Some strategies for the Open Homework Systems project

5 min read

I’ve spent a good part of my summer work on the Open Homework System (OHS) project in research and information gathering mode, trying to set a solid groundwork for the next 2 years of the project.

In addition to working on a definition of what an OHS is, I’ve been tapping some people within the system on the shoulder to pull together a project advisory group, and have been meeting with many people, both within the BC post-sec system and in the wider open education community, about the project, gathering information to help inform some strategies for the OHS project. Thank you to all have graciously given time to talk with me this past summer.

From all of these conversations, report reading, and pulling from some experiences and lessons learned from past open projects I have worked on, I’ve come up with a list of strategies that I think can help guide our work on this project. This list will form much of the discussion at the first meeting I have with our project advisory group.

A commitment to Open Source and OER

As with all BCcampus projects, all code, content, applications, etc. created with this project will be released with open licenses to ensure wide adoptability and adaptability by all institutions within the BC post-secondary system and beyond.

One platform will not be enough

Early environmental scans are finding that there are nuanced and specific homework platforms catering to specific disciplines and/or signature pedagogies. Finding one system that can be reasonably expected to cover all disciplines is unrealistic.  We can reasonably expect that there will be homework systems that are geared to;

  • STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)
    • In particular, Math is an area that makes heavy use of homework systems as it is a discipline that, as a core pedagogical principle, is built upon repetitive practice and instant formative feedback.
    • Math can further be broken into sub-sections including Calculus, Geometry, Trigonometry and Algebra, each one of which may have distinct requirements.
  • Business
    • Some areas, such as Economics and/or Finance, are similar to Math in that they have built a pedagogical model around repetitive practice and formative feedback.
  • Arts & Humanities
  • Social Sciences
  • Health & Human Services
  • Trades

Multiple platforms are too many

We don’t have the resources to expand into multiple platforms for each discipline and sub-discipline area, therefore we will need to concentrate our efforts or risk diluting limited resources.

Focus on 2 areas: STEM, and one other

While we cannot cater to every different discipline, there are likely platforms that may broadly cover multiple disciplines within STEM areas. As for a second area, my own thinking is leading me down a path to consider platforms that lean towards supporting Social Sciences and/or Humanities as, outside of STEM, those are areas where we tend to see large enrollment first and second year courses (see next point). Additionally, I am seeing open education gaining a strong and growing base of support in areas like Digital Humanities, so there could be opportunities to leverage work happening in DH. Whatever the second area, I suggest we focus our efforts on 2 platforms: One that leans more towards the STEM areas, and one that caters to another discipline area, recognizing there will likely be overlap and/or gaps even with those very broad categories. This is an area where some further research into where expensive homework systems are in use could help narrow down the scope.

Focus on high enrollment courses/subject areas

Like the Open Textbook project, we should look at systems that support high enrollment introductory (1st and 2nd year) courses where these systems are in high use to maximize impact and student savings.

We should not create a new platform from scratch

There are many existing, viable options out there that we can likely contribute to and make stronger with our resources.

We should focus on content creation of collaborative quizzes, questions sets, activities, etc.

While technical development of platforms will likely be important (especially in the areas of user interface and sensible workflows for faculty and students), what will get faculty adopting and using these systems is content. Pre-built, vetted instructional content that they can plug into their course and go. So, we should put resources into the creation, curating and vetting of content that populates whatever OHS we decide to support.

We should be looking toward open digital courseware as the final destination

Open homework systems being a step along the gradient to get us to open digital courseware. Our pathway should be to start with open content (in the form of open textbooks), incorporate more self-assessment questions and interactive activities that provide instant feedback (open homework system), then onto more adaptive learning functionality (TBD, but needs to be considered as part of our OHS project), and develop/contribute to open source software projects that can move us closer to this vision of open digital courseware. This pathway aligns with the digital courseware definition from the Courseware in Context quality framework, and is a pathway that many commercial digital publishers are on. In the short term this means focusing our activities in the OHS project to align with existing open textbooks within our library to both leverage previous work (see next point) and to future proof those resources to make the next transition to full open digital courseware.

We should look to leverage existing open work within the system

In addition to open source software, our efforts around homework systems and, in particular, content development for this systems, should be tightly aligned with existing open content that has already been created through the open textbook project. The practice questions and examples we develop should tightly align with the learning outcomes of open textbooks that have already been created, or exist within the OTB collection, in order to increase their adoptability, create stronger open resources, and move them further along the path to open digital courseware.

Data collection and data analytics: FIPPA and beyond

In addition to fully FIPPA complaint systems, we should look at ways in which a homework platform and the data generated by a homework platform could be presented to learners and instructors in meaningful ways, which can then be used to inform learning pathways for specific learners. Many commercial systems include analytics engines and, in order to establish feature parity with commercial systems, we should include ways in which to ethically collect and use meaningful user interaction data and present to both learners & instructors for pedagogical purposes.

One Comment

Bob Bodily October 9, 2019

I love the direction you are taking the Open Homework System project. Your ideas and recommendations are spot on with what I have seen from doing work in this area. It will be exciting to follow your progress and see where things go over the next few years.

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