Let’s talk about deadlines

April 5, 2019

Let’s talk about deadlines and how digital learning and Learning management systems (LMS’s) like Google Classroom affect them. We all know that deadlines are a necessity to life. Without them, we just procrastinate until somebody makes us do the work. Research done at MIT clearly shows that when we have a clear deadline set by somebody else we are more effective and perform better – Smart Deadlines Are Set by Someone Else.

What is the problem then?

Like most things, the introduction of technology into our classrooms means we could and should rethink the deadlines we set. Before technology there was an intuitive deadline for an assignment, you either had to hand it in at the beginning or the end of the lesson. But the wonder of technology is that you no longer need to be in the class to turn in an assignment, you can do it at any time from anywhere.

As teachers, we are used to setting the due date for an assignment, but now we have to start thinking about a “due time” as well. You see the way technology works, an assignment cannot be due “sometime during the day” there must be an exact moment, and everything before that is on time and everything after that is late. But my experience is that very few teachers have given this any thought.

Google Classroom, for example, says that setting the time for an assignment is optional, but that is not actually true. If you do not set a due time for the assignment, Google will consider everything handed in on that day as “on time” and everything that is handed in after midnight as “late”. Which means effectively the deadline on all assignments unless you change it is at 23:59.

Dreaded midnight deadlines

A while ago some parents came to see me to express concern that their children were receiving multiple notifications from their teachers in the middle of the night. Since this seemed highly unlikely I went to investigate. It turns out that they did not receive notifications from their teacher, but from Google Classroom itself, to remind them that an assignment is due at midnight. The effect that receiving notifications all through the night have on kids sleeping patterns, is a topic for another day. The fact is that there is no argument to be made for learners receiving notifications at midnight.

For a start, a vast majority of people put off working until they are under pressure of a deadline. In the project management community they call it Parkinson’s Law, work expands until it fills the time available. So if faced with a midnight deadline, the majority of students will work until midnight. Now working till midnight once might not kill a learner, but we should not be encouraging bad habits this way. Too often we consider working deep into the night as an admirable habit because we do it ourselves, but it is really a symptom of an over-worked society.

Secondly, I always feel that deadlines should make sense. A midnight deadline makes no sense. It is not like you will be marking those assignments in the middle of the night. Moving the deadline to the next morning will be no skin off your nose.

And lastly, even the student who forgot about the assignment does not benefit from being reminded about the task at midnight; it will only cause them a sleepless night. Unless the idea of them rolling around, worrying about the assignment give you some satisfaction.

Best practice for digital deadlines

For a start, realise that all assignments on a digital platform or LMS have a due time and it is your responsibility to set reasonable deadlines, never just go with the default. It is also essential that you are consistent, tell learners at the start of the year what the “due time” for all your assignments will be and stick to it.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Set the due time for the start of your lesson. This mimics the non-digital practice of collecting the assignments as they enter your class.
  • Some teachers prefer to give learners the actual lesson to do final polishing, especially if it is a group assignment. If this is your practice, I would suggest setting the due time for about 10 minutes before the end of the lesson. That way you can check that you received them all and if there is a technical issue, it can still be resolved.
  • A very popular digital due-time is right before the start of the school day. This reinforces the idea that your assignments should be done before you come to school and not on the sly in another teacher’s class. But at the same time, should you have wifi issues at home, you can turn it in using the school’s wifi and still be on time. It also gives you as teacher the opportunity to quickly check if you received all the assignments and follow up during the day.
  • Some teachers prefer to set the due-time at the end of the school day. They argue that they would have accepted paper assignments till the end of the school day, why not digital assignments? The argument against this practice is that, as already stated, Parkinson’s law says that most people will be working on their assignment until the deadline, which means you are in actual fact encouraging them to work during other lessons. I have also heard of learners staying at home, to complete an assignment and submit it before the end of the day.
  • The last reasonable due-time is eight/nine o’clock in the evening. This is based on the same principle of the midnight deadline, but it encourages learners to plan their day in such a way that they are done with their school work at a reasonable time.

Next time you set an assignment, take that extra time to set the time it is due. Do it for the children’s sake.

Renate is a resource developer, blogger and technology integration specialists for schools. Starting her career as a maths teacher in 2006, she quickly became interested in the opportunities technology can bring to the learning process. For four years Renate was in charge of managing the introduction of 1-to-1 devices at Rhenish Girls’ High School in Stellenbosch before she decided to venture out on her own and offer her experience to other schools. Renate now provides professional development and consult on planning and implementing digital learning on a freelance basis. Read more…

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