EdTech / Pedagogy

“I’ve Finally Cracked It”: The Homework Dilemma

Steve Jobs, before his death, used the phrase borrowed for this title when describing his efforts to make Apple a viable contendor in the television world. I can only imagine the sense of accomplishment and, frankly, relief he felt when years spent trying to figure out how something can effectively be implemented finally yields a satisfactory response.

This is how I feel about student homework.

I have always felt that student homework was a necessary evil; a way to prepare students for the coming days and add some level of fluidity to a system that was chunked into 55 minute, once-per-day meetings. However, as the years went on, I found myself giving homework only to adhere to some vague notion of “keeping the students working” and “getting all the content in.” These are ridiculous reasons to give homework, especially in a discipline (history) whose content is inherently too big to fit into a single course.

So two years ago, I moved into the blogging world. Students created blogs, and rather than give them specific assignments, I asked them to blog about their ideas related to the materials they were reading and interacting with in class. I had students use Blogger, which integrated with our school’s Google Apps account. Each student gave me his/her web address, and I kept up with their blogs via Google Reader. This, I felt, was a huge step forward in making homework more of an outgrowth of the class discussion–it did a much better job of weaving together the work the students were doing inside and outside of the classroom. I was satisfied.

Sort of.

The problem with student blogging was not unlike the problem with regular nightly homework–I had no time to read through the work on a nightly basis and give any kind of relevant, timely feedback. Even my schedule of looking at their blogs at the end of each week felt cold-for the most part, by the time I was reading their blogs, they had moved on to a new topic. Furthermore, I felt bad in that I could not possibly give thoughtful feedback to every student for every blog, even though I felt as if each deserved feedback. In this manner, I was nowhere further than I had been with regular homework.

Over the last six weeks, however, I’ve finally cracked it. On a whim, I decided to try out Posterous for my blogs.  What I was amazed by was the simplicity in creation and implementation of student blogs. Students were able to set up their blogs in a single period and begin posting on the site’s web interface. They could also download an iPhone or Smart Phone app, which also would allow them to post from their phones or write a post in an email and send it to their site, which would format it. It was significantly easier for kids to use this than Blogger had been.

The other great thing about Posterous is the ability to share various forms of media. Students can embed video, photos  and even audio files. This allowed me to begin a plug-and-play weekly student-run podcast that recaps the week’s conversations.  All that’s needed is a computer with garageband and an email address. Students record the podcast during a lunch period, send it off to the site, and everything is taken care of on the back end by Posterous. Everything about the software has made the messy tech side of homework nonexistent. I’m free to concentrate on the content of the work, not the management of technology.

Most importantly, Posterous had an iPhone/iPad app. I could access every student’s post on my iPad, skim through the posts prior to a class period, and use the students words in the next day’s lesson. Or (and this is just as good), Posterous sends me an email each morning with a digest of all the previous night’s posts. As a teacher, this is like having an intern do all the grunt work for you, so you can concentrate on the teaching.

I begin each day now with a “what you wrote about last night” session, in which I call on students and ask them about specific things they wrote about. Students feel as if their work is being validated by the discussion, so if I can’t write a response to every student, there is still a sense among the students of “people are reading what I’m writing.” From an accountability standpoint, this also works terrifically, because students know they’ll be called on to discuss their work the next day. Finally, the homework in my class is (a) relevant, (b) useful, and (c) integrated into the curriculum, rather than an add-on.

Although this is coming off as an advertisement for Posterous (who I do, in fact, recommend), it is more about the concept of homework in general. I, like many of my colleagues, felt simultaneously compelled to give homework, yet alienated by the seemingly less-than-relevant nature of it. Furthermore, “technology” (in it’s broadest sense) wasn’t the answer to the problem–it was only when the right technology was implemented for specific curricular goals that success was achieved. It took three years, several different methods and services, and a lot of consternation, but finally “cracking” the homework dilemma (at least for myself) has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my year.

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