Although I don’t do paperless grading and don’t plan to anytime soon, receiving electronic copies as well as paper copies has been useful to me for a number of reasons, beyond checking word count.

I do type my overall comments on essays, because I’d rather type than write.

E-copies are most useful to me in order to workshop student writing. When I see an introduction that has all the necessary ingredients, but would be much better presented if the sentences were in a different order, I’ll rearrange them and explain why one works better than the other. Or maybe I’ll edit a sentence to show how using an active verb forces the student to make the paper say more.

I’m able to take the time for this level of detailed comment because I can then copy my before-and-after comments to a writing handout, so that everyone benefits, not just a single student (my syllabus states that I will do this, but students have the right to opt out each paper—if they remember).

Another positive side-effect of electronic submissions—it lets you move the due date away from class. When I was an undergrad, essays were always due Friday at 5pm, and you’d see students running across campus at 4:55pm to get to the mailbox in time. I suspect this was because my school had relatively short semesters, and professors refused to give up a class day to brain-dead students who hadn’t done the reading because an essay was due.

At least that’s why I started implementing “due Friday at 5pm” for classes that only meet twice a week. I still require paper copies, but since I secretly feel it’s not quite fair to make them come to my office when they aren’t supposed to have class, I’m not super pushy about it.

Plus, I like having the archive of student work, especially for research papers with bibliographies I can consult later. I’ve reviewed some of these things when writing letters of recommendation, although it’s more common that I’ll review my typed comments.

Logistical Aspects

Depending on your course management software, you don’t have to use attachments. Blackboard will let them upload Assignments and let you download a zip file/folder of all the submissions, and they even rename the file using the student name and the Assignment name (note, however, that I specifically asked my IT people about this feature and they told me it didn’t exist, so you may have to get pushy). This gets annoying for late papers, as you have already downloaded the folder then have to go back and get late papers one-by-one. I haven’t worked out a solution to that yet.

I insist on getting hard copy and email, but it’s received on time when I have one or the other—I need both but it isn’t a grading issue. When I was just getting email attachments, I set my email program up so that I could pretty much auto-generate a confirmation in a couple of clicks.

I do have to field a bunch of questions about “can I bring you the printed copy after class?”, but that’s fine. I sometimes have to print out a few copies or remind students to send the e-copy—I’ve not yet spoken sharply to any class about this, so I don’t know whether that would continue if I made a fuss about it.

I’d rather deal with such little logistical issues than worry about whether a student lied about the printer breaking or whether I unfairly penalized someone whose car really did break down just before class, stranding her.

It’s a bit of hassle at the beginning of the semester to get everyone in the habit of sending the e-copy in the right format—but, honestly, knowing how to send an attachment in a format the recipient can read is a good skill for students to learn, so I don’t mind pushing them through it.