The e-Submission Insanity: Taking Control of Digitally Submitted Work -- Part 1

There are tradeoffs for everything. 

The "paperless" world of electronically submitted assessments/homework is truly a gift for those of us who struggle to keep tabs on the zillion+ sheets of paper we collect each year. 

Yet, the tradeoff is having to develop a new system for management of our digitally collected student work.  For many educators initially encountering Google Drive, or other collection tools for electronically submitted work, you may have this overwhelming feeling that your digital work environment is no more functional than a cluttered work space in the physical world.

Ready yourself for the good news!  By adopting a few simple strategies, and by training your students to use those strategies religiously, you can regain your own sanity and become far more efficient in collecting and providing feedback on digital assessments.

Developing a Consistent Naming Convention
For many teachers, the process of paper collection has become a carefully crafted venture,  At the very least, most teachers have a protocol for students when it comes to turning in physical papers.  Name on the upper right of the page.  Hour, period, and/or date just below that.  Top left margin has assignment name.  For many teachers, a similar naming/identification process has become the only way to keep tabs (and our sanity) on the flood of paperwork we consume regularly.

The movement to a digital collection platform will not shirk the need for a digital naming/identification equivalent. In fact, without identifying some sort consistent convention, and then STICKING TO IT, you may not be able to take advantage of some of the other niceties of digital collection (automatic time-stamping when assignments are collected, search and sort functions to easily find text within specific documents, and more).

The most beneficial naming convention in a digital platform is one that places the critical data in immediate view of the teacher without having to open the file/document to find the data.  Generally this is done best in the document's name. 

One example of a properly named document might be:

Assignment Code  - Last Name, First Name - Assignment Title - Status Code

What's the strategy being employed here?  Well, remember, computers tend to align lists alphabetically.  Therefore, the most important data should be first -- it will make grading easier.An example of a Google Drive folder when students have used a a standard file naming convention to submit work.


What is an assignment code?

An assignment code is nothing more than a code you provide/communicate to students related to a specific assignment.  While it may not seem obvious why this would matter initially, when it comes time to assess the work, the assignments can be more easily sorted and grouped, allowing the instructor to grade like assignments in one consistent bunch.  Keeping it short and simple is key.  For this to work, the kids need to enter the code properly when they name the file for the first time.
Why Last Name, First Name?
The same that applied to assignment codes is also true here.  Computers sort lists alphabetically.  Therefore, it stands to reason that once a teacher has sorted the digitally turned-in homework by assignment, the next convenience would be to have that homework sorted alphabetically by last name.  This is, after all, the way that almost all gradebook programs will have students listed.  If an instructor has their browser window open on one half of the monitor, and their gradebook window open on the other half, it would be beneficial to be able to rely on accuracy between those two windows as the instructor enters feedback into the gradebook.  
Due to the fact that computers cannot easily sort singular lists with more than one qualifier (first sort by assignment name, then sort by last name), to make the grouped bunch of similar assignments appear in alphabetical order by last name, you need to teach students to enter Last Name, First Name.  It's really the only way to achieve the convenience you will grow to appreciate as a teacher.
Do they need an assignment title?
That's a call you need to make as an instructor.  With my training as a writing teacher, I believe that titles ground the work and give the student (and the audience) an indicator of the work they are about to write/read.  A title can just as easily be placed at the top of the paper, and for most students it will be (HARD to achieve that 3-4 pages without a healthy header and title at size 42 font).  It is a preference fro some, and a waste of space for others.  
What is a Status Code?
This is something that I implemented in my writing classrooms, out of both necessity and convenience. There are beneficial implications, though, for all classroom teachers.  
Ultimately, we want to provide timely feedback to students.  With your shiny new digital inbox (we'll talk about strategies for achieving this in a follow-up post), you are open for business 24/7.  That means kids can turn in work at any time.  While I wish that kids had perspective enough to realize that turning work in a week early, or at 2 am the night after the work was due to you, was grounds for them having to wait for a response, the second they hit "send" and deliver to you, they start their "teacher response" timers.  Some kids are more patient than others, but inevitably, they all have a shorter expectation of response time than the teacher has time to provide an immediate response.
This leads to one of two issues:
  1. The teacher is "under the gun" to provide prompt responses, so he/she is constantly opening files to see the status of the work (many kids will submit the work to you before it is done...we'll talk about that as well in a follow-up post).  Much of that work is incomplete, leading to teacher frustration, and/or wasted teacher time.  In this scenario, we've lost all of the efficiency of a digital turn-in system.
  2. Response time to student work is dramatically hampered because the teacher sets an arbitrary date for "review and response" to maintain sanity.  As a result, students fall into the same old habits of waiting until the last minute to complete work.  We've now lost momentum and enthusiasm for a more personalized, fluid turn-in system.  This system is truly no different than a system where students turn in work physically on the due date and await the teacher response.
A Status Code, is a code developed by the teacher to allow for simple communication between the student and teacher related to the "status" of the work.  For instance, in my classroom I used these codes:
  • Draft:  This meant that the student had not completed the work and was not awaiting my feedback as an instructor.  For me, this meant that I did not need to open that document and offer feedback at this time, unless the student communicated with me personally and asked for assistance.
  • Final:  This meant that the student had "completed" the work and was awaiting my feedback.  As soon as I saw "Final" in the title, I opened that document and began to comment and assess.  I did this even BEFORE official due dates, as the student was indicating he/she had submitted his/her best work at that time.
  • Graded:  I renamed the file "Graded" when I was finished offering feedback to the student.  It was an indication to the student that there was some level of feedback in the document for the student.  Even if I was sending them back to complete another draft with revisions, I indicated graded.  When the student switched the work back to "Draft," I knew that the student had accepted my comments and was going to try again.  Other students accepted the grade that I offered and elected not to revise, leaving the code "Graded."  
These aren't the only (or even the best) Status Codes.  I'm certain you'll come up with something more efficient and aimed at your specific purpose.  However, the time I alone saved in not having to open every student submitted file (only to be overwhelmingly disappointed that the work was still not complete) was worth the implementation of this expectation.
What if the students do not label their work properly?
Most students will have little trouble adapting to this expectation.  Many of them already live in a world where each instructor has a different expectation for how work is submitted -- this will carry on that tradition.  For the sake of student efficiency, consider developing a consistent naming convention in your department, or in your whole school.  The more teachers that have similar expectations, the more likely students are to fall into alignment with those expectations.
Sadly, some students will buck the system.  We know that.  At first, insist.  Communicate your expectations clearly and succinctly, share them with parents/guardians, and share them with your administrator (and colleagues).  A clear, reasonable system with the intent of providing timely feedback to students should be celebrated.  This is a positive classroom management strategy that becomes increasingly necessary in a digital world.  The adults need to understand the purpose, and it is likely they, too, will support you in implementing the system.

As always, you will have to flex for some students.  Be aware that some students are having their own struggles adapting organizational strategies to a digital world.  The most important factor in all of our work is student learning -- a rule or naming convention should never get in the way of a student demonstrating what they have learned.  Flex when you need to.  Getting 95% of the students on board with your system will make managing the unique cases more palatable.