In Engineering classes it is common to allow (and encourage) students to work together and collaborate on homework assignments. This clearly provides a great opportunity for students to learn from each other. But, in my mind, more importantly, it simply makes doing homework more fun and builds social communities. Anyone visiting Kelley Engineering Center can observe small groups of students huddled around tables working together on homework and, at least outwardly, seeming to be having a good time. Sometimes you will see emissaries sent from one table to another to share insights. I worry that moving more and more work online will impact the wonderful social aspect of being a student.
Two years ago, the publisher of the textbook for one of my classes encouraged me, and eventually convinced me to use their automated, online homework system. For the instructor, this obviously has the clear advantage of not needing to grade hundreds of homework assignments by hand every week. The publishers also loaded me up with studies showing better learning outcomes. But, I wondered, is it still fun to do homework and do students have reduced social interaction. Anecdotally, I find fewer students from this class working together in the atrium.
Some will argue that these social interactions now occur online on discussion boards and social media. I am not convinced that this is a good substitute! Perhaps there are social scientists out there that have studied this, but from what I have found, most focus on the development of on-line social interactions rather than the decline of human-human interactions.
Thinking ahead to designing the hybrid course for ECE390, I am adamant that homework assignments will remain firmly in the real world, on tree-killing paper, handed in coffee stains and all. How can students effectively discuss complex, three-dimensional problems online? We need to sketch, point, model, laugh, cry and pull out our hair. Is there an app that does all that? I still much prefer the “my dog ate my homework” excuse to the “my computer crashed” excuse.