Early thoughts on the BCcampus open homework systems project

A few weeks ago, BCcampus started a new two-year project that will explore open source alternatives to commercial online homework systems. Clint Lalonde, who is leading this part of our Open work, has been blogging some of his early thinking about this project at his blog EdTech Factotum. We are republishing one of his posts in which he begins to think about the project. The post has been edited for clarity.

Post by Clint Lalonde, Project Manager, Open Source Homework Systems

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 B.C., and by extension, elsewhere, as this is a fully open project that will hopefully benefit others as well. As a recent EdSurge article about the current textbook model noted, textbook publishers are beginning to pivot their business models from textbooks to online platforms. As they do this, students are often asked to bear the cost to access these online platforms in the form of access fees.

Last year, my colleague Krista Lambert conducted research on how much students in B.C. are paying to access publishers’ digital platforms. Looking at just one term (Fall 2018) across just four of the 25 public post-secondary institutions in B.C., Krista discovered that students in B.C. paid $3.7 million dollars in access code fees to online publisher resources.

In similar research on access fees conducted by UBC, it was estimated 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 of 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.

Which brings me to the open homework systems project. For the next two years, BCcampus will be working within the B.C. post-secondary system on open source alternatives to digital platforms that require students to pay access fees.

One of the first challenges is defining the scope of what it is we mean by “homework systems,” as opposed to digital courseware. Courseware in Context defines digital courseware as “instructional content that is scoped and sequenced to support delivery of an entire course through software built specifically for educational purposes. It includes assessment to inform personalization of instruction and is equipped for adoption across a range of institutional types and learning environments.” My thinking right now is that homework systems are components of digital courseware, but not complete digital courseware. But I am mindful that 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.

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 and activities for students delivered by an open homework platform is beginning to look more like open digital courseware, 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.

The approach then, is to work with the system on content creation, similar to what we have done in the past with content creation sprints for assessment test banks. Not only will these kinds of sprints be able to develop content for a homework platform, but they can also begin to form the basis for 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.

You can read more of Clint’s thoughts on the BCcampus open homework project at EdTech Factotum.

“Early thoughts on the BCcampus open homework systems project” is a modified article based on the blog post “Early thoughts on my new open homework systems project” by Clint Lalonde used under a CC-BY licence. The content has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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