Online Homework Systems: How to Protect Student Privacy and Keep Materials Costs Down

Online homework systems (OHS) are online tools that can grade questions asked to students as homework, track formative practice, or assess examinations. Students can receive immediate feedback on the activities they complete using an OHS, providing students with a clear picture of how they are progressing and where they may need to do some additional work.

During the 2018-2019 academic year, approximately 70 courses included the use of online homework systems (OHS) that were registered through the U of S Bookstore. Several additional courses made use of these tools by sending students directly to publisher websites. OHS are used extensively through the STEM disciplines, but are also used in other fields including Psychology and business. While they have benefits for both instructors and students, there are concerns that both should be aware of.


The Cost of OHS for Students

In about half of the courses using OHS purchased through the bookstore, students are required to make that purchase as part of their grade in the course. Often, the OHS is bundled with a textbook making it impossible for students to purchase a used textbook or even use one they purchased a previous year, in the case of needing to repeat a course. Publishers are also moving toward a model where bundled textbooks are only available online and for a limited time.

While instructors at the U of S have saved students almost $2 million in the past five years with a steady increase in the use of open textbooks, the costs associated with homework systems could potential counter that savings, something publishers are aiming for with methods such as bundling textbooks and OHS.

Student Purchases Directly From Publishers

As I noted above, in some courses students are sent directly to publisher websites to purchase access to an OHS. This requires them to have a credit card and opens them up to privacy breaches of their financial information as well as any additional information that publishers require them to submit. This risk can be mitigated by instructors having students purchase required access codes through the Bookstore.

Limitations for Instructors

While OHS can make grading, especially in large classes, easier for instructors and TAs, but there are also limitations. In many cases, instructors have little control over the content being assessed. In addition, some systems, especially if students are going directly through the publisher’s website, won’t integrate with the grade book in Blackboard.

Supports For Instructors

The U of S Bookstore Wants to Help Keep Costs Low for Students

I’m often asked how the Bookstore feels about the growth of open textbooks and the questioner is surprised when I say “they love it, they’re the ones who offer the print-on-demand service for open textbooks.” The U of S Bookstore wants to speak with instructors about how to lower materials costs for students. Most classes use traditional course materials, which are made by publishers, but ordered by instructors. In their role as supplier of these materials, the Bookstore is limited in what it can do and needs instructor help in reducing costs for students. To learn more about how to reduce costs for students, please visit their website here or reach out.

ICT Can Help Protect Student Privacy

In order to protect student privacy, the U of S has established formal terms of use agreements with a number of software and textbook publishers addressing required privacy, legal, security, and business requirements. ICT has a webpage listing the publishers who have signed agreements with the U of S. 

Help and Funding For Alternatives to Commercial OHS

The GMCTL can assist you in finding alternatives to requiring students to purchases access to commercial OHS in three ways:

  • Advise instructors on alternative forms of assessment
  • Discuss with instructors options for non-commercial OHS
  • Provide funding for the development of assessments such as test-banks

For more information about these options, please contact Heather M. Ross at the GMCTL.

Guidelines for the Use of OHS at USask

The U of S is currently developing guidelines for the use of OHS at the university. These guidelines will take into account the needs of both students and instructors.

What’s a Z-Course and How Do I Do That?


As costs for commercial textbooks continue to rise, there has been growing interest at the U of S in open educational resources (OER). OER is not only free to students, but adaptable to make the learning materials appropriate for a particular course. But OER is not the only way to reduce costs and move away from commercial textbooks.

Z-courses, as defined at the U of S, are courses where students have zero or minimal ($35 of less) direct costs for learning materials. This can be achieved through the use of an open textbook or other OER, resources from the Library, instructor notes, or other such materials in place of commercial textbooks, or as a results of no textbook being necessary for the course.

As the number of Z-courses has increased at other institutions, Z-degrees are now a possibility. For example, Tide Water Community College in Norfolk Virginia offers a Z-degree in Business Administration with the use of only OER. Earlier this year, BCcampus put out a call for proposals from universities and colleges across British Columbia for new Z-degree offerings.

The U of S has many Z-courses and students should know about them (as they do about the courses using open textbooks). As well, the GMCTL would like to work with departments and colleges who are interested in offering Z-courses and potentially Z-degrees through the use of OER, Library resources, and other materials.

To begin collecting information on existing Z-courses at the U of S, Vice-Provost Teaching and Learning Patti McDougall sent an email to all department heads in mid-August asking them to complete the included spreadsheet with information on Z-courses within their departments, and return it to me. If you teach a Z-course at the U of S, make sure that your department head is aware of this and reports it to us. If you are interested in converting your course at the U of S to a Z-course, please contact me at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning or your Library liaison for assistance.


An Opportunity to Request Open Textbooks You Need


Many of the open textbooks being used at the U of S were found through the BCcampus open textbook repository. If you are interested in switching to an open textbook, but haven’t been able to find one for your course, this call for suggestions from BCcampus may be of interest to you:

In an ongoing effort to sustain and build the BC Open Textbook Collection, BCcampus asks for your help to identify subject areas within this collection that are missing open textbooks either entirely or in specific categories and/or course levels. As an overview, there are currently 180 textbooks in this collection covering eight main subject areas (Sciences, Trades, Business and Management, Liberal Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, Upgrading Programs, Health Related, and Recreation, Tourism, Hospitality and Service). Within these eight areas are 36 secondary subject areas. For a summary of these subject areas and links to specific books, go to the Open Textbook Stats page and click on the “Subjects” tab.

We ask that you please send us suggestions for subject areas that are missing open textbooks, those subject areas where you have heard from faculty “I would adopt an open textbook, but there isn’t one in my subject area”. Additionally, it would be helpful to have the following information for each identified subject area.

Textbook Subject
1. Subject
2. Course level
3. Specific topic with the subject (if applicable)

We will be reviewing these suggestions as we publish a new call for proposals in the coming months- proposals for creation, adaptation, adoption of open textbooks- preferably with a targeted approach based on the needs of the system.

Contact us: opentext [at] bccampus [dot] ca or go directly to the Suggestion for Collection form.

You may also contact me at if you’re an instructor at the U of S with questions or would like assistance finding and integrating open educational resources appropriate for your course.

Taking a Fresh Approach to the Course Design Institute


For more than a decade, the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning (GMCTL) has offered the Course Design Institute (CDI). Throughout the CDI, facilitators from the GMCTL work with instructors on developing or redeveloping a course. We go through learning about your students, writing learning outcomes, choosing teaching strategies, developing assessments, and putting it all together through constructive alignment and the blueprinting of your course.

While the CDI had been an intensive four full-day experience within one week, a few years ago we revamped it to offer it in a “flipped” mode, with participants meeting face-to-face three half days over three weeks, plus completing activities and posting to the discussion forums to provide feedback to each other in BBLearn (our learning management system). This year, we’re taking that approach and modifying it again.

On day one, Tuesday May 2, we’ll meet with participants for a half day to cover knowing your students and writing learning outcomes.

On day two, Thursday May 4, participants will choose one of three options for a day-long elective. Participants may choose from indigenization, open pedagogy, or sustainability. Lunch is included on this day.

On day three, Tuesday May 9, also a half day session, we will talk briefly about the participants’ respective experiences in their day-long elective sessions, review their learning outcomes, and talk about assessment and rubrics.

On day four, Thursday May 11, again a half day session, we will discuss constructive alignment, instructional strategies, blueprinting your course, and course syllabi.

In between the sessions, participants will need to complete activities related to what has been covered or prepare for what will be covered in the next session. Following the CDI, participants will need to complete a brief reflective paper and, once they have begun blueprinting their course, meet with one of the facilitators for a one-on-one consultation.

For more information about the CDI or to apply to participate, please see the Course Design Institute page on our website or contact me at the GMCTL.

Open Pedagogy: Using OER to change how we teach


There has been a considerable increase in the number of courses assigning open rather than commercial textbooks at the University of Saskatchewan.  During the 2014-2015 academic year, there were approximately 300 students enrolled in three courses using open textbooks. This year more than 2,650 students are enrolled in the at least 20 courses that have open textbooks as the assigned resource. Since the university started promoting and tracking the use of open textbooks in 2014, this use has resulted in students at the U of S saving close to $400,000 on textbook costs.

The benefits of using open textbooks and other open educational resources (OER) instead of commercial texts aren’t limited to the cost savings for students, however. The lack of copyright restrictions on OER allows instructors to modify these materials to meet the specific needs of their courses. For example, the Edwards School of Business recently released an adaption of an open book from the United States that not only saved their students money, but also meets the learning needs of the students better than the original edition. University Success will be used by the more than 475 students in the course, but also students at other institutions, and other instructors will be free to make their own changes to this resource to better meet local needs.

Just as instructors are able to adapt existing OER, so are students. Learners can become contributors to existing open materials, or use OER to create new learning materials for themselves, their peers, and future learners (and instructors).

John Kleefeld, a professor in the U of S College of Law, created an assignment that offers students in his The Art of Judgement course the chance to improve Wikipedia articles on one of the topics covered in the course. Professor Kleefeld and one of those students, Katelyn Rattray wrote an article on the design of the assignment and the experience that was published the Journal of Legal Education.

Robin DeRosa from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire created an open textbook for her early American literature course by having undergraduate research assistants find appropriate public domain content. As a core assignment in the class, students then wrote introductions for each reading based on their research about the authors and time periods.  While she served as the editor, students did much of the research and compiling of content for this new open textbook. This assignment replaced a traditional paper that would have only been seen by the instructor and the student and likely soon after marking, discarded by the student. Read more about this process on her blog.

Moving away from private “throw away” assignments can shift student activity away from knowledge consumption instead developing their skills in knowledge creation.  In the examples above and many others, this lead to increased student engagement, improved learning outcomes, and freed instructors from reading the same assignments repeatedly.

If you would like to learn more about open pedagogy, the GMCTE is offering a session on November 8 as part of our Introduction to Learning Technologies series.  You can also contact the GMCTE directly with any questions or to schedule a consultation.

Why Consider Open Educational Resources?


Sessions on this topic will be held during the Fall Fortnight:

  • Open Educational Resources (Monday August 22, 2016 from 9-9:25 AM) – Register
  • Using and Adapting Open Textbooks (Wednesday August 24 from 1-2:30 PM) – Register

There has been a lot of talk around the University of Saskatchewan during the past year about the use of open educational resources (OER), specifically open textbooks. During the 2015-2016 academic year, approximately 900 students benefited from the use of these textbooks instead of traditional commercial textbooks, saving the students approximately $90,000 overall. We expect that number to increase during the 2016-2017 academic year as more instructors have indicated that they will opt for using these resources.

In addition, there are currently six open textbooks in production at the U of S, with some being adaptations of existing resources and others being new books.

This growing interest in the use of OER isn’t limited to financial savings for students. The licenses attached to almost all open textbooks allow instructors to adapt the resources to best meet the needs of their particular courses. For example, an economics text written in the United States can be modified to update spellings and provide Canadian examples for learners. Chapters can be rearranged, removed, or replaced. Individual images or sections can be combined with other OER to create entirely different resources.

The licensing of OER also allows for having students adapt and create course content instead of simply reading or watching it. Open pedagogy moves away from the “throw away” assignment (the ones students complete, instructors mark and return, and students then throw away) and towards more practical work.

Open textbooks are currently being used at the U of S in the Edwards School of Business, the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, and in several departments throughout the College of Arts and Science.  Open textbooks exist for almost all common first year courses in Economics, Biology, Chemistry, Accounting, Sociology, Psychology, History, Anatomy & Physiology, Math, and other subjects. There are also resources for many upper year courses.

If you’re interested in using an open textbook or other OER in your courses, please see the Open USask website to see some of the many resources available in a variety of subjects. If you have an interest in adapting an existing resource, turning some learning materials that you’ve created into OER, or including open pedagogy in your courses, the U of S has supports in place to assist you. Please contact Heather Ross for more information.


Open Education Week Coming to USask


Open Education Week LogoDuring the week of March 7 the University of Saskatchewan will be offering several sessions related to open textbooks and other open educational resources (OER), along with a session on the Tri-Agency open access publishing requirements as part of International Open Education Week.

“Open Education Week is a global event that seeks to raise awareness of free and open sharing in education and the benefits they bring to teachers and learners. Coordinated by the Open Education Consortium, the event showcases projects, resources, and ideas from around the world that demonstrate open education in practice. The open education movement seeks to reduce barriers, increase access and drive improvements in education through open sharing and digital formats.  Open education includes free and open access to platforms, tools and resources in education, including learning materials, course materials, videos, assessment tools, research, study groups, and textbooks, all available for free use and modification under an open license.” (Open Education Week website)

The integration of open textbooks has grown considerably in the past couple of years at the U of S, with at least seven open textbooks now being used in courses, effecting more than 900 students. Sessions related to this will include one providing introductory information, another on what supports (financial, pedagogical, and technical) exist at the U of S for those interested integrating open textbooks or other OER, and one on the role librarians, instructional designers, and others on campus who support those interested in using, adapting, or creating open materials.

A session will be offered aimed at students on how to find and use open resources, as well as opening up their own work. Faculty may also find this a useful session to hear about ideas for creating “non-disposable” assignments.

A session will also be offered on the Tri-Agency policy that now requires those receiving funding from any of those three agencies – SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR – to publish a version of their articles in either open access journals or institutional repositories.

Registration is now open for all of these sessions. You can find a complete schedule and register through the Open Education Week page on the Open USask website.

Reading Students Work With Them Present – A Different Take on Marking


Many years ago, while I was a student at a community college in California, I took two courses that fell under the very general subject banner “Humanities”. One was The Individual and Society and the other The Individual and The Arts. These classes met for three hours twice a week and were team taught by three instructors that almost always were on the stage together at the front of the lecture hall that held about 100 students.

I took these courses early in my post-secondary education, but the teaching style has stayed with me as much as the content.

One aspect, in particular, comes up frequently when instructors ask me about issues related to academic integrity. I recall that we submitted papers twice in each of those classes. Each time, students would individually meet with one of the instructors and he (they were all men) would read the paper sitting next to us in the lecture theatre. He would read, mark some notes on the paper and ask us questions while he read.

keith goyne_snr_eniv. sciences_0021The instructors accomplished this by holding these individual meetings during class time. The instructors held these meetings with roughly 30 students each. Yes, it took away from class time (two 3 hour class sessions per paper assigned), but as I’ll explain below, the benefits were worth it.

First, if I hadn’t written the paper or if I had inserted chunks of work from others, it would have been difficult for me to engage in conversation about the paper. The instructor got a clear idea if the work was my own and if I understood the content.

Which leads to the second benefit. If I had been knowledgeable enough about the topic to engage in conversation with the instructor, but been a poor writer, this would have allowed me to demonstrate my understanding. This may have improved the mark that I received compared to if the instructor had read the paper without me present.

Finally, in a class of 90, having these individual meetings with an instructor to discuss my work, and often other aspects of the course, I felt like at least one of the three instructors really new me as a student. It was a wonderful way for these instructors to build rapport with the learners.

Again, yes, these individual sessions took away from class time, but not from “learning time”. Engaging students about their work is part of the learning for them, plus instructors can address some issues around academic integrity while building rapport.

Is this appropriate for every course? Probably not if you are the sole instructor teaching a large course, but for smaller courses or those team taught, consider this alternative to marking papers isolated from the authors.

If you would like to discuss the concept further, feel free to contact me at the GMCTE at

If you would like information about the GMCTE including about the programs and supports we offer, please contact us at

Picture courtesy of the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and carries a Creative Commons Attribute Non-Commercial license.

Open Textbook Integration Catching on at USask


A year ago we ran a reprint of a blog post by Professor Eric Micheels who teaches in the College of Agriculture and Bioresource. As far as I know, Eric was the first instructor on campus to adopt an open textbook instead of having students buy a commercial textbook. He saved the students in the class about $27,000 by doing so.

Open textbooks are free, digital textbooks that instructors can customize to meet their specific needs, or use them as is. These open texts are written by instructors and many go through a peer review process. The book that Eric adopted includes a test bank and other ancillary resources, as do many open textbooks.

In the year since Eric wrote that blog post, five other instructors on campus have adopted open textbooks for courses in the Edwards School of Business (ESB), and the Departments of Chemistry and Economics. Eric is using the same open textbook again this year along with another for a different course. As a result of all of these adoptions, approximately 900 students are saving around $100 each for a total of $90,000 in savings for students at the U of S this academic year.

One of the adoptions in ESB is by co-instructors Noreen Mahoney and Professor Brooke Klassen for the required course Business Competencies, which has about 350 students between two sections. These instructors are taking an existing open textbook and revising it, combining it with other open materials to create the textbook that will best meet their, and their students needs.

Karla Panchuk, an instructor in the Department of Geology contributed a chapter to a new open geology textbook produced through BCcampus. This book, Physical Geology was released in late September.

Other instructors on campus are reviewing open textbooks to provide feedback to the OpenStax College open textbook project (the same organization that created the book Eric Micheels is using) and to determine if the book would be appropriate for their own courses. BCcampus offers instructors in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba $250 to review textbooks within their expertise that are currently in the BCcampus open textbook collection.

To assist in keeping the momentum going for an increasing number of adoptions, adaptations, reviews, and creations of open textbooks, the U of S will be implementing a granting process to fund the adaptation and creation of open textbooks and needed ancillary materials. Information about the funding and the application process will be available in November.

For more information about open textbooks in general or how to integrate them into your own teaching, please contact the GMCTE.

Syllabus Requirements Updated in Academic Courses Policy


There were a number of changes to the Academic Courses policy at the University of Saskatchewan this year, including several related to the syllabus. As such, I want to take this opportunity to remind our readers at the U of S about what must be in your syllabus regardless of your college or department, which may have additional requirements.

All of the information shown below is included in the syllabus template and guide that can be found on our web site. You are not required to use the template, but it can be handy to use as a checklist for your own syllabus. It also contains additional information that we recommend you include in your syllabus.

The Academic Courses policy requires the following elements to appear in your syllabus:

  • type and schedule of class activities;
  • if the class is offered online, through distance learning, or off-campus, any additional or different expectations around any class activities and requirements;
  • expected learning outcomes or objectives for the class;
  • the type and schedule of term assignments;
  • the type and schedule of mid-term or like examinations;
  • notice if any mid-term examinations or other required class activities are scheduled outside of usual class times, with College permission;
  • the length of the final examination in hours as well as its mode of delivery;
  • relative marking weight of all assignments and examinations;
  • consequences related to missed or late assignments or examinations;
  • whether any or all of the work assigned in a class including any assignment and examination, or final examination, is mandatory for passing the class, or whether there are any other College-level regulations that specify requirements for passing the class
  • attendance expectations if applicable, the means by which attendance will be monitored, the consequences of not meeting attendance expectations, and their contribution to the  assessment process;
  • participation expectations if applicable, the means by which participation will be monitored and evaluated, the consequences of not meeting participation expectations, and their contribution to the assessment process;
  • experiential learning expectations if applicable, the means by which experiential learning will be monitored and evaluated, the consequences of not meeting experiential learning expectations, and their contribution to the assessment process;
  • contact information and consultation availability;
  • course or class website URL, if used;
  • notice of whether the instructor intends to record lectures and whether students are permitted to record lectures
  • explanation of Copyright where it relates to class materials prepared and distributed by the instructor
  • location of the Academic Courses policy as well as the regulations and guidelines for both academic and non-academic misconduct and appeal procedure;
  • information regarding support services that are available to students through the Student and Enrolment Services Division, Student Learning Services at the University Library, and the Colleges.

In addition, there are two subsequent points of importance:

After distribution the following changes are NOT permitted:

  • Methods & modes of assessment for all assignments and exams must remain as stated in syllabus
  • No major graded assignment or examination is to be newly assigned in a class
  • No changes to already set dates or the stated grade weighting of graded assignments or examinations

Changes are allowed after distribution if no student objects and the department head or dean (in non-departmentalized colleges) is notified.

Plus, “Once the Registrar has scheduled final examinations for a term, instructors wanting to change the date and/or time of their final examination must obtain the consent of all students in the class according to procedures established by the Registrar, as well as authorization from the Department Head, or Dean in non-departmentalized Colleges.”

Plugin by Social Author Bio