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07 September 2017

How should a physics teacher use a "learning management system"?

A reader indicated that he's being pushed by his administration toward using the learning management system Canvas, especially for paperless testing.  Where do I stand, he asked?

My school adopted Canvas about four years ago.  While I'm not personally a fan, I recognize and acknowledge the major benefit to the student, especially the student at a day school.  All assigned work is clearly indicated on and accessible from a simple-to-use calendar.   Student misses a day of class - no worries, assignments are on Canvas.  Student is disorganized and loses assignment sheet, or forgets where to look online for my assignment - no worries, all on the Canvas calendar.  

My concern is partly that we are doing a large amount of organization for the student, rather than the student internalizing the organization skills for him- or herself; my concern is partly that significant technical hurdles to uploading and downloading assignments too often get in the way of teaching.  Nevertheless, in these matters I yield my own judgment to the consensus of our faculty.  Canvas has in general been a positive development for us.

I do not yield my judgment about physics teaching.  Physics teaching is different from teaching other subjects, and way too many people don't recognize that.  

It sounds like this reader's administration isn't considering how physics is done.  Yes, in some classes at my school, essentially all assignments and tests are handed out and submitted through Canvas.  That works fine for multiple choice, for pure text in an English or history paper, for straight-up numerical responses.  

As you indicated, though, physics demands communication in writing.  A well-presented problem consists of words, diagrams, equations, and numbers.  Annotated calculations or derivations often include circles and arrows and, well, handwriting techniques that I can't well describe or draw in a blog post.  I'd need hard copy.  

And so, when I create assignments in Canvas, I simply attach a file consisting of the problem set questions.  The actual assignment submission is always on unlined paper.  Canvas is still an important and useful tool, though, ensuring that everyone has the assignments available electronically in calendar format.

It is NOT POSSIBLE to appropriately test physics students using Canvas, or using any computer input.  Physics assignments require paper.  They require pen or pencil, and sometimes ruler and protractor, graphs, the ability to create or annotate diagrams, to draw and refer to pictures... 

If administrative fiat demands that you use Canvas for the multiple choice portion of your tests, so be it... I mean, multiple choice is multiple choice.  But for the free response homework and tests, I encourage the entire physics teaching community to continue to require hard copy.*  To do otherwise, I think, is professional malpractice for a physics teacher.

* Okay, okay, if you have a seamlessly working tablet with a stylus for everyone, perhaps that could work, 'cause that's the same input method as paper.

When the administration similarly requires computer tests and projects in your Studio Art class, then perhaps I'd reconsider.  Perhaps.  :-)

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