Paper beats pixels

Op-eds Opinions

I hate online course delivery systems. They’re clumsy and inefficient, and they stress me out. Right now one of my instructors is apparently posting homework to his course page, not Moodle. Yes, you heard that right—there are two web pages for one course. There’s homework due today (at time of writing). Most of the class never heard about it until yesterday when it went up on Moodle; there was no in-class announcement. The expectation was to check the website. My classmates are currently cramming it into every spare moment. I’ve only finished it because I stayed awake until late last night.

Take another case: one of my friends. She is taking five courses. She is also handling five different websites for them: Connex (the Computer Science website of choice), Moodle, CoursePages (the in-house and in-testing University of Victoria-based delivery system), and two personal instructor websites. I would estimate it takes approximately a half hour just to find the homework. Then you have to do it.

How is any of the confusion generated by online course delivery improving the student experience? It may make life easier for professors, but students end up scrambling to finish homework. Even just finding online coursework is time-consuming. It is a far better experience to have homework handed out in-class. You know that there is homework (tough to miss), and you don’t have to print it later (a process which can be quite a chore, as anyone who’s had their printer mysteriously stop working knows). Score one for paper.

Then, there’s the latest and “greatest” tool—online homework. If you’ve taken a physics course, you’ve encountered it. The “Mastering” family of sites, such as “Mastering Physics” and “Mastering Engineering,” are designed to provide instant feedback, and thereby improve your grade. I’ve always found that relevant feedback is more important than instant. The Mastering sites rarely provide relevant feedback, however. Furthermore, I’ve found that when the Mastering sites allow students to submit multiple answers for the same question, homework becomes a guessing game instead of a learning session. My solution is simple—print the page out and do the homework with pen and paper. Then, go to the professor’s office hours if you have issues. Of course, data entry to the site is a pain, but it’s better than working online. Score two for paper.

I see only disadvantages to an online system of homework and course delivery in comparison to old-school paper homework. People discuss online notes as being a boon; I take good notes in class so I rarely need those that the professor puts online. My paper notes, besides being a useful reference, keep me focused and engaged in class. If I were just sitting and watching, there have been many classes in which I would have fallen asleep. Score three for paper.

I don’t disagree that course websites can be useful to serve as a backup vault for syllabuses, problem sets, and homework. However, as primary delivery and interaction system for a course, the online systems do not work. They repeatedly fail students, resulting in missed homework assignments and stress from trying to keep track of all the required sites. If UVic wants to improve the student experience, it should quit pushing online course delivery.