Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

How do you manage electronically submitted student work?

Robert Loss
Department of Applied Physics
Des Thornton
Computing Centre
Curtin University of Technology
Since the late 1980s the Department of Applied Physics has experimented with a variety of methods for the electronic submission of student assignments and tests. Initially this was mainly required of senior students who used a variety of methods including mainframe-based email and floppy disk submission. With increasing access to graphical user interface based email programs and the ability to transfer a wide variety of formatted documents as attachments, the Department began several years ago to experiment with this form of assignment submission for limited numbers of senior students. Recently, the Department has also experimented with a subject in which students are required to publish all of their assessed work on the Web. In second semester of 1998 widespread electronic submission of assignments has been made available to ~50 first year students. This paper presents a summary of the experiences, perceptions, pitfalls, advantages and disadvantages of these methods of electronic assignment submission. While this may represent a wealth of experience in this area, there are still many other factors to consider and much to learn from others on this matter.


The electronic submission of assignments (ESA) has been proposed as one of the major potential benefits of the IT revolution in higher education. As more students use computers to prepare a wide range of assessments it can seem somewhat pointless to print documents when instructors and students have the skills and access to IT hardware to receive, review, edit and exchange documents. While the benefits may extend beyond the significant one of saving paper, before this method becomes practical and accepted there are many hurdles to overcome.

In a preliminary report on ESA, Kenner (1997) identifies many issues which parallel many of the experiences reported here. Two of these are that students have the necessary IT skills and access to appropriate hardware and software. Both of these issues have substantially diminished in recent times, as more university courses require an increased use of IT. The majority of students, especially those enrolled in courses with a substantial IT requirement, already have sufficient skills to prepare and ESA. The access issue is also diminishing as most universities update IT facilities and more students obtain access to off-campus personal computers.

Use of main-frame systems (1988-1998)

Since the late 1980s, the Department of Applied Physics at Curtin has required of senior students studying scientific computing to ESA, tests and even final exams. Plain-text documents are prepared by students on mainframe terminals and transferred by local area network (LAN) to "write only" directories able to be read on-line by an instructor. Currently these students use networked PCs, with ESA performed by either File Transfer Protocol (FTP, including remote access) or mainframe based email attachments. The contents of these documents consist primarily of computer code and associated discussions, which are relatively simple to present in a plain-text format.

Some of the issues arising from this method include;

  1. Plagiarism
    This perennial problem is by no means restricted to electronic submission although the ease with which assignments may be copied using a computer may tempt some students.

  2. Corrupted, lost and "accidentally" deleted documents
    Although the first two are rare when students work directly on the mainframe, accidental deletion by users happens more often than at times seems possible. Working on PCs results in several additional problems which are discussed in the next section.

  3. Managing large number of ESAs
    For small numbers of students this is not usually a problem but larger classes can lead to unwieldy numbers of documents and the need for instructors to have access to large volumes of hard disk space. Even coercing students to name their documents in a logical manner can become a major task.

  4. Mathematical symbols, graphics and formatted text
    While not usually a problem for most computing units, the inability to incorporate formatting into assignments represented a major barrier to the ESA of documents such as scientific laboratory and project reports, which usually require mathematical symbols and graphics.

  5. Limited flexibility for instructors and students
    Initially many students and staff felt somewhat restricted, since they were required to use specific hardware on campus. This problem has virtually vanished, as more students and staff are able to undertake at least some work off campus using home PCs and access computers remotely. Simple feedback, such as inserting instructor comments within plain-text documents is not always that easy for students to see or note. On the other hand plagiarism checks can be performed by electronic searching for text strings or by document comparison. Assessing large numbers of ESAs directly on a screen can also be very tiring for instructors.

Floppy disc submission (1994-1996)

From 1994 to 1997, approximately 40, second-year physics, students were required to submit laboratory reports, assignments and electronic record books for some units on floppy disk. These assessments consisted largely of Microsoft Word 6 documents, containing graphics and equations. As well as the ability to include graphical objects in their assignments, because this method did not rely on using networked computers it enabled students to work on or off campus. Provision of feedback through the use of the Word "Revision Tool" proved to be useful. However, this tool could not always provide a sufficient level of annotation directly onto student work.

While this ESA method represented a major breakthrough compared to the mainframe system, this method brought with it several new problems including;

  1. Defective floppy discs
    Being a combination electromagnetic-mechanical device, floppy discs are inherently unreliable. Although backups were made the responsibility of the individual student, the amount of time and work lost trying to "recover" corrupted disks was significant. One of the major causes of this problem was the removal of discs from floppy disc drives before closing or exiting applications which accessed documents on these discs.

  2. Computer viruses
    This problem was both a serious and perennial problem caused largely because of the use of off-campus computers. One method of dealing with this was to use only PC formatted discs and to read PC documents using a Macintosh computer and vice versa. No serious viruses infected instructor computers in this way although this is hardly a suitable solution for all instructors.

  3. Restricted document size
    Although not initially a problem for most largely text based assignments, students who included large numbers of diagrams or embedded objects in their assignments often could not fit their entire assignment onto a single 1.44 MB floppy disc. Some of the students submitted these assignments in a compressed (Zipped) format while others broke up their assignments into sections across multiple discs but neither of these methods was entirely satisfactory.

Email attachments (1996-1998)

Towards the latter half of 1996 a number of the students were permitted to ESA by mainframe email. This procedure was still relatively clumsy since it required students to FTP assignments from PCs to their mainframe email accounts before sending their assignments as email attachments. The limited success of these trials led to further experimentation with email ESA in mid 1997, with ~20 first year physic/geophysics students. However, after a few weeks these trials were abandoned when it was realised that most of the students: Second semester 1997 saw the introduction of the first unit (Scientific Data Acquisition 202) in which every piece of student work (including test, assignments and laboratory reports) was exchanged electronically using fully formatted documents. Students could either use PC based email or transfer completed assignments to a write-only directory on their instructor's PC via a LAN. Once their assignments had been assessed the instructor transferred them into a read-only directory which students accessed via a username/password. The email methods used included the mainframe method described earlier and PC based email (Eudora). The latter relied on students maintaining email accounts on their own (home) PC or running Eudora from a floppy disc, neither of which were satisfactory. Despite these problems, a number of valuable lessons were learned from this exercise, a major outcome being the development of a set of ESA document protocols [see http://www.physics.curtin.edu.au/teaching/units/Pm102/Documents/Protocols.doc]

In 1998 the entire student population at Curtin were provided with email accounts that enable students to log into almost any Novell networked PC at Curtin (including remote campuses and remote access) and access "personalised" PC based applications such as Eudora email. This made ESA considerably simpler compared to previous methods, enabling a full-scale trial to be undertaken in second semester.

Two classes were involved:

  1. a first year class of ~40 physics students where ESA was voluntary, and
  2. a small second year unit (7 students) where ESA was mandatory.
While approximately half of the first year students attempted to ESA, only about 20% became regular users although the vast majority still prepared their assignments electronically.

Web publishing (1997-1998)

Perhaps the most common way the Web is used for ESA is through the use of 'cutting and pasting' text into text boxes located on Web pages. A 'SUBMIT" button on the page then enables students to transfer the contents of these text boxes to a specific destination. The authors are familiar with this method but have not used it routinely with classes. Being "text only" this method is not suited to large documents with any form of formatting or graphical objects.

Since 1997 students enrolled in the electronic information literacy elective (Web Science 101, WS101) at Curtin have been required to submit all assessed work as web published documents [see http://www.physics.curtin.edu.au/teaching/units/ws101/studpages.html]. This approach reverses the convention that a student supplies the assignment to the instructor, to the instructor obtains the assignment from the student. In most cases this method worked remarkably well although a significant level of student skill is required for this to happen.

The advantages and disadvantages of this method manner are discussed by Loss and Kovler (1997). Briefly:

Despite these problems the instructors were sufficiently heartened by this method to recommend its use in some other units. When given the opportunity, several students who have taken this unit have subsequently used this mode of ESA as an alternative mode of submission for other units.

The dilemma

Our experiences appear to show that: There are still many significant difficulties to overcome before this method becomes a main-stream method. The authors are particularly interested to learn about the experiences of others in this field and in any protocols developed for ESA.


Kenner, R. (1997). Electronic submission of assignments, Audio-Visual Services, Concordia University Montreal, Qc, Canada.

Loss, R. and Kovler, M. (1997). Electronic information literacy skills for the 21st century. http://www.curtin.edu.au/curtin/dept/phys-sci/apphys/cuperg/ws101rep.doc, Curtin University Physics Education Research Group, Department of Applied Physics, Curtin University.

Please cite as: Loss, R. and Thornton, D. (1999). How do you manage electronically submitted student work? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 224-227. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/loss.html

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