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Open online homework systems

A showcase presentation for #OTESSA21

How the reality of surveillance influences my attitudes on sharing

When I was having a conversation with a couple of people on campus about academic integrity issues, one of our IT leads sent me a screen-capture for his search for Tusculum University, my institution, on Chegg: 

It me.

This took me aback a little bit. The instructor for BIOL 321/CHEM 301, the biochemistry course, was…me.

I’ve been the instructor for biochemistry at Tusculum ever since I’ve arrived on campus in 2016. (I’ll hand the course over to a new professor this year.) When I first got the course, I made the decision to use a closed educational resource (CER) called Sapling Learning, which was independent the first time I used it in 2011 and has since been purchased by Macmillan, to assign homework in biochemistry. I’m not that bothered by that particular set winding up on Chegg – it’s apparently from an enzyme kinetics problem bank, and the numerical values in that set are randomized, so Chegg wasn’t just handing out answers. But it was handing out solutions I was hoping students would arrive at on their own. 

This just drove home for me anew that when we assign homework online, we’re being watched. And our students will often (inadvertently, if cynically) train the eyes of the watchers on us. 

The compliment I’d received from a student a long time ago hits me a little harder. The homework problems I wrote myself to upload to a Moodle server in physics prompted the complaint “I can’t Google the answers to your homework!” And to this point, I still haven’t come across solutions to problems I’ve written on Chegg or similar services. Problems written by others, on CER providers, sure. Problems I’ve written, no. I’m looking every now and again, though. I know those services are out there, and they’re intended to undermine. 

And as this year of pandemic has increased the pressures on our students, especially students in rural areas, from all corners of their life, it’s very difficult to blame students for being a little bit more cynical towards their academic work than they might otherwise be. 

The defense of those who produce CER is to prevent the cynicism as forcefully as possible, through one means or another of surveillance. Another CER I have used in the past is ALEKS, McGraw-Hill’s math-centric tutorial tool. It’s become obvious over the course of the past year that the assessment that ALEKS uses to position a student for math placement can be gamed, and students can find ways to get questions right that will place them into a higher level of math or make it appear that they’ve completed a level of mastery that isn’t reflective of their knowledge. McGraw-Hill’s response has been to enter into proctoring relationships – first with Respondus, and more recently with Proctorio for the sake of surveilling students using McGraw-Hill online tools. 

CER providers are entering into these kinds of proctoring relationships and are actively encouraging use of online proctoring tools as their defense against student cynicism. (My response when I bring up these kinds of tools is to bring up Ian Linkletter’s GoFundMe page, because these proctoring services don’t care about the harm they inflict upon individuals, and would rather run an instructional designer into financial ruin than put up with any criticism of their work at all.)

Not only are such defenses not prevalent for those who use OER, they go against the purpose of OER in the first place. Open educational resources are, by their very nature, open. They can be shared freely, and in the ideal scenario, the back end of the coding behind those resources is available to all. If you’re truly making an online homework system open and accessible, you’re putting the code behind the solution to the problems into the open for anybody who can translate the code.

My original pursuit – the core of the original proposal – was identifying learning resources obtained in the open and pursuing the sharing of those resources – ultimately, I said, there should be “greater intention towards sharing those resources for the benefit of a wider community.” I’ve been following along with keen interest as the ADAPT platform, a new initiative from LibreTexts, comes online – there is a host of promise behind a truly open online homework system that is built with the ability to scale and interface with already-present textbooks in the LibreTexts platform.

Now that the reality of surveillance of our efforts to produce homework online is plain, though, I’m wondering intently whether efforts to centralize open resources into a single bank that’s shared among many is a long-term benefit. In the brutal economic consideration, it’s a waste of a lot of different people’s efforts to “reinvent the wheel” and have independent, small-scale online homework efforts alongside a massive open online homework platform. But this kind of redundancy makes the efforts of those who would try to undermine our platforms more difficult as well. 

We all have slightly different things we seek to accomplish with our educational efforts, even efforts like the generation of online homework. I have no problem giving away the code to my problems, even to my own students; there’s a literacy to seeing how the answers to problems are coded that can translate, for a certain type of student, into a greater literacy in the physical science problem-solving that I’m trying to develop. Others might disagree with so freely giving away the code. That’s their right and that informs what they want their work to accomplish. 

It was my hope, when I proposed this work before the pandemic, to inform a wider conversation about how we share open resources to build a less redundant, more widely used platform for our students’ learning in the physical sciences. Coming out of the pandemic, the conversation I’d like to have is if that’s a worthwhile goal at all – or whether we should be encouraging more educators to “reinvent the wheel” on their own terms, for their own population of students.

The first response I got out of this virtual poster wasn’t who I expected it to be from – not an attendee at OTESSA, not a fellow practitioner in higher education pedagogy in the physical sciences. It was from one of my former students, now a high school teacher outside of Atlanta, Georgia, who described the benefit she took from the homework I assigned, and who wants to use her learning management system to give her students the same type of homework she took benefit from, at the level of that high school class. 

That made me enthusiastic – not to see how she was seeking out solutions others had built, but to see how she was internalizing her own education and asking herself what it would be like to build a homework system of her own. That’s not necessarily the most efficient use of her time – but it seems to be a use of her time that would benefit her teaching and interaction with students the most. I can’t help but get excited about stories like that. 

And it occurs to me that should be what excites me the most – the opportunity to share not a homework system, but knowledge, with instructors at every level. 

This poster will stay up for the long term. I invite additions to the poster on the blog and in the comments. Please don’t hesitate to contact cpearson@tusculum.edu if you have questions, comments, or what to help build this space out some more.

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