Thursday, May 07, 2009

e-Homework = Chaos

Earlier this term I asked my science major students to turn in a homework assignment via email. I was going to be traveling on the homework due date, and I figured this would be the best way for me to get the assignments graded in a timely way and to entertain myself in airports and airplanes.

I set up the homework assignment so that all answers could be written directly into an email so that we didn't have to worry about attachments and file formats and all that kind of possible chaos.

Half the class sent me attachments anyway. In most cases this was fine, except when it wasn't.

I have a very strict due date/time for assignments and under normal circumstances with homework on paper, I get the assignments on time unless there is a dire emergency. With the e-homework, however, 15% of the students had problems getting their homework to me in a readable form.

85% of the class got the homework in on time and in a form I could read. The others didn't attach the attachments or experienced other technical difficulties. For example, one student inexplicably decided to scan his homework and mail me the attached scans, but his assignment was missing the last page, which was 1/3 of the assignment.

When the emails arrived with the homework, I wasn't able to read them right away. I filed them all in a folder and looked at them later when I had time, and that's when I discovered the problems.

I had not made contingency plans for email problems; e.g. spelling out that it was the student's responsibility to make sure the email arrived on time and with the homework attached, complete, and readable. It clearly is the student's responsibility, even without my putting that in writing, but at the same time it seems too harsh to give someone a zero for forgetting to attach an attachment.

It will be a long time before I assign e-homework again. I am sure there are web-based solutions for this, but for now I am going back to paper and pencil-based assignments.

With paper-and-pencil assignments, the only crisis I have had so far this term was when a student slid their assignment under my office door while I was away, and then I stepped on it when I walked in my office, leaving a shoe print on the front page. I thought it was kind of funny, but the student was not happy about the shoe print.

What did he expect when he put the homework under my door on the floor? Did he truly think I stepped on the assignment on purpose as a statement of anger or disgust with his work? Do professors really do that? I admit that it can be tempting, but so far in my career I have refrained from stomping (literally) on student work, and I have had to content myself with editorial stomping.


Susan B. Anthony said...

Love the shoe-print story. I have one student who insists on putting his homework under my door, even though (1) I have an envelope TAPED TO THE DOOR expressly for this purpose and (2) he writes in large handwriting on one side of the paper only, so his assignments are very thick and don't fit easily under the door. I can't figure it out. Is he worried other people will copy off him if he leaves it somewhere "public"? In any case, I too am always surprised by the paper on the floor, and always narrowly avoid stepping on it when I come in.

Anthony said...

I've used email submission of a portfolio of work for a first year IT module for a number of years now. The portfolio includes a selection of work completed as part of the workshops run throughout the term.

I lay down some rules on file naming and the portfolio must be zipped using the application on my institution's network. I usually have a midnight deadline (often on a Friday) and it amazes me the number of students who take it to the wire. I guess it's no different from any other assessment deadline.

This process has generally worked quite well although last year I received multiple submissions from some students of multiple megabyte portfolios... this exceeded my space allocation and caused subsequent submissions to bounce. As I was away at the time and couldn't intervene this caused a little wailing and gnashing of teeth (I extended the deadline). Other problems have included the use of an incorrect file name for the portfolio (marks are reduced by 25%), incorrect files in the portfolio (these are not marked) and empty zip files.

In the case of an empty zip file I have been known to allow resubmission (with a penalty) if the date/time stamp of the individual files is prior to the original deadline. One useful aspect of using a zip archive is that the date/time stamp of each file is preserved, which is not the case when saving email attachments. This has also been useful for detecting students who insist on sharing their files. Of course, any indication that a file has been shared has serious consequences for all parties concerned. It's usually apparent who actually created the file in the first instance.

I leave it up to the students to sort it all out and check it works properly. I tell them that doing it correctly is part of the learning for the module (it is an IT module after all) and it is one of the few things they have to do on their own as I don't explicitly cover it in a workshop.

Thanks for the Blog.

Chris said...

Yep, this is exactly my experience, and why I refuse to accept electronic homework. Students get very mad at me for this, particularly when they are rushing to get it in before the deadline, and email it, and I bounce it back to them.

But I simply do not accept e-mailed homework. Way too many of them screw it up. As you say, the alternative is to accept it, but give zeros if I cant read it, and that seems overly harsh.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised your university doesn't have a system yet. Most schools use Blackboard now. It's not great, but the online assignment submitting system isn't bad. Although you do have to download them (albeit all at once) into a folder on your computer. You can have the assignment "close" when it's due, too. That way there is no due date confusion.

Natalie said...

I've given my students the option to submit all their homework electronically or physically in my class this term (I'm really trying to reduce paper production) and it's worked out really well. I think the advantage is, people who are really uncomfortable with email and attachments (and are more likely to mess it up) can still hand it in in person, while that 85% who has no problems can save paper.

I think it also helps I use gmail, which can open just about any file format you can write in.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, emailed assignments tend to generate a lot more work for the professor/teacher, IME. Online drop boxes are a better solution, but it takes a couple trials to figure out exactly what to say in giving the assignment to make sure it works.

chall said...

I would be a bit weary about he "forgetting the attachment" since that can be used as a "ooops... didn't do it on time but if I pretend I attach it it will buy me time".

every time I forget the attachment I know that when I have pressed the send button... and then writes another email one min later ;)

Anonymous said...

What about having a date/time stamp on the bottom of your shoe, and stepping on all the students' work? Then no student will feel that his/her work was singled out for stomping.

Plus I think it would be fun to stomp on all those papers.

My only request this year was that if the students absolutely had to email me their papers, to please use .doc and not .docx. So far, 40% of the papers are .docx.

Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink said...

Like Natalie, the electronic option worked out really well for me.

Some of the things did help were
- giving the option of not submitting electronically but in class,
- laying down some ground rules about what sort of attachments were acceptable (since i worked with Hebrew, there was a mandatory font or it had to be in *pdf* format),
- having a small enough class, so that it was feasible to send everyone a quick "thanks, i got your email (and sometimes, hey where's the attachment)" form,
- and being a bit more flexible about deadlines - assuming that it wasn't late until i'd started grading it (which sometimes took a few days).

There were a few hassles, but the biggest problem was actually a surprise. Receiving papers electronically makes it a lot easier to check for copying. And when you 'compare' one person's document with another in a word processing program, you can find out really quickly how close they are. The students seemed a bit surprised that I'd accuse them of cheating, but the comparison meant that from a statistical perspective there was no way these documents could not have a similar source. It was an enlightening experience (although probably more for me than the students, unfortunately)...

Rachel said...

hmmm. that's really interesting, and I see where it would be tricky for a professor, since it does come off as kind of harsh--people genuinely do make technological mistakes--but at the same time, some of the "mistakes" are a.) so ridiculous it's actually irritating considering your students basically grew up in the 21st century and presumably have been using computers for quite some time, and b.) probably just excuses for not getting it done on time.

I TA'd for an intro English class this fall and we got the second one ALL THE TIME, although at first I really did feel bad because I figured people were just making mistakes... but then it was the SAME PEOPLE making the SAME MISTAKE (this was the first year a lot of freshman came to school with Word 2007 on their laptops, and they kept saving their files as .docx, so they couldn't open them in class where the computers were running Word 2003). at some point you gotta figure that stuff out,'s called basic computer competence.

anyway, the first reason I thought this was interesting was that in my major department (geology) we hand in probably 70% of our homework electronically, via either email attachment or Blackboard. I'm sure plenty of us had the "forgot the attachment" problem at the beginning, but after a couple years it's really not that difficult (and saves a lot of trees) :)

John Vidale said... (Turn It In) seemed good for my kid's school, and should work if one's institution has paid for it. It also checks homeworks again some database for plagiarism and against each other for too much similarity.

I don't assign enough such assignments to make it worthwhile in my current classes.

zoelouise said...

I post assignemts to Blackboard, and much of the "my computer at home crashed" drama is avoided by telling them the due date is firm, so it's probably prudent to try 24 hours ahead of the due date, so that if there is a problem they will have time to remedy it.

Anonymous said...

I am astounded that the "electronic generation" - presumably these kids grew up with all kinds of digital devices and files - has such trouble with what even we older luddites would consider basic stuff.

Anonymous said...

I have really liked getting email submissions of weekly assignments in one of my smaller (<30 students) classes. But, it has taken a while to formulate all the written instructions I have to give them to anticipate and avoid as many problems as possible (e.g., about acceptable formats). I am constantly shocked at how many students are technologically inept and can't do basic things. I make it clear that it is not my problem to teach them how to attach a file in whatever mail client they happen to be using, or how to save a file as an .rtf in whatever ancient word processing program that is on their roommate's computer. Luckily, if they ask me these things in class, one of the other students usually knows how to solve their problem. I meanwhile, try to hide my...well, um, this is kinda harsh, but what I feel at these moments is basically contempt that someone who grew up in the computer age has no clue about these basic details and thinks it is appropriate to whine to a professor about it. Some of them act like what I am asking them to do is so hard. And these are usually seniors who are about to graduate! (Oh yea, I do give them the option of handing in a hard copy.)

BTW, something to consider if you are having assignments emailed is that many mail servers block incoming emails if a virus is detected. Ours just blocks the email and gives no message to the sender, so one of my many printed rules is that it is up to the students to make sure they are running the free anti-virus software available from our university and that the file they send is virus-free.

Female Science Professor said...

I use my university's online system for various teaching-related activities (posting review questions, answer keys, grades) but it takes 11 clicks just to get to the class site and there are all sorts of browser incompatibility issues that afflict students and me (I keep an older version of a particular browser around just so I can access this site) and then there's the "My internet connection went out" excuse (among others). And so on.

Margaret L said...

I always require e-mailed assignments now, and it works great, but it took a few years. My syllabus now bristles with scary language about it.

I like the paper-saving, and the ease of checking for cheating. (I can also adjust ridiculous margins to see how long the paper really is.)

I don't agree, though, with the "these kids grew up with this technology" argument. Some of these students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and did not grow up with this stuff. It *is* their responsibility to learn it, but they are not contemptible for not already knowing it.

Anonymous said...

I think fancier web-based systems can work better if they provide some way for the students to download what they've submitted to verify that it's what they were intending to submit. With email it's easy to screw something up.

Anthony: You do realize it's trivial to alter the time stamps, right? I guess it's better to trust your students in a situation like this but on the other hand if this is for an IT class I think you may be underestimating them.

Margaret L said...

Regarding time-stamps, I simply require that the e-mail hit my in-box by the specified time. The attached assignment is only accepted if the e-mail it was attached to arrived by the deadline. I advise them to use their campus account, to avoid transmission delays, and if they send it at the last minute they do so at their own risk. One minute past the deadline counts as late (half credit up to 24 hours, zero credit after that). The trick is to establish your reputation as a hard-ass from the very beginning.

PUI scientista said...

I used Blackboard digital dropbox for one course and gave myself carpal tunnel syndrome just managing the files. Blackboard is pretty poor when it comes to ergonomics. That's the only reason we burn through trees for my courses. It's better than surgery.

Anonymous said...

Try and get your school to switch to Moodle. It is open-source (Blackboard costs a fortune) and not so click-intensive. It is also good that *Moodle* enforces the deadlines, not me.

You have to communicate to the students: pdf format, put your NAME on the paper, use a special format for the file name so I don't have to rename 17 "Exercise-1.pdf" files, etc. etc.

I now use Moodle for all of my hand-in work, and it does make my life easier.

One tip: Always make the deadline before midnight. I once had a deadline of 9.30 because class began at 9.45, and they would work all night through, and then fall asleep in class (if they bothered to stay). 11.55 pm lets them get some sleep before the 8 am lecture.

TW Andrews said...

I have to believe that any student who failed to get you their homework was simply using the new format as an excuse.

I can't imagine that there is a single college student who can't manage to fill in an email.

If 90% of the students had failed, there might be cause for some suspicion. When it's 15%, I suspect that it's just as an excuse.

TW Andrews said...

I am astounded that the "electronic generation" - presumably these kids grew up with all kinds of digital devices and files - has such trouble with what even we older luddites would consider basic stuff.I don't think they actually have trouble--just that they believe that you'll accept "computer trouble" as a viable excuse for failing to do something pretty basic.

Eve said...

I considered assigning homework that students could upload to a Blackboard or WebCT drop box, but was worried about unforeseen technical difficulties as well. The best way I can think to solve it would be to assign something (for no marks or very few marks) in the first two weeks where you introduce yourself and give a few ideas on what you'd like to see in the course, and have it be a submission using the same process. That way, you get the kinks out early and you can say "well you had the opportunity to figure things out early" if a student claims technical difficulties once the big project is due at the end of the year.

Unknown said...

I use Blackboard for EVERYTHING to manage my 80 undergrads. There's a bit of a learning curve at the beginning of the semester, but things really pay off within about 3 weeks. The first day of class I distribute an "eHomework Guide" that I've written up with all my expectations about file naming, submission, etc - and I make absolutely sure to point out that both Blackboard and Turnitin time stamp. There's still some drama, of course (it amazes me that kids with 2 cell phones *and* a blackberry can't submit their work on time) but I make it clear that getting their work to me on time, in the correct format, is THEIR job - not mine. I post all my assignments at least a week in advance. I do everything I can to leave them no excuse - which just means I get to point that out when they come howling to me with excuses. [sigh] Exiles said...

I have my students submit electronically whenever possible, although I will accept paper if need be... most of them prefer it, although I have had a few who consistently try on the computer gremlins ate my homework defense.

In those cases, I tell them that they must submit all further assignments in paper since I'm not playing those games.

Kevin said...

I generally require both a paper copy (that I grade and return) and an electronic copy (that I keep for future reference).

I gave up on both e-mail and web-based turn-in systems, as managing the files was damn near impossible.

I now require students either to put their files on a shared file system and make them publically readable, or put them on the web.
This would probalby not work for classes in which copying is a problem, but I'm mainly teaching grad students and seniors, and most of the assignments do not lend them selves easily to copying (or the copying is trivially detectible).

I refuse to accept anything in doc or docx format. In fact, I used to have an automatic reply that told people "you have sent me a file in a proprietary (doc) format--it has been deleted unread." Saved me a lot junk mail from the dean's office.

Courtney said...

I teach online classes, and this is our policy:

"Hello, class –

This is a reminder that it is each student’s responsibility to make sure that assignments are correctly posted. If an assignment is posted as an attachment, this includes making sure that the correct attachment is included and in the correct format.

Please take the following steps when posting assignments:

1. After you post your assignment, please double check that you can open and read your assignment before you exit the classroom.

2. If you worked on the assignment in multiple drafts, please make sure the correct draft is posted.

3. Make sure that you have posted the assignment to the correct class, and to the correct forum.

4. If you are posting your assignment as an attachment, be sure the correct attachment is included. In addition, please make sure your attachment is posted as an MS Office 2003 or 2007 document. Do not post your assignment as a Works or Wordpad document.

5. If you discover that you posted the wrong attachment, click Remove on the right and re-post your assignment.

Please understand that if the wrong attachment is included, or if the attachment is in the wrong format or posted in the wrong class, the assignment will be considered missing. If the assignment needs to be reposted later to correct the problem, the lateness policy will apply. 10% will deducted for each day the assignment is posted after the deadline, and the assignment will not be accepted if it is more than four days late.

If you have questions about this policy, feel free to post them in the Questions thread in the Main forum.

Thank you."

And this is the reminder note:
"This is a required reminder that your Appendix was not submitted by the deadline
of midnight on Sunday.

Please be aware that late assignments will receive a 10% deduction for each day
that they are late. Assignments are late if they are not posted by midnight of
the day they are due.

Assignments that are more than 4 days late will not be accepted unless we have
negotiated and mutually agreed upon an alternative submission date in advance.

Unless an Incomplete grade has been granted, student assignments submitted after
the last day of class will not be accepted.

Please note that school server troubles are not an excuse for late papers. If you
are unable to connect to the school server and upload an assignment to your
Individual forum, send a copy of the assignment to my inbox or alternate email
address (which are listed in this email) as proof that you attempted to post
the assignment on time. In your email, you must tell me that you were unable to
connect to the school server. You must then upload the assignment to your
Individual forum at your earliest opportunity. Send assignments to my inbox
ONLY if the school server is down. Instructors cannot, by school policy,
grade an assignment that comes to their personal email. It must be posted in
your Individual forum to count for grading purposes. These policies are
necessary because any contact outside of the Online Learning System cannot be verified or archived.

If you feel you have received this in error, please contact me ASAP to rectify
the situation"

Fitz said...

I had a student turn in his homework by sliding it under my door, but I had my dog in my office and yes, he started to eat it. Fortunately he is a very nice dog and when the student got a custodian to open my office he was able to retrieve the HW from my dog, slightly nibbled.

Kevin said...

My former office had a hollow steel door that had been trimmed on the bottom to fit in the door frame. The result was that papers slid "under" the door ended up "in" the door, until sufficient opening and closing of the door had shredded them.

I warned students about this, and only a few were still stupid enough to try (fewer than 1 a year).