught? 

PM: iBooks Author empowers students to construct, represent, and communicate knowledge in novel and productive ways. When I see the light shining through my student’s eyes as they tell me how proud they are of their work, I know that’s why I continue to use iBooks Author and champion the success of all the students I’m privileged to teach.

 P: Is this where you think the future of education may be heading? 

PM: SFU is Canada’s most community-engaged research university and designated as a Changemaker Campus [by Ashoka U]. I think the future of education involves openness, cultural sustainability, environmental integrity, social innovation, and community engagement. Therefore, I challenge my classes to research and design education resources that are freely accessible learning materials for anyone to use and learn from. 

My students are motivated by the fact that their course assignments are available for people around the world to download from the iTunes store, or on display in a media arts exhibit, or as recommended curricular resources for the BC Ministry of Education. Together we create and contribute our knowledge and skills to make a difference with and for our communities.

P: Are there any student websites or apps that you would recommend (for learning or creating)? 

PM: The educational apps that I use most often in my courses are iBooks Author, Canva, ZapWorks, Plotagon, Zeetings, Pear Deck, Flip Grid, Piktochart, Padlet, Kahoot, Quizizz, Class Dojo, Screencast-O-Matic, and edpuzzle. Try them out!


SFU is recognized for its engagement, and students are not only constantly active and hands-on in writing and designing but also empowered when sharing their work with a global audience. Technology helps to create spaces for making content that is meaningful and memorable. Likewise, it plays a part in knowledge mobilization due to the fact that your prof won’t be the only person reading the research you spent tireless hours working on. It puts you in the driver’s seat. 


Take a look at some easy ways to incorporate technology in your learning suggested by Dr. MacDowell:

(Please note that these descriptive quotes are from each app’s official webpage)

Engaging Presentations:

  • Zeetings: “Transform your meetings, presentations, lessons and events by empowering everyone to participate from their own device.” 
  • Pear Deck: “You can add the magic of formative assessments and interactive questions to your presentations”

Create and Communicate: 

  • Flipgrid:Flipgrid is the leading video discussion platform for millions of PreK to PhD educators, students, and families in 180+ countries.”
  • Plotagon: Animate your message, turn ordinary text into video and communicate in a way that resonates
  • Padlet: “Make beautiful boards, documents, and webpages that are easy to read and fun to contribute to.”
  • Class Dojo: Useful for “School messaging and portfolios”


  • iBooks Author: “Create and publish amazing books for iPad, iPhone, and Mac.” 
  • Canva: Whether you need an Instagram story, logo maker, or birthday invitation—create all these graphic design needs and more on Canva” 
  • ZapWorks: “Create your own augmented reality experience”
  • Piktochart: “Create infographics, presentations, reports, flyers and posters” 

Quiz Makers

  • Quizizz: “Free self-paced quizzes to review, assess, and engage—in class and at home.”
  • Kahoot!: “Kahoot! makes it easy to create, share and play fun learning games or trivia quizzes in minutes.”

Video Creators

  • edpuzzle: “Make any video your lesson. Choose a video, give it your magic touch and track your students’ comprehension.”
  • Screencast-O-Matic: “Video creation for everyone. At Screencast-O-Matic, we don’t believe that video recording and editing should be difficult, or cost a fortune. Our simple and intuitive tools help you get the job done easily.” 

Below are the links to the iBooks created by students at SFU: