Time to tackle one of the more frequently asked questions... Noah Segal, of Trinity School in New York, writes in to ask:
Have you tried an online homework system (e.g. WebAssign, WileyPlus, MasterPhysics, etc.)? If you’ve had experience with more than one of them I’d like to know how they compare. If you have tried one and went back to paper-based hw, that’d be valuable to know as well.
While I'm not thoroughly versed in the history of online homework systems, my understanding is that they developed in introductory university courses populated by hundreds of students each term. There, the principle is sound: a professor can't possibly grade 350 homework assignments, and hiring student graders presents issues of cost, logistics, fairness, and competence. Requiring online submission not only eliminates the headache of grading, it allows the professor to assign work more regularly, and to tell at a glance who is keeping up. Online homework is much, much better for such a professor than the alternative, which is, essentially, unevaluated homework.
Once colleges started raving about online homework, the software providers decided to penetrate the high school market. But for high schools, the cost-benefit analysis shifts. I believe that in virtually all cases, online homework is an expensive, useless toy -- at best, technology for technology's sake; at worst, a lazy teacher's destructive, wrongheaded message about what physics problem solving is all about.
Drive to the heart of the matter: what's the fundamental point of physics homework, anyway? I don't assign homework just because it's a school expectation, or because I need to enter a grade into a grade book... homework problems are like football practice, designed to prepare students for the rigors of a game / test. I'm making the class engage in the difficult, novel process of physics problem solving. Homework provides a low-pressure chance to try out the types of problems they'll face on tests, but in a setting where collaboration is encouraged and help is available when they get stuck, and where losing credit for misconceptions is not really a big deal.
By grading through a stack of paper homework, I can tell who's keeping up, I can bring in students to extra help who need it, I can enter a grade in the gradebook. But I can also use my grading to help communicate expectations and good ideas about problem solving. Johnny didn't include a free body diagram on this equilibrium problem: he lost credit, which sent the message that "free body diagrams are an awesomely good idea" far better than nagging. Jimbo did everything right, but got the answer wrong due to a calculator error: he got almost full credit, more credit than Johnny did, sending the message that "the precise answer is subordinate to the process in introductory physics." Joe got everything right, but his paper was identical to Frank's in every way: both Joe and Frank had to redo the assignment in extra help, and were politely reminded that pure copying is inappropriate and could result in trouble.
Thing is, on webassign, Johnny got full credit 'cause his answer was right. He wasn't so happy a week later when he couldn't figure out a test problem that couldn't really be done without the free body. Jimbo was marked wrong, and got frustrated, thinking he didn't understand the physics, even though he had done outstanding work. Joe couldn't copy off of Frank, 'cause webassign randomized the input values to the problem; so Frank just showed Joe how to plug the different numbers into his final equation, and Joe got full credit for using a calculator blindly with Frank's work. How that's different from copying, I'll never know.
I've been told that webassign and/or clones will, in fact, support conceptual questions requiring verbal justifications -- students type in their justifications, and the teacher can evaluate them online. Well, um, that's pretty darned close to grading paper assignments. If you think that's faster than collecting paper, okay... but I still have concerns about presentations. Computer input doesn't allow for easy drawing of diagrams or writing of equations. That's what unlined paper is for.
Now, there can be some benefits to webassign, even in high school. If you can get past the sign-in issues,* you can check instantly for completion of some routine tasks. Perhaps assign a quick question in which students need to plug-and-chug into the equation for the period of a pendulum. Well, there's no escape for your class -- they have no choice but to look up the equation and use it to solve the problem. You haven't taught any material, you haven't helped gain an understanding of pendulums, but you've made sure that the students have taken the first step toward at least recognizing and memorizing the correct equation, and that's a positive. Perhaps you can use webassign to pose a couple of quick multiple questions that you would otherwise spend 5 minutes on at the beginning of class. Great! That's using technology to effectively replace something that would have required class time.
* I once visited a physics class early in the year, and most of the 40 minute period was spent answering student questions such as "I couldn't log in to my online homework account" and "once we log in, how do we input our answers, again?"
The question is, are these benefits worth the expense? "Expense" includes not just money, but time and resources as well. (Physics homework is less daunting to start if it requires only a blank page, not a webassign-enabled, networked electronic device.)
So Noah, I strongly recommend against online homework system. Just like learning physics is hard work, teaching physics is even harder. Grading homework papers is, I think, an unavoidable and essential part of helping our students learn. While there are tricks and techniques to reduce time spent grading, I don't think it's possible to eliminate or even minimize paper assignments.