How can Homework Make the World a Better Place?

Every day, millions of intelligent, creative people come together to solve challenging problems of every shape and size, working in every conceivable medium, and every possible field  from engineering to psychology and abstract mathematics to literature. Unfortunately, nearly all their work is wasted.

Of course, I’m talking about students — specifically, college-level students.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. School assignments don’t need to end up collecting dust in a filing cabinet. Not when the work being done can be contributed to the public record.

Consider a trivial example. I was working on a particularly difficult CSS problem the other day and I did a search for “CSS clip path”. This is a relatively new technique and I struggled to find answers online. But then my search returned this. It was an assignment posted online by a student at Highline Community College. Apparently, in this class, all students choose a topic, learn it, and show what they learned by writing an online tutorial for the information. Compare that to a more traditional model where the teacher chooses a topic, the students learn it, and they show what they learned it through a term paper or an exam.

In both cases, the student forgets most of the information shortly afterward. That’s a fact of life and education. But in the first case, the effort isn’t wasted. The student can pull up their own tutorial from any internet connected device in the world and get back up to speed in a matter of seconds. And if they never need that information again, it is readily available for the next person who actually does.

Other benefits may include:

  1. It helps the student establish a body of public work, which can serve as a portfolio.
  2. Students learn about tools and workflows for digital publishing.
  3. As students are given autonomy and assignments that have purpose, they will be more invested in their work.
  4. Schools benefit from the increased transparency and visibility.

Can you picture a day when knowledge flows online from schools and universities producing blogs, reference documents, books, and APIs? This public demonstration of learning in action could be a fantastic tool for recruiting eager, hungry students, in the same way that companies producing open source software have a recruiting edge for developers.

Traditionally, this public-contribution mentality has mostly just existed for Ph.D. students working on cutting edge research. They work to make their contribution to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s great. But why not expand that approach to all students? The kinematic equations (or the time-value of money, or the works of Kafka, etc.) may be common knowledge, but they can still be publicly explained, approached from various angles, and mashed together in interesting ways that would benefit the rest of the world. Providing a new interpretation to a work of art is just as much a contribution to the human race as a formula for understanding upper-atmospheric wind currents (why that paper isn’t free to access online is another issue).

Often, before a cultural renaissance, there is a period when diverse groups of people come together in public spaces and share their ideas with each other. My generation’s space is online, and we’re tired of our educational efforts being wasted.