In the centuries since the invention of the printing press, books and other printed materials have helped spread new ideas around the world. Political and cultural changes have occurred thanks to books becoming more accessible, and generations of scientific contributions have been made possible by science textbooks and other printed material.
Innovations in printer ink and computer software have also allowed printing to become an everyday technology for the general public, including students. While books were initially expensive and limited in distribution, people of all ages and walks of life now have access to printing, whether at home or in their public library.
Those changes didn’t happen overnight. For years, educators had to rely heavily on textbooks to provide assignments and information for their students. Even after basic copying devices were introduced, they had significant limitations that didn’t allow teachers and students to use their creativity to their full potential.
The First Printers
Though the very first block printing system was invented in China around 220 A.D, modern printing presses weren’t invented until 1440. These printing presses made written works more accessible to the public, but they were still time-consuming and expensive to use.
As a result, working-class people still didn’t have the same access to books as people do today. Even after the first public library was opened in 1790, most areas of the United States didn’t have the means to support a taxpayer-funded public library, in part because of how expensive books were. It was still common for children in the 1800s to share textbooks or to mostly rely on a teachers’ lectures for information.
In 1914, steam-powered printing presses were invented. While these machines could still only print a few hundred pages per hour, they helped place more books into the hands of the public. Schools could now afford more textbooks than before, and children could reinforce their learning at school with plenty of reading at home.
Early Copy Machines
While the printing press was great for textbook publishers, they were large and far too cumbersome for professors and teachers to use. If a teacher in the early and mid-1900s wanted to make a test or homework assignment, the best way for them to duplicate it was by using a mimeograph or spirit duplicator.
Both mimeographs and spirit duplicators required the user to create an original on special paper, which would then be fed through a machine to print out low-quality copies. Mimeograph stencils could produce several hundred copies before degrading, but originals made on spirit duplicator wax paper would only last for a few dozen copies.
For large printing projects, such as a school-wide newsletter, schools would still often use an outside printing service. However, day-to-day tests and homework assignments became much easier for teachers to create. Teachers could create highly customized assignments and even make last-minute pop quizzes. With the ability to produce new tests regularly, teachers could also reduce the amount of cheating that occurred when younger siblings would get old copies of tests from their older siblings.
In 1959, the first commercial Xerox copy machine was introduced to the world. This copier used dry electrostatic printing techniques combined with photography to print black-and-white copies of documents. The first machines weighed around 650 pounds, but they were a commercial success. They had a high up-front cost, but the copies themselves were cheap to produce, making it a worthwhile investment for large businesses and universities.
Eventually, the machines became smaller and more affordable. Universities and other institutions that could afford the steep price tag got them first, followed by schools and public libraries. When double-sided and automatically stapling machines were introduced, they made life even easier for busy educators and students alike.
The introduction of copy machines in libraries was a particularly important turning point for students, as this let students study and cite books without having to haul them home. In schools, it allowed teachers to copy materials without having to create an original on special paper, as mimeographs and spirit duplicators did.
Printing from Computers
The key limitation of Xerox copiers was that they only worked with things that had already been printed. Thus, teachers and students still had to create documents by hand or use painstaking care to type them on a typewriter. While teachers could, theoretically, make copies of textbook and workbook pages, this practice was sometimes a violation of copyright law.
While computers in the 1950s could be connected to printers, this technology was not standard in schools and universities. Xerox and IBM each came up with their own laser printers in the 1970s, but they were expensive and still not user-friendly enough for everyday use. Modern word-processing software was very limited in its formatting capabilities, too, which made it barely more convenient than using a typewriter.
Ultimately, printing for educational purposes became more popular as computer software improved. While some educators began using computers to a limited extent in the 1980s, they weren’t commonly used for creating new educational materials, as K-12 schools often didn’t have the hardware for printing from computers. Even schools that had a printer didn’t always have enough computers on-site for teachers to frequently make their own materials.
Cheaper and Faster
Affordable desktop printers finally entered the commercial market in the early 1990s. With these, university professors and kindergartens could print a wide range of documents, including worksheets, tests, and even classroom decorations.
Naturally, schools had to put some restrictions on color printing and copying, as all schools operate with budget limitations. However, as color copying became even cheaper and easier, schools could relax these restrictions. In a modern elementary or high school, color printing is used for printing everything from sports team photos to students’ digital art projects.
It’s also now standard for schools to allow students to print and copy things. Since black ink is so inexpensive, public school libraries are often given some leeway in how and when students are allowed to print internet resources or copy book pages. At the university level, black-and-white printing often costs around 10 cents per page, but this fee is sometimes waived in certain circumstances.
In the past several decades, research into teaching practices has begun to answer more questions about how children learn. The differences between various ages are more understood, and educators can now consistently develop age-appropriate activities. The field of special education has also advanced significantly, allowing teachers to create worksheets and other materials that are tailored to individual students’ needs.
The high level of knowledge and skills that teachers have wouldn’t be nearly as usable without printers and copiers. Teachers can now download worksheets, customize them, and print them in a matter of minutes. There are free and paid materials all over the internet, even for elective courses and college-level Advanced Placement classes.
Teachers in highly specialized environments, such as classrooms for special education students or English language learners, need many visual assets to clearly communicate lesson content. Without color printing, the creation of these assets becomes time-consuming or even impossible. While these teachers can sometimes rely on material from textbook companies and other professional publishers, it can be difficult to adapt this material to individual students’ reading or general ability level.
Classroom and Hallway Displays
There are only so many hours in a day, and teachers are limited in how much time they have in a classroom with students. During this time, teachers often have to focus on preparing children for standardized tests and covering state-mandated topics. Teachers with specialized knowledge or interests are limited in how they can share those with the students.
Luckily, most schools have ample hallway space that can be decorated with educational materials that pique students’ curiosity and teach them new facts. Geography and social studies displays can introduce students to different countries and cultures. Many schools do seasonal bulletin boards as well, such as for Black History Month.
All of this, of course, is made possible by color printing. Inexpensive inkjet printing allows teachers to set up new displays regularly, even in the middle of the school year. Fifty years ago, the types of bulletin boards and posters possible today couldn’t have been created without the help of a professional print shop or a very talented artist with plenty of free time on their hands.
Before the 1990s, even university students didn’t frequently use computers. This made it cumbersome to write and edit long papers or incorporate images into assignments. If students wanted to incorporate images into a science fair project or book report, they had to copy the image out of a book or draw it by hand.
Now, even middle school classes sometimes require students to create typewritten reports with images embedded. Most students have access to printers at home, and those who don’t can often use school library printers. For science fair projects and other specialized assignments, students can even print their own graphs and tables.
All these new technologies must be taught to students, of course, and some schools have struggled to teach computer science due to insufficient computers at school. There is also the issue of students not having internet access or a computer at home in some rural, high-poverty areas. As basic desktop PCs and laptops become cheaper than ever, though, students’ computer literacy will, hopefully, continue to improve.
Studying and Note-Taking
Printers have made it easier for students to share and annotate notes. For example, some meticulous notetakers like to hand-write their notes in class, then type them up to review the material. After that, they can even print and annotate the notes by hand for an even more thorough dive into note-taking.
Even students who use laptops to take notes sometimes prefer to print their notes for further studying. Though there is still a debate over whether hand-written or typed notes are better for knowledge retention, disconnecting from a computer helps minimize distractions while studying for exams.
Teachers have also used printers to improve their students’ note-taking practices. Some teachers hand out note-taking worksheets, where most of a sentence is filled in by a teacher, but students must fill in the blanks. This easy method is especially useful for science and social studies classes, where students need to memorize basic facts about a subject that may not interest them.
The Homeschool Revolution
As the internet makes knowledge more accessible than ever, more parents are turning to homeschooling for their children. While some parents utilize homeschooling for religious reasons, others simply believe that it offers more flexibility for their children. Online homeschooling websites often use real teachers to grade and create content while offering kids the flexibility to learn from anywhere.
Printer supplies for homeschooling are cheaper than ever, so children can often engage in the same types of activities as their traditionally schooled peers. Parents have created printable worksheets and shared them the same way that teachers do. Without printing, it would be difficult for homeschool students to study the full range of topics that they want to.
While community college courses for continuing education are more accessible than ever, some adults prefer to study on their own. Some use e-readers and tablets to access information, but others still prefer to use printed worksheets and other materials. While apps are popular among young people, some older adults still struggle with smartphone and tablet usage, making simple printed documents a more viable option.
Printed material is especially helpful for learning a second language. For example, adults looking to brush up on their Spanish can download and print worksheets and quizzes, and then check the correct answers. Websites with online quizzes and flashcards are often available, but printed versions are great for long trips or simply reducing eye strain associated with long periods of computer usage.
A High-Tech Future
Digital whiteboards, tablets, and online testing have all made their way into classrooms across the country. While these technologies can supplement printed material, they will never fully replace it. Not only is the learning curve for this equipment somewhat steep, they sometimes run into technical problems. Plus, they can be expensive and prone to abuse or breakage.
Ultimately, printers and copiers will remain an essential asset to schools for years to come. Even apps on smartphones can’t replace the reliability and convenience of having printed documents in hand. Though students now have a variety of study methods available to them, printed tests and worksheets are here to stay, as teachers try to combat cheating and other abuses of technology in the classroom.