I might not refer to making Open Educational Resources (OERs) as “easier” but it is more familiar to educators than the idea of creating Assignments that are not “disposable”.

David Wiley described the term “disposable assignments” in a 2013 post on Open Pedagogy. It’s a brilliant approach to talk to educators about designing open materials, and something anyone who has gone to school has endured:

These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world – after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away. Not only do these assignments add no value to the world, they actually suck value out of the world.

He includes a few examples from his own teaching and others, including maybe the most prolific being UBC professor Jon Beasley-Murray’s Murder Mayhem and Madness project where his students sought not only to add ti Wikipedia’s gaps in articles in Latin American literature, but challenged his students to earn a coveted featured article status.

I remember in 2012 interviewing another UBC professor, Tina Loo who also did a Wikipedia based project in Environmental history. She spoke of the fatigue of seeing the pile of essays she had to grade, knowing full well most of her students would toss them when the class was done.

While David’s original post summarized a few examples where students produced original videos (a personal favorite of mine is the mashup of the Kennedy / Nixon debate as one about blogs vs wikis), it seems the majority of examples is more or less writing textbook-like content.

Nothing against open textbooks, a huge and important movement, but my curiosity is whether there are more options for Assignments that Are Not Disposable (“NDA” is not a good acronym, which may be way Wiley re-oriented the concept as “Renewable Assessments”). Jim Luke blogged about this recently in writing about The Content Trap:

The discussion is not really a new one. It’s the question of how to promote OER. There has been for a while two “camps” or points of view. To simplify (or oversimplify) the question: To expand OER use do we argue the “free textbooks” aspect emphasizing retain and reuse, or do we argue the “open pedagogy” practices aspect and emphasize revise and remix powers. The points are, of course, well made and I’m not writing here to disagree.

Rather, what I want to suggest is that we’ve fallen into a trap by our use of the word “resources”. We need to stop thinking about “resources” period. No more OER.

While I am not interested in making yet another acronym, I feel some sarcastic resonance because my own career in educational technology has made an arc from the 1990s vision of Reusable Learning Objects to 20+ years later of Open Educational Resources. While they are not the same, I cannot help but wonder– have we moved far at all?

I tend to agree with Jim Luke, we see a lot of focus on content. Why? It’s familiar.

This is a long way around getting to the image at the top of the post… here it is again:

That is David Wiley himself, who is part of our Creative Commons Certification design team, at a working meeting we had in Toronto this past January. For some reason I had in mind the picture was him with his head in his hands in anguish, but he actually looks just like he is concentrating.

A key aspect of our efforts to create a certification was to avoid something where competence is demonstrated by a multiple choice exam. We want participants to do activities that demonstrate application of the principles and tools of Creative Commons, to have them be relevant to a person’s work or interests, and to be seen openly in the world.

While our current effort includes the familiar “content” part, we are also developing what we (well it was my idea) call Quests, using the structure and format of the theme used to power the DS106 Assignment Bank; ours is a “Quest Bank”

Each one includes a Quest (aka “assignment”) and a place for people who complete them to enter a description and link to their work done to show their response to the quest. These are all publicly available now if you want to explore.

I’m looking at David’s bullet point list under “Open Pedagogy” — we have some significant differences in that we are not offering class nor grades (though the certification itself may be the reward). In the Quest Bank we do have the place for a clear description, which can include media, links etc (see example) and all responses are appended to a Quest as “a variety of worked examples” — and it grows as the use of the bank does. Anyone can vote on the “public rating” which can be used as sorting mechanism to find quests. While remix activities are not strictly built in, it could be incorporated in any Quest’s instructions. And a feature we have that is not on the list is anyone on the site has ability to create a new quest.

It takes a lot of effort to move past the first impulse of writing ones that sound like they are answering a question or a series of questions. Those have an odor of “disposable-ness”. Another consideration is considering whether just publishing something into the open makes it renewable e.g. the suggestions of an activity of “adding something you created to the Commons”. It’s potentially useful, but seems on the lower end of the spectrum.

On the first days of our January team meeting, I heard many sighs from David as he described possible ideas and tried writing them up as quests. And then a loud exclamation, “Not only do I have to write it up, I have to do one as an examples!” I tease him here only slightly, he did really take this challenge on and his approach shifted over the next few days.

I by no means am criticizing David’s ability to come up with creative assignments- he has a long career of doing this, and doing it openly. But I think the task changes when it’s not in the scope of a class (different participant motivation) and more so when you may never have direct contact someone trying your assignments.

So I do not want to boast that I have all the answers, but this has been at the core of a lot of my teaching and faculty development work, having created, edited, reviewed hundreds of ones in the original DS106 assignment bank, developing “Studio” activities and challenge bank assignments for the UDG Agora Project, and the hundreds of smaller activities created for the DS106 Daily Create, and similar ones for a faculty development program at Thompson Rivers University, again for the UDG Agora Project, and currently for the Networked Narratives course.

Now these are mainly assignments about media creativity, but all are ones where work is published openly in so many formats I cannot list. They are ones where people are doing them without direct contact with me. It’s debatable whether these “contribute to the public good” 😉

And again, I am not claiming at all I know best how to create non-disposable / renewable assignments. I think I have a good hunch for thinking about them. My thinking includes:

  • Relevance… Are they working with content, ideas in their area of interest or work? Does it fit for them as much as for the assignment?
  • Are they creating, making, constructing something that is public?
  • Does it clearly have potential for helping someone beyond the person making it?
  • Does it not feel like a rote exercise?

Here are some of the ones I’ve written already:

  • WikiShootMe: Add a Photo to WikiData Commons as part of the Unit on Significance of the Commons. A bit off the beaten track of editing Wikipedia Content, this uses location data, maps to solicit photos that a person has taken themselves that can be added to the data back end (WikiData Commons). The idea is to use a map that shows places near you (or any location you have photos for) and it shows places needing imagery. It’s maybe a tad complex?
  • Aspects of Physical vs Digital Sharing is meant to help appreciate how the sharing of digital content differs from things you own. It’s a thinking exercise where i asks you to consider sharing a real physical object you own (book, art, music), and calculate what it would take to actually send it to someone far away, what would change if it was digital, what would change if you wanted to share with more people. It’s sort if a worksheet done in Google docs, so maybe the sharing and adding to the public good levels are low. But it’s more than an essay.
  • Create an Elevator Pitch for Why Open is Better or Why Open is Better as an Infographic are both part of the Socio-Cultural Module. They are options for the same unit (I wanted to demonstrate how one unit could have multiple possibilities as choices for participants). These are nothing earth shattering, but I added an element beyond creating a video or an infographic in that it asks the participant to then try it out on a colleague and collect feedback, put it out there in the world, and not just the digital.

I am too challenged for some of the units to come up with an activity (hence we we hope others might chip in and create their own). But because the work of Creative Commons is done in the open, we feel the work people do should be there too.

And I am less interested what we call these things, and more interested in just trying to create and have people try them out.

Got thoughts, ideas? I’m just talking out loud here.


Featured Image: From the CC Certificates January 2017 design team meeting… Working Hard at Making Renewable Assessments flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

Profile Picture for Alan Levine
Technologist, open web advocate, attributes nearly everything, wordpresser, photographer, dog lover, blogging since 2003 at cogdogblog.com. My role on this project is technology development, outward communications, and occasional silly video.