Students seemingly have a Pavlovian response to receiving course credit (or not) for the work they do. For that reason many instructors have gone to a point system of some sort, where the student receives so and so points for having completed such and such work. Often this is participation credit the type of credit that earns the student a check for having done the work and an x for not doing it, with no grade in between. Sometimes the grading scheme is finer, indicating some recognition that the quality of the student work differs. It is almost a truism now that instructors can elicit effort from students by having some point scheme of this sort. Today I attended a retreat for UofI Online where during a nice presentation by the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UI Springfield he said that he absolutely relies on points schemes of this sort, in essence because the students compel him to do that.
The course management systems are excellent for managing teaching when there is such a point system in place. The record keeping is made much easier for the instructor and the students can readily check on how they've been doing. All of that is for the good.
There are some stickier issues with grading for quality where the point scheme conveys relative performance to peers within that particular class and perhaps some comparisons with previous cohorts of students, as in the expression, "this is A work, that is B work." The idea being conveyed is similar to how actuaries do risk assessment based on individual history and demographic factors. The biggest issues, by far, is that this type of grading perhaps with the assistance of some rubric, implies that the student work can be anticipated and then put into "bins" for the sake of assigning grades. The system denies the possibility of originality of the student contribution either in content or presentation or it reduces such originality back to preassigned rubric categories. In some cases this is entirely appropriate grading and, in general, an instructor would more likely use this type of grading scheme the more closed ended the work of the students. It becomes increasingly untenable to use this type of scheme the more open ended the student work and the more subjective the evaluation of the instructor.
To me there seems to be a tension (and not a healthy one) for those online programs, such as the one at UI Springfield, that overtly embrace a "constructivist approach" to the teaching and learning but adopt a rubric based competency approach to the grading. The latter implies the whole equals the some of its parts , encourages an analytic and piecemeal view of the student work, and encourages the notion of replicating the A work of others (I don't mean plagiarism here I mean producing work as the rubric seems to indicate) rather than building out from primitives that are already known, perhaps via a collaborative set of interactions among groups of students. So I'm troubled by this and to the extent the course management systems themselves encourage the approach, I think we need to be wary of the course management systems. But really I think it is us rather than the technology.
Does that mean we should stick only with participation grading? I don't believe so. Rather I think the instructors has to be able to reserve the right to evaluate student work holistically. and I favor a more eclectic approach to teaching and to the grading - do what makes sense in the given context, whether constructivist or not. Further, over the course of the semester give students different type of assignments that require different types of grading schemes, both for the change of pace benefit and for the instructor learning about how the students react to the the different schemes.