The open digital platform: what do we want?

I wanted to create a place where we could record our thoughts about the digital platform that is being developed as a part of the Living Lab project. The forum might be a better location for this (please let me know if you’d like to move the discussion there) but as it is relatively little-used at this point I thought I would start here on the blog. Feel free to post suggestions, ideas, and dreams for our digital platform below.

Questions, including “what is a digital platform anyway?” are encouraged.

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15 Responses to The open digital platform: what do we want?

  1. Jonas Reitz says:

    I would like to propose the creation of an online homework management system. While my vision of such a system comes from mathematics courses, it seems likely that a robust system could be adapted to many other departments as well (I would be curious to hear ideas of how such a system might be used in other subjects). The department currently uses a wide variety of homework systems, generally developed by the book publishers (for example MathZone and WileyPLUS). These are propriety systems which our students pay for quite dearly (students are forced to either buy a brand new copy of the book, or to pay an additional $50/$60 for access to the system). They are given access to them only for a limited time (usually 1-2 semesters). The college has access to them only as long as we continue to use the books by these publishers.

    What does such a system do? Students log in and complete homework assignments online. The system grades their work and provides them instant feedback. Instructors can track students work and obtain grade reports. Instructors create problem and problem sets for students to work through (or problem sets could be developed by the department and made available to instructors). Some systems provide customized problems for each student (by simply changing the numbers), which helps ensure that each student completes the assignment under their own power.

    Practice is an essential element of learning mathematics. Homework management systems provide a way for students to complete assignments online and receive immediate feedback. They provide a feasible way for professors to make homework assignments a part of student grades (many professor assign regular homework but do not collect or grade it, and consequently students simply don’t do it). Note that the kinds of problems that can be easily implemented on a system tend to be those that require practice and repetition to master — the system does NOT take the place of other kinds of assignments (group projects, writing assignments, exploration, etc).

    • Jonas Reitz says:

      I was recently discussing the issue of online homework systems with a bunch of graduate students and faculty, and someone recommended the system WeBWorK. It’s open source, supported by the MAA (Mathematical Association of America) and the NSF, and has a large library of existing problem. I don’t have any personal experience with it, but it is worth considering. It is targeted at math and science courses. Here is a link:

  2. Hi Jonas,

    Thanks so much for starting this topic — I think this is a great place for everyone to share their thoughts and ideas about what our platform can be.

    A homework management system is a great idea, and I’m sure would be useful to folks in disciplines other than math. Off the top of my head I don’t know of any plugins or widgets for WordPress/BuddyPress (the systems we’ll use as the backbone of our platform) that do what you’ve described, but we will do some research and see what we can find. And if we can’t find something that does exactly what you need, perhaps we can modify or build something from scratch.

    Keep those ideas coming!

  3. I’m so glad to have this space, Jonas, so thanks for setting it up!

    It would be great to have the means of collecting essays from my students in file format so that I can read them in Word or Open Office. I currently use, which I really like, but I would love to have something more streamlined so that students don’t need to manage too many different accounts for my course (a professional-sounding email account, a account, and a account). If there were a Dropbox plugin. . . .

    One semester I started to used the essay submission function in Blackboard, but it was the semester that Blackboard crashed, so I never went back to it. When it worked, it was convenient because it also employed SafeAssign, which checks submissions for plagiarism. I don’t know if we would want to contract that company for our digital platform, but it is the one thing I still use Blackboard for, although not with my students–I direct submit individual essays. I know many who use the gradebook option, which not only allows faculty to keep track of students’ grades but also allows students to see their grades. It would be great to have these features in our digital platform.

  4. For documents one option is built-in to BuddyPress (which gives us groups and forums), and that’s to upload to the Documents space in a Group. But we’ll explore other options too.

    I’m not aware of any SafeAssign-like widgets or plugins, but we can certainly look into those.

    We will *definitely* have a grading plugin — there are several to choose from, and I know Joe Ugoretz at Macaulay has one that he likes that we will probably start with.

    Thanks for these suggestions — keep ’em coming!

  5. Jonas Reitz says:

    What about the ability to vote on blog entries, comments, and so on? A way to indicate you “like” something, for example (to borrow from the social networking world). This is a driving principle behind sites like or, and it is a very nice way to sample the feeling of your audience. It also allows, for example, an easy way to track which blogs and posts are generating a lot of interest — a great way to find things to include on the front page, for instance. I realize there are potential problems (what if a student posts something and everyone downvotes it, for example), but taking a cue from Jim Groom perhaps these worries would not manifest — or perhaps they would “work themselves out”. I’d be happy to hear some thoughts for and against this.

    An excellent example for a general audience, worth a visit, is (always interesting links, some more serious than others, with a great community of people commenting on them).

  6. Ah, Jonas, another great idea, and something that’s been floating around on other parts of the Commons as well. Voting/liking are often thought of as game-like mechanics, and there was a great post recently on the Chronicle’s Prof Hacker column discussing how to incorporate these features into WordPress and Buddypress. The CUNY Games Network here on the Commons (full disclosure — I’m a member of the Steering Committee for this group) also had a bit of discussion about these features. If we decide to implement them on our digital platform it would be great if we could share our experiences with the Games Network folks.

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  8. I’ve set up individual digital learning logs for each of my students in Developmental Writing. These are private and sometimes very personal. I incorporate a template with questions/prompts that students follow. Students are encouraged to upload pictures, write reflections, ask for help. It’s sort of like each student’s own blog, but it’s between me and the student, or is that “between the student and I.” The learning log does have the ability of going public if the student so chooses.

  9. In reply to my previous post with the question on grammar, “it’s between me and the student, or is that ‘between the student and I’” ; could we have links to dictionaries, thesaurus, and grammar and style books?

    And a really good spell and grammar check would reinforce good writing habits.

  10. I would vote to put comments/posts in descending order: Most recent on top. Too much scrolling to find out what’s new.

    And what do y’all think?

  11. That’s an interesting point, Charles. Blog posts are in descending order with the most recent on top, but comments go the other way — oldest at the top, newest at the bottom. Not sure if that’s something we can change, but we’ll certainly investigate.

    Suggested links to dictionaries, thesauruses and grammar/writing guides sound like a great addition to the OpenLab. I typically turn to the Purdue OWL — can you get us started on a list here with your favorites? Thanks!

    • A link to the Library’s Chicago Manual of Style. (I don’t know if that can be open sourced.)
      Urban Dictionary.
      Dictionary. com or any of the available dictionary sites. Google dictionaries. I’d put the selection up to the group or to a wise referencarian. (That means reference person–I wanted to make up a word. chagrin.)
      I’ll keep on thinking.

  12. Thanks for starting this list, Charles. This might also be something we can set up on the library’s subject/research guides wiki ( and faculty could link or embed in their course sites. Or we could create a guides site or blog on the OpenLab that could be linked from course sites. Let’s keep thinking on this.

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