Increasing the use of electronic submissions – and app of the week

Handwritten work can be submitted electronically

Electronic devices don’t always provide the easiest way to produce academic work. Writing equations or drawing on graph paper are two simple examples where students can more easily produce work on paper than by using specialised software. Such specialised software is hampered by having to produce figures that aren’t available on standard keyboards. Meanwhile, tablet technology is not yet so cheap and ubiquitous as to provide a replacement for pen and paper – and may never be.

As a result, many assignments are still handed in on paper, with concomitant delays and queues while receipts are issued and no backup should anything go wrong. Technology may not provide a whole solution, from creation of work through submission, marking and return, but it can still be used in part of the process.

Listening to colleagues in a meeting recently, I was struck that the view was that paper must be scanned to be made digital – finding a scanner is quite a barrier. Yet that isn’t any longer the way we produce digital copies unless very high quality is needed. If applying online for travel documents or proving identity, a picture is needed.

The same process can be used to submit handwritten work digitally, avoiding those queues, and generating receipts automatically via Turnitin. Students are likely to all have access to a camera, via a laptop, smartphone or tablet. Even if we cannot assume ownership of a camera, borrowing one is straightforward.

The handwritten-electronic submission hybrid, then is:

  • Students write their work by hand.
  • Staff set up a submission point in Moodle, using a Moodle assignment or Turnitin.
  • If using Turnitin, set ‘allow submission of any file type’ to yes.Allow submission of any file type
  • For a one-page submission, students can just submit a photo of their work.
  • For multiple pages, use Moodle assignments (which allow more than one file to be uploaded) or ask students to paste the images into a Word document or PowerPoint presentation, and upload that.
  • If using Turnitin, you could also choose to not store student papers in their database. Turnitin cannot ‘read’ images to produce an originality score in any case, so there is no need to have them saved.
    Not saving papers in Turnitin

A helpful app

Pictures taken with a smartphone’s camera will usually be of reasonable quality. For a higher quality image, I recommend Google’s ‘Photoscan’ app, which is a free download for Android and iOS (the reviews are better for the iOS version). The app is designed for converting real pictures into digital ones, but it works just as well for our purpose. It takes a little more care then a quick snap, asking the user to take a picture first, then hold steady for a second, and finally guide the app to the corners. It then combines the overall image with those taken at the corners to eliminate glare and produce a better result than we might manage on our own.

A picture taken quickly with the camera

Picture taken with the camera

(Click any image for full-size version.) The quality is reasonable, and this would do, but it needs rotating – a simple example of how taking a quick picture is simple but can be frustrating.

Using the app

There are a few more steps than shown here, but the images below give an overview. In the first picture, the app is guiding me to the corners of my originals, taking a separate photo of each corner.

Photoscan guiding user to the cornersNote in the this screenshot, the icon at bottom left shows whether the camera is taking a landscape or portrait picture (the lightning bolt is pointing downwards to show orientation – for a landscape photo it would be pointing to left or right of the screenshot.

Final scan in PhotoscanAfter taking the picture, the app allows it to be rotated.

The end result from PhotoscanThe end result is saved (on iOS – terminology on Android may be different) to the camera roll.

In either case, the result is a good representation of the work, but the app should avoid too many wrongly-rotated submissions, or photos taken too near (missing parts) or too far (wasted space) from the original.


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