A few years back, I decided to experiment with grading papers electronically. I used one of those 10 email addresses included with my Cable Internet account to create a dedicated papers email (username = dehpapers), and distributed that email to students (this was before our school email converted to Gmail; the old interface wasn’t particularly good). This worked quite well. I would receive papers in .doc format (only way they could submit them), open them in Word, use Word’s Track Changes to grade them, use the Mac’s Mail PDF function to create and attach a .pdf, and email back the graded version without ever printing it. And an ancillary benefit was that I now had a year’s worth of papers for most students (some did still submit on paper) for writing recommendations.

The dehpapers email address, however, soon grew obsolete because of the advent of the CMS. Now I had Moodle (then) and, more recently, ItsLearning which have built in collection functions: email no longer necessary. I didn’t do much collecting in my early years with Moodle, but I did with ItsLearning, which really was the death knell of the dehpapers email. But a couple of problems arose:

  1. Tthe Late Submission. Now I don’t have a problem with late submissions; I want to grade a student on their work rather than their punctuality, but it was inefficient for me to check ItsLearning for late submissions because I had no way of knowing if any had been submitted, so inevitably I would spend a minute or so getting to the assignment only to find that no additional ones had been submitted. (ItsLearning does provide a recent activity module, but for some reason, this year at least, it wasn’t updating itself, so it became a longer-than-screen-height list of all of the submitted assignments that never updated itself, so I stopped paying attention to it.)
  2. The Phantom email. ‘But, Mr. D, I emailed that to you.’ I don’t require students to use ItsLearning (maybe I should); if they would rather email me a paper / assignment, that’s fine with me. But inevitably, come grade time, there would be missing assignments. ItsLearning does a fine job indicating who has submitted and who hasn’t, but the phantom email is a trickier situation. I don’t want to not trust kids, but usually emails come through (though, I know, not always).

Here are my solutions, some small-picture, some big-picture.

  1. In ItsLearning (and I’m sure other CMSs have a similar function) I unchecked the ‘Accept Assignments after the Deadline’ check box, which meant that once students missed the deadline for an assignment they couldn’t submit it on ItsLearning; they would have to email it to me. This solves problem #1, but of course invites problem #2.
  2. Back to the email idea, I created a Gmail account (essentially the same as I did with the dehpapers address): mrddropbox@gmail.com. This is essentially a shell email address; it will be forwarded to my primary address and I will rarely if ever check the account itself. But I activated the vacation responder with the response ‘I have received your email / submission. Thanks for sending it along. Mr. D’. This is the message students will receive when they submit something to that address automatically; no replying by me.

Unfortunately, the system is not quite as seamless as I was hoping. First, apparently the Gmail vacation responder only responds every 4 days, so that if the same address sends an email to mrddropbox a few times in quick succession, it will only receive the auto-response once every four days (and I couldn’t find a way to disable this; Google, if you’re listening, auto-response is a useful feature even when not on vacation). My solution to this was to leave the vacation response on but not include a message in it and include a signature instead. Thus, the email sends a message with only the signature. Still every four days, but if I receive a flurry of assignments from a student I can just hit reply and the signature will say what I need to say. The problem there is that, if you’re receiving the email in Gmail, the signature is obscured, so what you get back is a blank message with that little rectangle with the three dots in it that, when pressed, reveals the signature. My solution to this, then, however inelegant it might be, was to repeat the signature in the vacation response, so that now the auto-response sends the same message twice (once the vacation response with the signature below) but I can still reply and have the message automatically included.

Not quite as perfect as I was hoping but we’ll see how it goes.