Monday, July 18, 2016

Turning in assignments in the 21st century: a 21st century skill?

Turning in homework used to be child’s play. In the early grades, before most kids had developed all the necessary organizational skills, teachers would simply walk around and collect it. There was no question of stuff getting lost. Of course, there was also less homework back then—in the early grades. It wasn’t until the later grades—high school, college—that it was up to kids to turn things in themselves.

Nowadays it’s all so much more complicated. In the early grades, the fact that some kids have the necessary organizational skills to turn things in (and complete large, open-ended projects, and design their own science experiments, and give multi-media presentations in front of the class) has caused teachers to expect everyone to do so. It’s the 21st century, after all, and kids need to learn to take responsibility.

In the upper grades, meanwhile, homework is increasingly supposed to be turned in online. In principle, this ought to make things more convenient. But in practice, the e-turn-in procedures are often non-transparent or susceptible to technological mishaps. You think you’ve turned something in, and then it turns out later—typically after it’s too late—that you haven’t. There was some additional button you were supposed to click on.

Both trends—the lower grade “take responsibility” and the upper grade high tech turn in protocols--have dogged J as he’s moved through the system. As with so many kids on the spectrum, his ability to keep track of things is, if not lacking, then lagging. Countless man hours have gone into IEP meetings, and follow-up meetings, and follow-up follow-up meetings, in which different “stakeholders” have proposed various elaborate strategies to address the lost homework/failure to turn it in problem: all sorts of checklists and reward systems and back-and-forth communication systems. Why can’t teachers simply collect assignments (at least J’s) as they did back in the dark ages, I’d ask repeatedly. Teachers don’t have time for that, someone explained at one point. But what about all the time everyone is therefore spending in meetings coming up with alternative strategies and afterwards attempting to implement them?

If you look through Listservs for autism parents, concerns about points off for homework that was completed but not turned in on time are ubiquitous. Serious problems that lack obvious solutions are a staple of autism; lost homework shouldn’t be one of them.

No sooner had J became organized enough to turn things in on his own—this milestone occurred sometime between the end of high school and his freshman year in college—than the rules of the game up and changed. Suddenly, for his computer science classes, it turned out (a) that he was supposed to be turning things in using a program called Bitbucket, and (b) that he was getting zeroes because he hadn’t paid attention to this requirement, let alone to the logistics of Bitbucket. Of course, now that he’s in college, it’s too late for IEPs, so all I can do is bug him at the start of each next class about keeping an eye on the latest turn-in protocol and emailing his professor if anything’s unclear.

Further complicating matters, the rules for contacting professors are also changing. Some don’t want to be contacted at all via regular email, but only via Blackboard or Canvas.

Then there’s the issue of acquiring new assignments and getting back old ones—in a timely fashion, with perspicuous feedback. Theoretically, programs like Blackboard or Canvas make this easier. In practice, as with so much else on the web, the logistics are often byzantine: multiple pages to navigate among; multiple sequences of non-obvious, hard-to-find tabs to click on. You think the new assignment hasn’t been posted yet, only to discover that it was posted several days ago. You see the score on your last assignment; you might even see statistics on how the class did overall (complete with median, mode, and range); but you don’t necessarily get that crucial, qualitative feedback that one used to get back in the dark ages: personalized feedback about where one might have gone wrong and what one needs to work on in the future.


Auntie Ann said...

The mode of contact teachers prefer is a big stumbling block for our kid. We are always telling her to communicate and e-mail her teachers, only to have her say that lots of teachers don't want to get emails, and will get upset if you email them (which I've always found hard to believe). This is high school, with kids having to get to and leave school on the bus, and therefor can't stay late or get there early to talk to teachers. I still don't understand how busy students are supposed to intersect with busy teachers.

We eventually hired a tutor who is a teacher at the school to help her navigate.

Anonymous said...

And it's not as if it gets any easier when you're an adult!!! My fairly ADD husband is often baffled by the mountains of paperwork (real and digital) that are required to keep out of trouble with the various bureaucracies everyone has to deal with -- housing, utilities, banking, credit cards, health care (health care!!!!), kids schools, and on and on.

Anonymous said...

And let me add that, to the extent that young people are possibly delayed in their ability to handle these myriads of small executive tasks, and especially if it's a maturity issue, apprenticeships offer a much more beneficial environment than college does -- even if the cognitive load is the same.

Adelaide Dupont said...

Good point, Anonymous, about apprenticeships. And your husband.

Often students get habituated to leave things in the holidays which seems not to fly in the work placement world.

Don't 504s work in this instance? Or shouldn't they?

Auntie Ann: so many times people use e-mails as a form of personal, social and professional contact. And a lot get into trouble for harassment - is this what your daughter is worried about - or being cut off?

Good idea for the tutor or the connector. I think year co-ordinators can do this too.