Paper Vs. LMS: Tech Tradeoffs

A few years ago, I abandoned paper in my classroom almost entirely. First I stopped taking major assignments in paper form, but a while after that I also started encouraging my students to bring their phones, laptops, and tablets to class to participate in class activities via a Google Doc instead of collecting class activities on paper. I’d put students in groups so that students who didn’t have a device with them could still participate via their partners’ devices, and generally it was beautiful technological chaos.

But something else happened that I hadn’t expected: I started getting sick less often. Just colds and sniffles and sore throats, the usual school year stuff that can happen to anyone, and it wasn’t a big deal, really. I was still floating around the classroom, interacting closely with students, but I wasn’t necessarily touching things they touched, or taking things they touched into my office with me for marking. And I was healthier for it.

Woman writing in a notebook
I miss my grading pens, yes, but I also don’t miss getting sick every time I collected a major assignment.
Photo via StockSnap

We’re almost a year into a pandemic, in which the roles and relationships of educators and students has been a question of near constant debate. Legislators are loudly concerned about “reopening schools,” parents are eager to put education back in the hands of professionals, and educators are, understandably, hesitant to work in traditional classrooms when there’s been no abatement in cases and there’s not enough vaccine to go around for everyone who wants it.

There’s absolutely no question that online teaching is safer, health-wise. Just like how in pre-pandemic times the simple shift from paper to online interactions reduced the number of colds I caught from my students, we can protect ourselves and our students by shifting to online spaces. That’s both anecdotal and scientifically supported. It really is that simple, and I fully endorse doing what is best for everyone’s safety and moving fully online in every possible way.

But I also have to acknowledge that there are tradeoffs in moving online. Learning Management Systems (LMSs) such as Canvas, Blackboard, and Moodle make managing these online systems easier, but, as I’ve discussed before in this space, they also shape the learning experiences in ways that may not be best practices or compatible with how we want to manage our own classes, and that’s a cost we have to account for.

When I used paper submissions for major assignments, I wrote all over my students’ papers. I playfully drew illustrations of concepts, diagrammed out ideas, used boxes and arrows to help them think about restructuring their work. There’s freedom in pen and paper that lets the mind work in a thousand creative ways. End comments were short because the margins did most of the talking, and I struggled to teach my students to read end comments first because end comments are the Big Picture while marginal comments are the details.

When I shifted to digital submissions, I delighted at how students could receive feedback immediately upon my completing the work with that individual submission (as opposed to waiting until whatever class period I had the whole section finished by) and how students missing class on the days I passed materials back was no longer a major logistical hurdle. I loved that I no longer had to carry a big bookbag around campus full of student work, but rather just a small laptop bag, or even just my tablet. I no longer felt the pain of watching students throw out their work, so meticulously marked up by my hand late at night, as they left the classroom. Online submission fixed a LOT of problems, including problems I didn’t even realize were problems.

But it also shifted the actual procedure in other ways. Now, I no longer had to coach students on how to read end comments first, but instead had to coach them on how to see comments at all. Canvas and Blackboard have some truly lovely marginal comments systems, but I couldn’t draw all over papers anymore, and neither delivers marginal comments in a way that I can trust that students will even see them. Generally, LMSs show students their grade in a notification, but hide comments behind “see more” type clicks that signal to students that all that matters is the grade (which we know is the least important part). End comments are easier to see than marginal comments now, which meant a shift in how I interacted with student work.

A laptop with a notebook and pen on one side and a smart phone and espresso cup on the other side.
Digital isn’t as much fun sometimes, but it’s MUCH SAFER for everyone!
Photo via StockSnap, as usual

As the years went on and I got more familiar with how my students were interacting with the digital feedback systems, the way I interacted shifted as well. I’m not currently doing any marginal comments unless students request it. Instead, I make a list of notes as I’m reading and drop that at the end of my end comment, with an explanation of “here are my reading notes.” I have to frame my comments with fewer arrows and “this” pointers, and instead describe where in the text I’m responding: “In the second paragraph, you say…”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I miss the freewheeling drawings, of course, but it also forces me to think about my feedback from a student perspective rather than from an editor’s perspective, and the frame things in terms of what’s most important to say, since I also know that a very long comment is likely to be ignored by the student.

Obviously, I would love for LMSs to stop prioritizing grades and percentages over feedback. I would love an option where students have to view feedback first. However, I think in the balance of things, having the feedback stored in a central location and not subject to the many problems paper submission can cause, including problems in my own health, is a good thing.

LMSs, while designed by teams of people, are just tools. It’s up to us instructors to figure out how to use them well. But I think in the balance, although it’s certainly not how many of us were taught, we should be using them right now, and we should be thinking about how to optimize their use to reach our instructional goals.

In my case, this has meant shifting away from the creative multimodal feedback paper let me give students, but the reward is that I know that students can access feedback on their own terms as soon as it’s available. So it’s on me to make sure that feedback is of the best quality possible within the affordances of the LMS.

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