It seems to me that having a randomizer is an incredibly important tool for assigning student activities online, especially when you are not just sure which students will be participating. That is a very common situation in my classes because I try to give the students a lot of choice about just which assignments they do. So, because I don't know how many students will be doing an assignment, I can use a randomizer to spread that effort most effectively.
That all sounds a little weird in the abstract, so let me give a concrete example of how I used the randomizer today when setting up assignment instructions today. Every week, students have an option of writing a "famous last words" blog post as an extra credit assignment. Then, every three weeks or so, I have an extra credit blog responding assignment where, in addition to their usual blog responding quota, students can read and comment on some of those "famous last words" post by their fellow classmates.
Not all of the students write "famous last words" post, and it varies from week to week. Plus, not all of the students do the extra credit blog responding when it's available, and there's no predicting how many of them will opt to do it. Yet my goal is for all the students who do the "famous last words" posts to get as many comments as possible, distributed equally.
It sounds hard... but it's easy, thanks to the power of random.
I just quickly create a randomized widget using RotateContent.com which will display a blog that has a recent "famous last words" post in it at random. Each student who wants to do the extra credit responding uses the randomizer four times to get their blog post assignments. No matter how many students do the extra credit, I can have faith that the statistical power of random will spread out that effort as best as I can reasonably hope for. You can see it in action here: Extra Credit: Blog Responding - Famous Last Words. (Note: You can see the randomizer in action, but you can't get inside our actual Ning group blogging space; I keep that private just to the class members.)
And here's the thing: in addition to this being efficient for me, it's fun for the students too. After all, "random" has a kind of mystery to it, a kind of power... who is deciding exactly which blogs they should read...? Not me! I just built the randomizer; I didn't assign anything to anybody. It is the mysterious power of randomization that does the actual assignment. And who knows what hidden messages it may contain...
(Cartoon by Sumanta Baruah)