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.


Technology improving learning – an edtech meta-analysis

I’m re-tuning my network antenna for a new open education tech project I am going to be working on.


I’ll have more details to share on the project in the coming weeks, but suffice to say that it has put a spring in my step this week, thanks in no small part to providing me with the opportunity to deeply re-engage with the open education community.

I am starting to look into online homework systems, and there were two items that popped onto my newly tuned radar this week.

The first was David Wiley’s post on the critical role of practice in learning. In the post, David points to a comparative study between a group of math students who used Khan Academy resources, and a group of students who used Khan Academy resources PLUS the built in Khan Academy online homework system. The results of the study showed the later group did better in the course. As David notes (emphasis mine);

This is not the first example, nor will it be the last example, of peer-reviewed research demonstrating that OER plus a system that provides opportunities to engage in online interactive practice results in better student learning than OER alone.

He then goes on to list supporting research from Carnegie-Mellon that shows a significant positive learning effect up to six times greater from doing online interactive practice assignments than just doing the reading. Which, as David notes, should not be a surprise to educators. Systems & processes that encourage repeated practice is a well established theory in our field. We have built entire models of education and training around this “doer” model (hello apprentice programs!) that have learners practice, reflect, and then practice again.

Illustration of Kolb's experiential learning cycle

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle by S.A. McLeod CC-BY-NC-ND

But it is interesting to see just how powerful the learning effects of online interactive practicing can be.

To add more evidence that online interactive practice can be effective comes the second item on my list, a newly released edtech meta-analysis  from J-PAL at MIT which examined 126 education technology studies, 30 of which focused on computer-assisted learning programs designed to help students practice particular skills. In their meta-analysis the researchers discovered that technology programs that emphasize practice can have a significant effect on learning, especially in math.

Computer-assisted learning programs have shown enormous promise in improving academic achievement, especially in math. Of all 30 studies of computer-assisted learning programs, 20 reported statistically significant positive effects, 15 of which were focused on improving math outcomes.

It is not surprising to me that math practice programs are so widely in use. Math is a discipline where practice is important. It is also an area that has a long, established history of practice tools from the pre-digital world (think worksheets and flashcards). There are precedents from the pre-digital math world that are not difficult to replicate in the digital realm. On the SAMR model of edtech, I suspect there are more than a few math practice programs that fit into the S quadrant.

Graphic of the 4 aspects of the SAMR model of education technology where technology can Substitute, Augment, Modify, or Redefine teaching.

The SAMR Model by Lefflerd CC-BY-SA

It also strikes me (and I am generalizing a bit here based on my own extremely limited knowledge of teaching in math) that math, by its very nature and structure, lends itself really well to the creation of online interactive practice systems. Create a rule, and change the values to generate a new set of problems.

Not to say that ALL math practice programs are like this. I am sure when I start to take a deeper dive I’ll find there are more sophisticated applications in use. But I would suspect that, in the digital math world, there are a lot of digital equivalents of flashcards out there. So, in some sense, math may be the low hanging fruit of online interactive practice systems.

But there has to be more than just practice. You have to not only practice, but receive feedback on that practice, and be able to reflect on both the practice and feedback and alter your path accordingly. As I dig into how these types of systems are structured, I am going to be paying particular attention to ways in which these systems promote reflection and feedback, and prompt for next steps. Which makes me think my work in online homework systems (still figuring out what this particular phrase actually means) is going to lead me into the world of adaptive learning systems.

But that is a post for another day. For now, the early takeaway here is that there is some empirical evidence that education technologies that help students practice things can benefit learning, which I am grateful to see in the context of the project I am about to begin work on.

I contrast this to the early work I did in OER and the BCcampus open textbook project where there was a definite gap in empirical research supporting the use of OER and open textbooks. It is a gap that has shrunk considerably over the past decade, and a huge nod of thanks must be given to David’s early work in the OER space as he has always been a tireless advocate for not only the use of OER, but also the development of an empirical base of evidence for the community to work from. But from my early view, it looks like I won’t have that gap to deal with in my new project, and I have a lot of meaty research to dig deeper in to about online practice/homework systems.

(by the way, have I mentioned that I am pumped about this new project!)


Why Padlet? Ohhhhh, wait…you can remix

The MALAT course I am teaching at RRU is wrapping up this week, and I am starting to reflect on how this first iteration of the course has gone.

The course is called Facilitating in Digital Learning Environments, and while this specific iteration is a new design, it is based on a facilitation course I have taught in the past. We held onto the experiential model from the old course, where learners become the facilitators and design a week of digital learning for the rest of the cohort. I step back and get a chance to observe them develop their own facilitation style.

I love going through the weeks and seeing what kinds of activities the learners design, including their technology choices and rationale. This time around, I’m noticing some new tools being used. While learners have always had access to a Moodle course shell (and many use it as the central hub for their facilitation week) they are using other tools, like Kaltura. This year, RRU joined the provincial Kaltura service, and I noticed a big uptick in the use of video by the learners, especially the informal “turn on the webcam and fire off a quick video” types. Flipgrid is also a video tool that is being used as an asynchronous video discussion forum.

Padlet is another popular choice, and a fairly new tech to me. Before this course, the only exposure I had to it was in 2016 when it was one of the apps featured in the first ETUG 12 Apps of Christmas, but never really explored it.

As I worked my way through the different student-led facilitation weeks, I noticed that many included a Padlet activity. When I went into the Padlets, what I noticed was that Padlet was being used in a very similar fashion to a linear asynchronous discussion board common in the LMS. Now true, the layout of a discussion in Padlet looked different than in an LMS discussion forum, but essentially what I was seeing in Padlet was pretty similar functionality that you would find in an LMS asynchronous discussion forum.

With this limited view of Padlet, it made me wonder why use Padlet for asynchronous discussions when there is already a discussion forum in Moodle? I thought maybe I was missing something about Padlet – some specific affordance or functionality that made it significantly different than the toolset available to the learners within Moodle?

I got back a few responses. The first from D’arcy pointed me to some functionality I didn’t know Padlet had

Ohhhh, wait. Clustering and linking? Ok, that is something that can’t be done in an asynchronous discussion forum.

Dugg (one of the learners who is also active on Twitter) also reminded me that Padlets can be openly shared, making contributions from outside the class possible.

And Brandon noted that content in Padlet can be embedded, making it portable and reusable in other contexts.

So I started digging around in Padlet a bit more. Sure enough, there are templates that allow you to build various types of Padlets, including Padlets that mimic the functionality of an interactive mind-map, and a Kanban board. Already I am looking at Padlet in a different light. It’s more Swiss knife-ish with the functionality that I first thought.

Then I noticed a button labelled Remake in the top right hand corner of the Padlet. What is this? A one button clone of a Padlet? Well, this is useful.

Functionality where I can not only share the works I make in Padlet, but I can also clone someone else’s Padlet and use it as the starting point for my own Padlet. One button remixability. Very handy. About the only thing missing that would make this a fully complete OER creation tool would be the ability to add a Creative Commons license to a Padlet. But still, it is good to see that the makers of Padlet recognize the value to educators of being able to copy and remix others work.

Seeing this kind of functionality built into Padlet sans Creative Commons licenses, or any reference to “Open Educational Resources” or open education reminds me of just how much “grey” open educational activity occurs among educators, many of whom are likely unaware that there is this thing called “open education” out here, with communities and practitioners, advocates and researchers. They are simply doing and sharing, remixing and adapting, using tools like Padlet to clone, remix and adapt others resources, and making their own resources available for others to do the same.

So, next year when I offer this course again & knowing how much learners love using Padlet, albeit in a fairly narrow way, I think I will include some more introductory activities using Padlet that I can use to model other uses and affordances of Padlet. I’ll use this link of 30 Padlet ideas sent to me by Tom Farrelly as a starting point, and see if we can’t perhaps use the remix functionality in Padlet as a pedagogical device on which to hook concepts of open education, reuse and remix onto.


A Pedagogy of the Internet

I started writing this post almost 2 years ago, shortly after I wrote the post Does Open Pedagogy Require OER? Like many unfinished blog posts, this is likely rambling in spots. Unfinished. And contextually perhaps a bit dated.

In the time since I wrote the first post and now, much has changed in the world of open pedagogy. Indeed, Open Educational Practices were just becoming a thing 628 days ago, and this was written at a time when we were all grappling with how Open Pedagogy was being defined. You’ll likely pick that up as you read the post with a 2016 lens. These days I am not as tuned to the convo around open pedagogy/OEP and the new-ish OER-enabled pedagogy. so my thinking might not be completely in line with the convo’s happening these days. At any rate, this was meant to be a follow up post to the original 2 years ago, based on many of the comments my original post had received. And this is something I have grappled with for a long time – what does a pedagogy of the internet look like?

Many excellent comments have been added to my post Does Open Pedagogy Require OER? that have pushed my thinking into a different direction about open pedagogy. Maybe I am trying to twist open pedagogy into something that is isn’t? Maybe I am trying to stretch open pedagogy into something closer to a pedagogy of the internet, something which it was never designed to be?

Open pedagogy does certainly owe a lot to the internet, so it could be a good candidate for a pedagogy of the internet. As I wrote shortly after OpenEd 15, the thing that first drew me to OER’s was that I saw OER’s as a deliberate and explicit response by higher education to both acknowledge the existence of the internet, and actively exploit the internet’s unique affordances to do something innovative and novel in education. OER’s were something completely new, something that existed primarily because the internet made it possible for them to exist by providing a cheap and easy distribution method for sharing materials. This was higher education responding to the internet, and doing something different with the internet beyond simply trying to replicate a distance education model.

But the internet has enabled so much more than the ability to share resources, although I don’t want to discount how powerful and innovative that has been. The internet has also given us the ability to develop wide and deep learning networks of people, and has created an entirely new and incredibly influential public sphere. It is a public sphere that, I fear, is increasingly becoming less public, increasingly controlled by corporate interests, and increasingly rigged to benefit the powerful and affluent in our society. In short, that public sphere is feeling less and less like a public sphere.

In a fantastic post exploring critical digital pedagogies, Michael Rowe draws upon the work of Manuel Castells, and notes that higher education at one time had an influential role in the development of that public sphere. While the early internet was created by the military, it was able to grow “from an unlikely collaboration between university based academics and graduate students (the hackers), and the government.” The early internet was being shaped by those who were shaping it. The users were the creators, and one of the foremost groups of creators and users were universities. It was the universities – a societal construct that was neither government nor commercial – that brought the culture of openness to the internet in the 1960’s and 70’s. It was the universities who understood that an open internet was an important educational resource. And then what did universities do to harness and exploit this incredible resource? They created the LMS and turned their back on the open web.

Ok, maybe a bit hyperbolic. But I digress….this post is about pedagogy. This is about the internet. This is about a pedagogy of the internet and how a pedagogy of the internet does not necessarily equate to open pedagogy.

Back to open pedagogy for a sec because I am very aware of Rajiv’s point in his comment about the muddying of education waters around the term open, and the need to reserve the term “open pedagogy” for something very specific.

While I think the terminology will continue to evolve as we keep pushing the boundaries of this space; I do think we need to reserve the use of the term “open” to refer to practices that bestow the 5R permissions. This is increasingly important with OER, where advocates customarily define OER in terms of free + permissions, but are then guilty of spending the rest of their time emphasizing the “free” part (i.e., cost savings).

(an aside note from the 2018 Clint before you, dear reader, move on – this comment from Rajiv may be one of those “things may have changed” moments in this post, originally written in 2016, that I mentioned in the intro).

Anyone who works in OER knows the struggles we have to define “open”, and the attempts at openwashing of activities that, while on the surface may seem open, actually are not. So perhaps it is better to reserve our use of the term open to the specific activities that revolve around OER creation, use, reuse and distribution.

Fair point. So, maybe what I am interested in doing shouldn’t be called open pedagogy. I don’t want to muddy the waters.

So, what kinds of models are out there that can help me feel more satisfied with the kinds of teaching & learning activities and approaches that I think are valuable learning experiences for students? The types of teaching and learning activities that are designed explicitly to take advantage of(defend) the unique affordances of the open, public internet? What are the kinds of pedagogies that can build upon the affordances of the open, public internet?

Here are some models that have resonated with me over the years.

Public sphere pedagogies. High on the list would be a pedagogy that has students engaging with the public, or their peers, in an open platform. Public sphere pedagogies are not exclusive to the internet (a letter to the editor could be seen as a public sphere pedagogy activity), but do see learners actively engaging with the wider world in order to provide a more authentic learning experience for students.

Network learning. The practice of co-learning within a network by actively participating in the network where even the act of developing a rich learning network is an ongoing experiential learning activity. Closely related is Brown and Duguid’s concept of Networks of Practice, which builds upon & extends Lave & Wenger’s Community of Practice model.

Connected Learning, which “combines personal interests, supportive relationships, and opportunities” which, in and of itself doesn’t necessarily speak to the exclusivity of internet affordances. Opportunities, personal interest, and supportive relationships could be found at your local recreation centre. But when connected learning speaks of “learning in an age of abundant access to information and social connection”, that begins to speak to me more of a pedagogy of the internet.

Student as Producer builds on the notion that students are collaborators and creators of knowledge. To me, Student as Producer shares much in common pedagogically with activities such as having students write or edit a Wikipedia article. So while there are elements of Student as Producer that could fit with a pedagogy of the internet, it is not, in and of itself, a pedagogy of the internet.

So, all this is to say, for me, the pedagogical piece of open pedagogy that I am most interested in is what the open internet enables, and exploring what it means to participate in a meaningful way on the open, public internet. What are the challenges? What are the benefits? Why do I feel it is important that educators and students participate in these open spaces?

Perhaps I am driven by a desire that the internet could and should be more than a delivery vehicle for vapid/incendiary/hateful commentary, and that educators have a place – no, a responsibility – to help learners navigate these new public spheres in order to become active and engaged citizens.

Or maybe it is that I think that we need to prepare students to be better lifelong learners, and the way to do that is to help them learn to build resilient learning networks that can help them stay abreast of the rapid pace of change?

Or maybe it is just the belief that the internet has profoundly changed our society, and that there are unique affordances of the internet that are continually emerging as the medium continues to develop. That we need to be continually engaged with the internet in order to fully understand the internet, as it is today and as it will be in the future. Because, as Rowe/Castells pointed out earlier, higher education did have an influential place at the table in the past. Perhaps we need to work harder at making our voices heard again for the sake of an open internet in the future.


A network learning moment for an #RRUMALAT learner

Catching up on some blog reading yesterday and came across a post from Audrey Watters where she referenced the work of one of the students in the RRU MALAT program.

More formally, one of George Veletsianos’ students used my work in an “epic rap battle,” and frankly it is so amazing that I just might retire.

Ok, well, I had to check it out. George and I teach in the same program at RRU so this student will be my student next year. But more importantly, what had this student done to get a mention on Audrey’s blog?

Turns out, the epic rap battle from Alastair Linds is pretty epic. Go check it out.

There is a lot to love about this moment, not the least of which is the latitude and space George has given his learners to be able to offer up something as creative as an epic rap battle as a course activity.

But for me, the most significant aspect of this moment is that a connection was made between a learner and an expert in the field. It was a moment made possible because of open & networked learning, something that the RRU MALAT program has baked into it’s core design.

This is not a disposable assignment. This is not an activity that was designed to be seen by just the instructor or within the confines of a small cohort of classmates. Many course activities in MALAT is designed to be open by default. By giving students their own open space & asking them to openly blog about their work, we set the conditions for moments like these to occur for students like Alistair – a moment where they can connect with their contemporaries in the field, and begin establishing their own personal learning network.

Without this being posted in the open, George would never have been able to amplify his students work to his large network, Audrey may never have had the opportunity to hear about it, and she likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to blog about it herself, further amplifying Alistair’s work and connecting him to even more people within the field.

Tony Bates

The conductor Tony Bates BCcampus CC-BY-NC

It reminded me of a similar moment I had in my Masters program. I had been assigned Tony Bates & Gary Poole book Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education. I wrote a blog post about it, attempting to crowdsource from my network other seminal books to add to my bookshelf on the topic of teaching with technology. Who was among the first people to respond to my blog post and leave a comment? Tony Bates.

Now, here I am, a novice student just dipping his toes into a new subject area, and who is the first person to leave me a comment on my blog? The very person who authored the textbook I was assigned to read. I could not believe that one of the foremost experts in the field I was entering took the time to leave a very useful comment on my blog post.

Knock me over with a feather.

It was a pivotal moment for me where I saw the connective value of open, networked learning. The ability to connect with, and build, a personal learning network consisting of experts in the field. It’s a powerful motivator for a student, and I hope that when Alistair read the comment left by Audrey on his post, he felt the same exhilarating rush that I got when I read Tony’s comment on mine.