What is a homework system?

Further to my post yesterday about my new project at BCcampus, I am doing some thinking/research on the term “homework system” as that is the defined technical scope of my project. So before I kick into high gear, I need to have a good semantic grasp of what that phrase means to help me know what is in and out of scope.

First off, if you know of a good working technical definition of what a “homework system” is, or even better, know of a list of functions that are unique to homework systems as a class of edtech¬† I would desperately looooooooove to see it. But from what I am seeing, that exact term appears to be an emerging term in edtech and, as with many emerging terms, carries a lot of interpreted meaning for whomever hears that phrase.

Some of the research I am reading will often use the phrase homework system alongside other phrases, like cognitive tutors, online simulations, ancillary platforms, online assessments, and digital courseware (a phrase which I tackled in my previous post). Which all makes me wonder – is a homework system some, all, or none of those things?

Robert Bodily and the great team at Open Oregon recently released a report that uses the precise term “homework systems” in the title “Report on the Lack of Homework Systems as a Barrier to the Adoption of OER”. The report has been helpful to me in my early thinking about what is and is not a homework system. And, although the report stops short of actually defining what a “homework system” is, it does contain a lot of useful information that I think the open community can build on to help define what we mean by “homework system”, including this Ancillary Materials and Homework System Gradient, which I find helpful in starting to think about what the unique features and functions of a homework system are.

Now, as I think of homework systems from a technical perspective, I don’t actually think of Textbook Platforms or Ancillaries as a core components of a homework system. A textbook platform is a textbook platform, and you may want to integrate a homework system or questions generated by that homework system into it, but it isn’t necessarily a component of a homework system. Same for ancillaries. There may be parts of ancillary materials that can be used within a homework system (like question banks), but I don’t see ancillaries as a component of a homework system, at least at a technical level, although there should be functionality within a homework system to move relevant ancillary materials in, out and around a homework system.

For me, the gradient starts to really define the high level technical functionality of a homework system around level 3 with Basic Quizzing, a feature I think is at the heart of most homework systems. Levels 4-6 are hitting the sweet spot of what a homework systems is and, correspondingly, the report contains a list of open-source software applications that hit within levels 4-6 on the gradient (support LMS integration, have specialized homework system features, incorporate adaptive learning elements) and identifies them as “Fully-developed open-source homework systems”. These include both generic systems (OpenAssessments, TAO Testing, OLI Adaptive Learning Platform, and Concerto) and math systems (MyOpenMath, WeBWorK, and Numbas).

But the report does include some shifts in terminology that – at least in my mind – muddies the waters on what an open homework system is. For example, there is a list of specialized features that was gathered during a Cascadia Summit panel session titled “What is An Open Ancillary Platform and Why Is It Vital To The Future of OER in Higher Education?” and presents these as specialized features of an open homework system. Right there I am seeing a slight shift in terminology. The title of the session refers to an “Open Ancillary Platform” and not an open homework platform. So now there are two terms being used to mean the same thing, but that are likely quite different if we start to unpack them.

I may guilty of being pedantic here, and I don’t want this to be read as a criticism of the work that Open Oregon has done pulling this report together. Their report is not alone in mixing terminology when it comes to homework-like systems. I kind of get the feeling that, within the community, there is a generally accepted understanding of what a homework system is, but perhaps not something that has ever been concretely defined in the same way that other classes of education technology, like say a Learning Management System, has been defined. Or, perhaps, has been defined, but under a term different than “homework system”.

For me, clarity in terminology is extremely important when working on technology projects, or else we end up failing to fully define what it is we want to create. And that failure to be clear in what we want is a recipe for disaster. Hence, my desire to define what an open homework system is.

So, maybe it would help if we begin by defining what it is an open homework system should do, and start digging into the features and functionality that might be specific to this class of edtech we’re calling homework systems.

Which I am going to start doing in my next post. But before then, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think of as a homework system (open or closed), and why?


Early thoughts on my new open homework systems project

A few weeks ago I started a new, 2 year BCcampus project that will explore open source alternatives to commercial online homework systems. I want to try to blog much of my early thinking about this project, so expect a lot of thinking out loud posts in the coming weeks as I work towards formalizing an actual project plan for the next 2 years.

First off, why are we doing a project on open homework systems? Well, we are once again looking at ways in which we can reduce costs to post-secondary students in BC and, by extension, elsewhere as this is a fully open project that will hopefully benefit others as well.  As textbook publishers pivot their business models from textbooks to online platforms, increasingly students are asked to bear the cost through access fees to digital platforms as part of their courses.

My BCcampus colleague Krista Lambert conducted research last year that examined how much students in BC are paying to access publishers digital platforms. Looking at just 1 term (Fall 2018) across just 4 of the 25 public post-secondary institutions in BC, Krista discovered that students in BC paid $3.7 million dollars in access code fees to online publisher resources.

In similar research done by UBC, they estimate that, in the 2018-19 academic year, up to 10,000 UBC students paid between $840,000 to $1.25 million to access digital materials and platforms that were required for assessment in their courses. As a result, UBC has taken the proactive step of proposing a set or principles for digital learning materials used for assessment that includes a call for more support around the development of not only OER, but open platforms.

Clearly, the pivot is on for publishers as they recognize that high quality open educational resources are free and abundant, and that their core business model, built on models of information scarcity, are crumbling around them. New revenue models lay in digital platforms, with costs once again being passed on to the students.

Which brings me to my project. For the next 2 years, I will be working within the BC post-secondary systems on open source alternatives to digital platforms that require students to pay access fees.

One of the first challenges I am having is defining the scope of what it is we mean by “homework systems”, as opposed to digital courseware. It feels like there is a lot of overlap here. My thinking right now is that homework systems are components of digital courseware, but not complete digital courseware. But I am mindful that, as I progress with the project, a homework system could morph into digital courseware, especially if I begin to look at closely aligning homework content delivered by a homework system with existing open textbooks.

Which is where I am thinking of heading with this project. Not only do I want to find (and likely contribute to the technical development of) open platforms that support more interactive activities for students, but I also want to be able to align those activities with existing open textbooks. An open textbook + activities for students delivered by an open homework platform is beginning to look more like open digital courseware to me, and will hopefully be much more attractive to faculty looking to adopt open textbooks. So, not only will I be looking at platforms, but I will also be looking at ways in which to populate those platforms with meaningful activities for learners.

This has me thinking that some kind of content creation sprints will be part of this project, similar to the kind of content creation sprints we have done in the past to create assessment test banks. Not only will these kinds of sprints be able to develop content for a homework platform, but can also begin to form the basis of a potential community of users of the platform. Because technology is not enough. Content is not enough. Ultimately, for any open education project to succeed and be sustainable, it has to be about developing a community.