Early thoughts on my new open homework systems project

3 min read

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.

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