Rapidly disappearing are the days of school-issued day planners and homework assigned on the whiteboard. As students move through school, they will likely encounter a situation in which their homework and other school news is being posted on a web-based platform.
As a tutor watching this transformation take place over the past decade, I have become extremely familiar with the all of the possible benefits and pitfalls of this new system.
Like any new technology, online homework platforms alleviate old problems and create new challenges that need to be navigated. I am frequently asked what I think about these platforms, and how I help students manage the potential difficulties.
No more relying on the student
As a parent or tutor, to no longer have to hear the line, “I’m not sure if I have homework” while staring at a blank planner page is an absolute joy. The major benefit of these online systems is that the burden of posting/writing down the homework is on the teacher, not the student.
Easier for LD students to manage
There are countless reasons why managing a paper planner can be difficult for a student with learning and attention challenges. For instance, most students with learning differences have difficulty copying from the board or from a teacher’s oral instruction. Furthermore, these spaces are usually small, so a student with dysgraphia, dyslexia, or fine motor deficits are going to have a tough time writing it all down small enough, fast enough, and neat enough to be actually useful.
Accessible from anywhere
No more worrying about leaving your planner at school!
Known due dates
Most online homework portals have a field that teachers must fill in that posts a due date. Even when students know their homework, it is often unclear when it is due unless printed on the assignment itself. Homework websites usually have this feature built in, making it easier to help students plan their work.
It only works if the teachers post consistently
This is getting better and better as schools adopt policies where the teachers have to use the system, but I have worked with students who end up having to check multiple websites AND still use a paper planner for the teachers that haven’t switched over.
They aren’t always user-friendly
I get frustrated with sites that have multiple pages a student needs to check, rather than having a “dashboard” type of home page that lists all homework, and preferably in a calendar view.
When students have to toggle back and forth between pages or click into things for more information, it because easier and easier to start missing things.
You can’t always “check things off”
Unlike a physical list, you can only be checking things off mentally, not on paper, making it harder to do a final check to make sure that everything is done.
It can become a crutch
I get so frustrated when I ask a student, “What do you have for homework tonight?” and they say, “Oh, I don’t know, I’ll just check the website.” Knowing that they will be able to check at home has a lot of students tuning out when teachers are describing homework in class. Then, in those moments when a teacher mentioned something that wasn’t posted, they have no back-up plan.
Screens aren’t the same as pages
In our digital world, we have all started to become accustomed to looking at extraordinarily cluttered screens. Somehow, it seems that our brains have learned to not become overwhelmed by a screen full of information. This means, that looking at a homework site does not seem to invoke the same feelings as looking at a very full calendar page or written to-do list. Students aren’t getting that, “Wow. Tuesday is going to be rough” feeling as much as they might from a non-digital option.
How to Proceed
While homework websites have their difficulties, there are many undeniable benefits. So how do we help students capitalize on these benefits but avoid some of the potential pitfalls?
The key is setting up strong habits for use and management of these tools. In the coming weeks, we will examine what we believe the best way to use a homework website is, and then explore how to build that habit so that it becomes independent.