As ICTs increasingly become commonplace in our classrooms, it is often the case that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Certainly listening to the excuses for non-submission of homework I am often amazed at how little has changed. “I left my book at home” has now been replaced in the popularity stakes by “I couldn’t upload it.” The real reason for failure to hand in work is, of course, the same. I know that the student got home too late from hockey practice, that they had been overloaded with work by other teachers, and that, after the dog vomited on the bedspread, the whole evening got a bit too much, and my homework was relegated to the “heck it’s too much” pile! I know this because I have kids!
As a parent I seldom see my kids by sunlight, we live a vampire existence of dusk till dawn. So, as a teacher I am reluctant to give homework that I know will only pile on the misery at home and rob families of precious quality time. All too often I have burned the midnight oil with one of my sons who is conscientiously trying to figure out what some dumb question on a worksheet means. It’s amazing how little work that teachers give can stand a harsh analysis at 11 pm on a school night!
Don’t get me wrong. Some homework is necessary, and not all questions are dumb! But what I want to highlight is how the shift to increasingly digital output has changed homework. Kids are kept busy in schools so that they don’t hit the streets and get up to no good. I get that, and I am also grateful for the wonderful opportunities that extra-mural programmes offer! But it does mean that some days end well after dark, and even early days we are seldom home by five. Kids don’t really have those long afternoons where you could procrastinate over your homework by riding your bike or playing cricket in the street that I remember as a kid.
My sons are both conscientious and they try to fit their homework into the gaps between afternoon sport ending and choir practice beginning, or between drama rehearsal and the inter-house debate. If the work is on paper, you can manage to get a few questions done. But if it requires digital research and writing up, it gets more complicated. We can’t afford to give the kids laptops to carry around school, or iPads. The school computer room closes at a certain time, and then your child is left with no ways of completing the assignment till they get home at 9 pm.
I firmly believe that the digital flipped classroom model absolutely requires a firm commitment from teachers to refrain from setting digitally based homework. Work on devices should, as far as possible be done at school. Not just for reasons of equity – not all kids have access to adequate bandwidth or computing power – but also because as a teacher you should never assume that students will be home early enough to recharge their device, or complete the work. In South Africa the vagaries of our electricity infrastructure also often interferes.
Now clearly this cannot be a hard and fast rule. The sheer volume of what is done digitally now precludes never setting digital homework, but it should be a rule that anything that requires a device should be given several days or weeks in advance so that homework schedules can be adequately planned.
I know – it will still be done at 11 pm the night before it’s due. But as a parent in that situation I always ask my son, “How long have you known about this?” If he says he’s had the whole week, I side with his teacher. If he says they were given it that day, I tell him to go to bed, and I write a stern note!