Many Dartmouth courses post homework, reading, general coursework and other material online. However, Dartmouth, which is ranked by U.S. News and World Report as first in the country for undergraduate teaching, should not be drawn into the trap of thinking that anything but a professor can be a professor. While online class sites do have the virtue of convenience, the myriad of drawbacks to online work outweighs this virtue.
Many Dartmouth students who have taken a math course may be familiar with the program Webwork, an online homework submission site. But who really benefits from a program like Webwork? The students or faculty? In middle school and early high school, before homework started to shift to an online format, I turned in a physical copy of written work, had my teacher look over my answers and was given personal, written feedback. That written feedback, along with dialogue between student and teacher, is something a computerized program will never be able to replace.
Proponents of online programs such as Webwork often laud that the feedback is instant. Perhaps it is here that the divergence of opinions is most acute. If by feedback you mean "Your answer is incorrect" or some nebulous notational jargon such as "X is not accepted in this context," then yes, online programs give us "instant feedback." But to the frustrated student, sitting at a computer at 11 P.M., who has tried a problem seven or eight times, having a computer say "your answer is incorrect" is neither instructive nor helpful feedback.
Perhaps the greatest transgressor in this online homework sham comes not in the form of math Webwork, but online language programs such as McGraw-Hill's Connect, another web-based assignment platform. Often I have found that the majority of time spent using Connect is in trying to get the computer to accept answers which are "wrong" in the most minute way. I believe in a high standard and in doing things right, but when you spend 45 minutes trying to answer a question, only to find that a word was not capitalized or a period was missing, I fail to see the educational benefit in such a time-consuming and frustrating experience. Have I learned more about Spanish or have I just squandered all of my study time dealing with computer program minutia? After having the privilege of paying the princely sum of $225 for my soft cover, binding-so-shoddy-it-fell-apart-after-three-weeks-of-use McGraw-Hill textbook, I not only had to deal with the overly-persnickety computer program, but also other endless glitches of the online program. My personal account on Connect has numerous glitches that often prevent me from seeing and answering an entire question. I have never had this kind of experience with paper copies of worksheets. I have contacted McGraw-Hill's customer service several times since November and I am still waiting to hear back. If their timing is just right, perhaps they will get back to me just as I need to buy more books from them in the fall.
I felt somewhat amused when I recently took a survey in my Spanish class that asked my opinion on using solely an online textbook in the future. I could not help but ask myself, if I were to have online textbooks, would the cost of my books be reduced? A perusal of online textbooks and services reveals that this is not the case. I think it is obvious that using an online book liberates the publisher from actually printing and distributing material, a significant benefit in terms of production costs. But are these benefits passed onto students? No, the students pay the same price (or very nearly the same price) simply for the right to download a file. While I respect intellectual copyright laws and believe that students should pay for their downloads, a PDF file and a physical textbook are two very different products, which should have very different prices.
So whether it is for textbooks or assignments, I would challenge students to question the proliferation of online programs. Am I really benefitting from these programs or is my professor benefitting by no longer having to do his or her job of providing me with real, personal and constructive feedback?