Day 14 - Renewable Assignments



The purpose of this module is to provide you with an opportunity to:

  • consider the rationale underpinning the “renewable assignment” concept
  • explore examples of renewable assignments
  • collect and share ideas for transitioning traditional closed and disposable assignments toward open and renewable options

Day 14: OEP - Renewable Assignments

photo of a bowl of cut flower heads multiple types of flowers

Photo by Mike Sharp on Unsplash


The purpose of this module is to provide you with an opportunity to:

  • consider the rationale underpinning the “renewable assignment” concept
  • explore examples of renewable assignments
  • collect and share ideas for transitioning traditional closed and disposable assignments toward open and renewable options

Module Authorphoto of Jessica O'Reilly

Hi! I’m Jessica O’Reilly, an Instructional Developer at Cambrian College, Open Education Fellow with eCampus Ontario, and Doctoral student at Athabasca University. I’m excited to share the concept of the renewable assignment with you, particularly as I’ve personally witnessed positive changes in student engagement and success in my college-level Communications courses when I reconceptualized my course assignments to be more open and renewable.

I view Open as a cultural change which increases access to education by reducing financial barriers. Open is also about sharing, collaborating, and empowering. It’s premised on an understanding that knowledge is for all of us, and all of us can make meaningful contributions to the collective commons.

Please follow me on Twitter @Cambrian_Jess!

Disposable Assignments

We’ve all been students at one point in time or another. You may have noticed that in most courses, you’re required to spend hours working on assignments, only to have one person (the course instructor) read through them once, slap a grade on them, and return them to you. What did you end up doing with those assignments? Chances are, you looked at the grade, maybe took some time to read through the comments, then you tossed them into the recycle bin.

These types of assignments are what David Wiley, CAO of Lumen Learning, Adjunct Professor at Brigham Young University, and major player in the Open world, deems “disposable”.1 In a 2013 blog post titled What is Open Pedagogy?, Wiley argues:

These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading [...] Not only do these assignments add no value to the world, they actually suck value out of the world. Talk about an incredible waste of time and brain power (and a potentially huge source of cognitive surplus)!2

I’m a college-level educator who teaches mandatory English courses to students who struggle to see the applicability of essay writing in their future employment contexts. Over the past year, I’ve become deeply troubled and critical of my role in enacting what bell hooks describes as “rituals of control that [are] about domination and the unjust exercise of power” (1994, p. 5). The traditional academic research paper provides a poignant example of a prevalent assessment strategy which tends to cause students a great deal of emotional distress. Further, students struggle to find relevance in this type of assignment, and, for the most part, become overwhelmed by the many implicit and explicit conventions of academic writing and research. I’ve come to believe that the traditional essay represents what Paulo Freire terms “antidialogical action,” a form of oppression which favours constraint, conformity, and passivity over individual, reflective, creative processes that are dialogical and active.

The image I included at the beginning of this module reminds me of this phenomenon: like flowers  deadheaded and discarded in their prime, assignments that have no real-world meaning are likely seen as nothing more than a means to an end, a mark on a gradebook, an obstacle to overcome and forget about. What a waste!

Renewable Assignments

Review the following video beginning at minute 43:44 to hear Rajiv Jhangiani, Special Advisor to the Provost on Open Education and a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, describe the disposable assignment. He also contrasts traditional approaches with open assessment practices.

[Note: A transcript of this segment of video is provided just after the Explore More section of the module below]

From Rajiv's perspective, renewable assignments, a component of open pedagogical practices, challenge the notion that students must passively consume knowledge in a Freirian banking model sense, and instead invite them to “critique and contribute to the body of knowledge from which they are learning […] knowledge is less a product that has distinct beginning and end points and is instead a process in which students can engage, ideally beyond the bounds of the course”.

Day 14 Activity

Consider the following list of examples, taken directly from the Open Pedagogy Notebook, the latest collaboration between Rajiv Jhangiani and Robin DeRosa, a space for educators to explore and share open assessment practices. Think about how you might adapt one of the ideas for one of your courses. You can choose to share your ideas in the Day 14 discussion forum, in a social media space, or to save it for your own reflection and future use.

  • Adapt or remix OERs with your students. Even the simple act of adding problem sets or discussion questions to an existing open textbook will help contribute to knowledge, to the quality of available OERs, and to your students’ sense of doing work that matters. The adaptation of the open textbook Project Management for Instructional Designers by successive cohorts of graduate students at Brigham Young University provides an excellent example of this approach.

  • Build OERs with your students. Though students may be beginners with most of the content in your course, they are often more adept than you at understanding what beginning students need in order to understand the material. Asking students to help reframe and re-present course content in new and inventive ways can add valuable OERs to the commons while also allowing for the work that students do in courses to go on to have meaningful impact once the course ends. Consider the examples of the open textbook Environmental Science Bites written by undergraduate students at the Ohio State University or the brief explainer videos created by Psychology students around the world and curated by the NOBA Project.

  • Teach your students how to edit Wikipedia articles. By adding new content, revising existing content, adding citations, or adding images, students can (with the support of the Wiki Education Foundation) make direct contributions to one of the most popular public repositories for information. Indeed, more than 22,000 students already have, including medical students at the University of California San Francisco. More than developing digital literacy and learning how to synthesize, articulate, and share information, students engage with and understand the politics of editing, including how “truth” is negotiated by those who have access to the tools that shape it.

  • Facilitate student-created and student-controlled learning environments. The Learning Management System (Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard, etc.) generally locks students into closed environments that prevent sharing and collaboration outside of the class unit; it perpetuates a surveillance model of education in which the instructor is able to consider metrics that students are not given access to; and it presupposes that all student work is disposable (as all of it will be deleted when the new course shell is imported for the next semester). Initiatives such as Domain of One’s Own enable students to build “personal cyberinfrastructures” where they can manage their own learning, control their own data, and design home ports that can serve as sites for collaboration and conversation about their work. Students can choose to openly license the work that they post on these sites, thereby contributing OERs to the commons; they can also choose not to openly license their work, which is an exercising of their rights and perfectly in keeping with the ethos of Open Pedagogy. If students create their own learning architectures, they can (and should) control how public or private they wish to be, how and when to share or license their work, and what kinds of design, tools, and plug-ins will enhance their learning. It is important to point out here that open is not the opposite of private.

  • Encourage students to apply their expertise to serve their community. Partner with nonprofit organizations to create opportunities for students to apply their research or marketing skills. Or ask them to write (and submit for publication) op-ed pieces to share evidence-based approaches to tackling a local social problem. Demonstrate the value of both knowledge application and service by scaffolding their entry into public scholarship.

  • Engage students in public chats with authors or experts. Platforms such as Twitter can help engage students in scholarly and professional conversations with practitioners in their fields. This is another way that students can contribute to—not just consume—knowledge, and it shifts learning into a dialogic experience. In addition, if students are sharing work publicly, they can also use social media channels to drive mentors, teachers, peers, critics, experts, friends, family, and the public to their work for comment. Opening conversations about academic and transdisciplinary work—both student work and the work of established scholars and practitioners—is, like contributing to OERs, a way to grow a thriving knowledge commons.

  • Build course policies, outcomes, assignments, rubrics, and schedules of work collaboratively with students. Once we involve students in creating or revising OERs or in shaping learning architectures, we can begin to see the syllabus as more of a collaborative document, co-generated at least in part with our students. Can students help craft course policies that would support their learning, that they feel more ownership over? Can they add or revise course learning outcomes in order to ensure the relevancy of the course to their future paths? Can they develop assignments for themselves and/or their classmates, and craft rubrics to accompany them to guide an evaluative process? Can they shape the course schedule according to rhythms that will help maximize their efforts and success?

  • Let students curate course content. Your course is likely split into a predictable number of units (fourteen, for example) to conform to the academic calendar of the institution within which the course is offered. We would probably all agree that such segmenting of our fields is somewhat arbitrary; there is nothing ontological about Introduction to Psychology being fourteen weeks long (or spanning twenty-eight textbook chapters, etc.). And when we select a novel for a course on postcolonial literature or a lab exercise for Anatomy and Physiology, we are aware that there are a multitude of other good options for each that we could have chosen. We can involve students in the process of curating content for courses, either by offering them limited choices between different texts or by offering them solid time to curate a future unit more or less on their own (or in a group) as a research project. The content of a course may be somewhat prescribed by accreditation or field standards, but within those confines, we can involve students in the curation process, increasing the level of investment they have with the content while helping them acquire a key twenty-first century skill.

  • Ask critical questions about “open.” When you develop new pathways based on Open Pedagogy, pay special attention to the barriers, challenges, and problems that emerge. Be explicit about them, honest about them, and share them widely with others working in Open Education so that we can work together to make improvements. Being an open educator in this fashion is especially crucial if we wish to avoid digital redlining, creating inequities (however unintentionally) through the use of technology. Ask yourself: Do your students have access to broadband at home? Do they have the laptops or tablets they need to easily access and engage with OERs? Do they have the supports they need to experiment creatively, often for the first time, with technology tools? Do they have the digital literacies they need to ensure as much as is possible their safety and privacy online? Do you have a full understanding of the terms of service of the EdTech tools you are using in your courses? As you work to increase the accessibility of your own course, are you also evaluating the tools and technologies you are using to ask how they help or hinder your larger vision for higher education?

Open Pedagogy” by Rajiv Jhangiani and Robin DeRosa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Explore More

Transcript for Rajiv Jhangiani segment

Transcript for Disposable Assignments section of Rajiv Jhangiani’s video in Day 14

But I want to spend a little bit of time, about 10 minutes or so here are the end, talking not just about OER anymore, but broadening the discussion to talk about open pedagogy, and I want to talk about assessment. This morning, Joe and I had a great discussion with a broader reading group in cognition and psychology about assessments and how we usually design and implement assessments, formative, summative and of course this is certainly prevalent (cartoon showing with a woman asking, “I see you did well in school, but what real-world skills do you have?” a man answers, “Research essays, I can write research essays.”)

I think it’s fair to say Multiple choice testing in particular, it’s ubiquitous, of course, And very often, of course, it’s the lowest common denominator which is fact-based, not applied questions, derived directly from  publisher-supplied test banks. That exists of course, and there’s a reason why that’s popular.

And you can have, you can design really good and powerful multiple choice testing. Multiple choice questions in fact that tap higher echelons of Bloom’s taxonomy

This is possible if you do it right But at the same time, I’m sure you’re thinking, well, we can do much more than that. We assign lab reports and research presentations, and research essays, we definitely assign research essays

But again, I’m going to suggest that there’s interesting ways in which we can play with pedagogy over here that allow it to be open and allow it to be far more meaningful.

David Wiley, oddly, refers to the use of traditional assignments as disposable assignments, which is a bit pejorative, I’ll admit But he’s talking about the number of hours that a student spends working on an assignment

Let’s say a research essay, and when I say hours I’m being optimistic of course, and they submit it to one person Only one person’s ever going to read their work

And then as an instructor, we painstakingly provide the student with feedback, right? Written, formative feedback, how many of the students in the class pick up those essays  that are marked? And of the students that pick up those essays, how many of them are reading the comments, as opposed to looking at the grade and moving on?

And when you put all of that together, the hours that they spend for one person, and the hours that we spend providing feedback, it’s almost like it’s a tremendous waste of human potential. Or at least, it could be, it could be aligned in a different way.

And this is where we’re talking about something different. We’ve all experienced this I think (image of Star Trek Captain Picard with the words “provided detailed comments, no on picked up their assignment”) There’s nothing more annoying than this, having gone through the trouble, But what we’re talking about is something that lives beyond the course. 

So imagine harnessing the student’s energy, the potential, and even creativity, and having them produce resources for the commons. Having them produce resources that extend and live well beyond the course itself. And this is what might be called a renewable assignment, but that others call the odd term legacy assignment, right? It’s an odd term, I’ll admit

But it’s about thinking differently about how we approach assessment in the first place. And how much meaning students see in a particular assignment as they’re working their way through a course. I’ll give you specific examples of this.  One of my favourite examples is ChemWiki. This is a major initiative out of the University of California, Davis where a researcher there, Delmar Larsen, received funding to do this.

Think about Wikipedia for a moment, and think about how troubling Wikipedia is to many faculty, and how many faculty explicitly forbid students from citing articles in  Wikipedia, because of perceived unreliability. How, think about what they’re doing over here.

Students as course assignments, writing, updating, revising, and editing articles, Wiki articles, related to, not just chemistry, but a variety of STEM disciplines. But those articles do not go online. Those are vetted by graduate students, and those articles in turn are vetted by a big faculty board that’s international. And it’s only after it goes through multiple layers of  vetting and revision and faculty approval that it goes live. So it cannot be edited by just anybody,  and you have this massive encyclopedic amount of information about all of the STEM disciplines that now live in STEM wiki, which includes ChemWiki of course.

Dozens of institutions are now using this as their textbook for the course. It’s updated as quickly as you need, if there’s a new breaking development within the field,  it’s customizable. There are learning analytics that you can draw on, when students log in you’re able to see what proportion of our student body in this particular class is accessing the required readings for the first time, 24 hours before the exam, for example.

And you can look at course design, and reinventing that on the basis of this information. But you can add to it. And for students it’s really deeply meaningful work. At this point, amazingly, ChemWiki is the most visited chemistry website in the world and it’s been built by students, it’s astonishing, meaningful work This is open pedagogy.

And of course this happens with Wikipedia as well. In psychology we have a big organization, called the Association for Psychological Science, and for many years now they’ve been pioneering this Wikipedia initiative, where there are a lot of psychology articles they are viewed quite a bit, but only about 2/3 of them have gone through Wikipedia’s version of peer assessment, which is not particularly stringent, and even of those, only 9% have good article status, which again, speaks to the unreliability of Wikipedia, and in fact confirms our fears. But APS decided to try and address the problem, instead of whining about it.

And so we have, not just in psychology, but in fact in a range of other disciplines,  instructors embedding within their courses, assignments that involve the updating and revision and improvement of articles related to their particular discipline It’s extremely popular, right? You think about the learning outcomes that are involved, over here, and absolutely you can look at these. Many of these are traditional outcomes, but many of these assignments allow for the development of skills that you wouldn’t normally be able to do, or at least not easily implement anyway. when it comes to experiencing, or the peer review process, enhancing, or helping teach them digital literacy skills. And I mention that because people use this digital natives phrase, and I can’t even tell you how much this annoys me because in practice I’m far more digitally savvy than many of my students, and I think that’s a false assumption in many cases, 

There’s a lot of scaffolding and instruction that’s required. And in some cases, this is an opportunity to do that for them. But especially the last one, being able to communicate complex ideas within your discipline for a public audience, for a general audience. And for the majority of our students who do not go on to graduate school in our disciplines, that’s a key skill that they’re going to be able to take with them.

So as I said, students like it, instructors like it, here are some representative comments from  students, who have participated (slide with student comments) They talk about the value of the information that they’re presenting to someone,  This is a student in Alberta, another student in Toronto, “feels awesome to take information squirrelled away behind paywalls and share it with Wikipedia’s vast readership.” They’re talking of course about summarizing and interpreting research that is traditionally hidden behind paywalls, and providing that, providing those summaries on Wikipedia’s websites. Some of them talk about being encouraged by more than just the grade, something bigger than themselves, something that lasts. And others say the same thing, and you don’t have to read all of this, but I do think that there’s something tremendously humbling about the realization that when I publish a journal article in a scholarly journal that’s peer reviewed, there are far, far, far, fewer people who will ever read my work than will read an article that my student edited on Wikipedia. That’s slightly humbling.

But it also offers some hope. So as I said, it is popular (students working on Wikipedia), there have been lots of articles in Wikipedia, that students have written, lots of instructors that have participated,  And almost every instructor, according to Wikipedia’s own survey, the Wikipedia Foundation, who have participated in this initiative, indicate that they would want to do this again. So it doesn’t appear to have been quite as difficult.

There’s other examples too, in psychology we have a wonderful project called the NOBA project a group that provides OER for introductory psychology, and they run and annual video competition where they ask students across the world to produce 2 or 3 minute instructional videos, overviews of particular psychological theories or concepts, creative. And they do this.  Of course if they win, all of these videos are uploaded online with an open Creative Commons license. They receive recognition of course, and even a monetary award. Last year this international award had the first place go to two students at Simon Fraser University in BC. The other prizes went to student at Ohio State and in India and Singapore.

 It’s tremendous. But now think about these students, because now instructors across the world are actually using this video as part of their course materials. Instructors are using work built by students. And you think about the amount of pride and investment in this work. They care about it more. They see the meaning of it more.  And in some cases it could be something different as well. Imagine, for example, asking your students, I tried to do this, I copied this assignment which is an Action Teaching award winner,  from a Social Psychology network, where they suggested getting your students who have this budding expertise in your discipline to share it with the broader community by writing and publishing op eds, right? 

Take your knowledge and bring it to bear on a social problem and share it with the community in this fashion. And again, the skill development that’s involved in writing and  getting an op ed published? Beyond the pride, beyond that fact that this is part of an electronic portfolio of your academic work, is quite tremendous. So really for me, it’s not that traditional assessments are necessarily bad, I look at this as again additional layers, new options, and something that allows us as instructors, but also students, to unleash a layer of creativity that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do so easily. In many ways, I view assessments as vehicles  as airplanes, if you will, right? Because they have to transport our students from where they are now to where they will go by the end of the term, by the end of the assignment, at least in terms of  skill development or otherwise knowledge. 

But in many ways, I think when I stick to traditional assessments, and particularly if I imagine a course that’s based entirely, solely, uniformly, on multiple-choice testing, it very much feels like taking an airplane and choosing to drive it down the highway. Because, you can do that, people are going to look at you funny, but you’re really wasting its potential. You’re wasting the potential of what the assignment is capable of when it’s designed and  capable of so much more than simply driving it down the highway. So, if all of this talk of open educational resources and open pedagogy sounds familiar, it may be because of the pervasiveness of an increasing popularity of open science practices. This is happening more and more, for different reasons. 

For reasons that have to do with accountability, and trying to further the process of science itself. So you have now the drive for researchers to share openly their hypotheses and their research plans, before they collect their data. To prevent data fraud and fabrication, for example. And you have professional journals, leading journals, assigning digital badges for researchers who do just that. Then of course you design your research, you have your  questionnaires, your instruments, and there’s a drive to share research materials openly,  and badges for that to enable replication efforts, and enhance the reproducibility of results within your discipline [end transcript - past relevant part for purposes of renewable assignments module]…


1David A. Wiley - Wikipedia

2What is Open Pedagogy? - David Wiley

3Pedagogy of the Oppressed - Paulo Freire

4From OER to open pedagogy - Harnessing the power of open - Robin DeRosa and Scott Robinson


All content for Day 14: OEP - Renewable Assignments by Jessica O’Reilly is licensed with a CC BY 4.0 International license (unless otherwise indicated with citation and/or attribution).

Last modified: Thursday, 14 June 2018, 4:20 PM