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Moving to paperless assignments in Maths: Does it add up?

Audrey Markowskei recently took on the tricky challenge of moving to paperless assignments in a Mathematics unit. Jorge Reyna from the LTC participated in the evaluation of various apps and platforms, as featured on Teche. In this post Audrey offers her own reflections on the trial.

How did the paperless assignments trial in Maths come about?

Audrey Markowskei, Department of Mathematics
Audrey Markowskei, Department of Mathematics

I was developing an online maths unit that requires students to submit assignments electronically. At the same time I was tutoring a maths unit with only 32 second-year students. They were the perfect cohort to trial the various technologies required.

Would you recommend this approach to others your Department or Faculty?

Although it was good to have trialled paperless assignments and it was interesting to do, I wouldn’t promote it (yet) for the majority of our mathematics units. The technologies we used for this trial wouldn’t work in a unit with 400 students for instance, or with first-year students.  For smaller cohorts it is a possibility, but preferably when they don’t have very long hand-written assignments.

What were the challenges?

It’s not the same as uploading a word document – you have to scan the assignment, and the files can be very large.  If I had a bigger cohort I wouldn’t have managed file upload size for iLearn [200MB].  I’m a big tablet user, but migrating all the assignments onto the tablet was quite involved. You need to be technically competent and it can take half an hour or more.  Tablets are still pretty small in size, which can make it more difficult and take longer to mark. It’s difficult to read an A4 page shrunk down onto a tablet size, and the quality o the scans varies. It might be easier once tablets are bigger but they are not quite there yet.

People also tend to overestimate students’ technical ability. Students might know how to text and use Facebook, but that does not mean they are comfortable with all technology. Students may not know about DPI settings, for example, and you can’t expect them to know how to rotate scans or minimise the output size. Only one student in the cohort we trialled the apps with had a tablet, so the majority of students had to use the library or a personal scanner for scanning their assignments.

What feedback did you get from your students about submitting paperless assignments?

Students got their assignments back very quickly, and there were no issues with losing assignments – that’s a positive. They also had the convenience of submitting assignments from outside campus. I think they also enjoyed being part of something new.

You’ve also developed a fully online Mathematics unit for a cohort of Masters students. How do you go about doing that?

It was a great opportunity and quite a challenge. It’s like developing a MOOC. The biggest challenge is engaging students. You can’t learn mathematics watching someone else solve problems. You need to do it yourself. I tried to make the video lectures interactive where possible. We start with an explanation and some theory, demonstrate some examples, and then say ‘it’s your turn now’. Students should stop the video and try the problem themselves. They then re-start the video to see the solution to the problem. I also linked the course material to a textbook with excellent online publisher resources, and each lesson had a comprehensive set of practice exercises utilising these resources.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on my PhD in acoustic wave scattering theory and working as a tutor for the Mathematics department.

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