For class credit, a Canadian high school student created a web-based homework management system that allows students to hand-in assignments electronically. He now is offering the service to schools across North America at no charge.
Adil Lalani, currently a first-year engineering student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, developed the web site, called SurfYourWork.com, for his grade eleven computer science independent study unit at Lower Canada College, a K-12 private school in Montreal.
Since officially launching the site four weeks ago, reportedly 17 schools have expressed interest in it and about 100 accounts have been created. But Lalani is hopeful that many more teachers and students will find his software beneficial because he created it especially for them.
“Being a student, I know what goes on in school and what students, teachers, and parents need,” he said. “In a school, simplicity is really important because then you don’t have to train teachers.”
Lalani came up with idea to create SurfYourWork.com for his independent study unit after examining the homework management systems offered at his school and those used by his peers. The goal he set for himself was to learn the web programming languages PHP and MySQL by developing an online homework community that would be more intuitive and enticing to use.
“In a school, you need something that is simple that everyone can grasp,” he said.
The software behind SurfYourWork.com took much longer to create than the six months allotted for his independent study unit, but his teacher saw value in it and encouraged him to finish. “My teacher was freaking out because he liked it so much. He encouraged me to finish it so it could be implemented in schools,” Lalani said.
With financial support from his father, Lalani spent his spare time over two years developing SurfYourWork.com into a fully functioning homework management system that allows teachers to assign homework and retrieve completed work from students quickly and easily.
“He really did a phenomenal job. He really covered all angles. He’s a gifted child,” said Christian Auclair, head of computer studies at Lower Canada College. “He really followed through on every level from conception, to building it, to piloting it. I think therein lies the strength of what he developed.”
SurfYourWork.com allows teachers to assign homework to individual students. Teachers can even attach files, such as PDFs or Microsoft Word documents, to each homework assignment, providing students with continuous access to resources online and saving schools unnecessary printing costs.
When the deadline passes, teachers can collect the homework turned in for a specific assignment with one button click.
|High school student Adil Lalani says he’s not interested in releasing SurfYourWork.com as a commercial product because of the legal and tech support issues that would entail. (Photo courtesy of Adil Lalani)
“If a teacher collects homework through eMail for one class they would have to download 20 to 30 eMails,” Lalani said. SurfYourWork.com, however, automatically renames each file to include the student’s name and assignment number, and then zips the files together into one downloadable package.
“The program does this all for you. It’s all automated. The teacher doesn’t need to do anything,” he said.
Students, of course, use the site to find out what their homework is and for submitting their assignments to their teacher. The site’s file-management feature also lets students save a virtually unlimited number of files in one place.
SurfYourWork.com’s internal communication system lets teachers and students send Rich Text Format (RTF) eMails to one another. Users can also request chats with whoever is logged in. The site’s message boards provide a place for ongoing dialogue on a number of topics, including those assigned by teachers for class discussions.
SurfYourWork.com can be customized with a school’s logo and address. Plus, each teacher and student can make a custom class schedule as well as a profile similar to those offered by mainstream instant-messaging programs.
Lalani is especially proud of these kinds of features that will appeal to students. “Schools buy all these fancy systems, but if students aren’t using it, then it’s a waste,” he said.
The tools needed by administrators, such as grade books and menu planners, are beyond the scope of SurfYourWork.com. Creating these features is not that easy, Lalani explained, because he is not familiar with how teachers grade or what’s required. Plus, he’d be competing with so many products that already offer these services.
“I based this toward students. Administrators can offer this as a free service to students,” he said. “I tried to make SurfYourWork.com the ultimate system for students.”
Lalani has shied away from launching the web site as a money-making endeavor because of the legal and technical support obligations that come along with profitable ventures. “That’s not the aim. My goal is to gain experience with software, marketing, etcetera,” Lalani said.
He adds, “I’m not in competition with other software because I’m just a one-man show.” Educators using SurfYourWork.com shouldn’t expect much more than minimal tech support from Lalani, but he is confident that its users won’t need any.
The site is also very secure, he said. “All messages, all passwords, all files–everything is encrypted,” Lalani said. “Even if a hacker was able to login and steal the school’s information [he or she] wouldn’t be able to read it, because it’s all encrypted.” A very bright mathematician, he said, would need to spend several hours trying to crack the files.
Several free and some subscription-based homework management systems are on the market.
YourHomework.com, for example, allows teachers, for free, to post homework, get free eMail addresses, offer a file upload for students, build a custom web page, and maintain a calendar of events. Its Library Alert Service also allows teachers to notify school librarians via eMail of students’ upcoming research assignments.
Other free and for-fee homework sites
YourLocker.com, the companion site to YourHomework.com, charges $29.95 per student per year. This upgraded service allows students to view their assignments from all of their courses on one screen, get homework reminders eMailed to their address, and chat in a secure environment with teachers and students.
SchoolNotes.com is another free homework-management site operated by EdGate, a for-profit company started by a group of educators and parents in Washington State’s Peninsula School District in 1997. Teachers who register can post information on their “web space,” including homework assignments, links to resources, and special notices. To access the content, students or parents type in their five-digit zip code on the web site, and then click on their teacher’s name from the list that comes up. Visitors can enter their eMail address to be notified any time their teacher’s “web space” changes.
K12Planet, an online home-to-school learning community offered for free to Chancery student information system subscribers, allows students to gain access to their grades, attendance records, homework projects, library collections, activity schedules, upcoming events, plus a host of age-appropriate learning resources.
WebAssign, another online homework-management tool, allows teachers to assign questions from multiple textbook publishers including Addison-Wellesley, Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin, and Prentice Hall. In addition to letting students complete and submit assignments, this service lets students access their grades, calendar, and communicate with others. WebAssign charges a $250 start-up fee plus $4.25 per student per class per term.
MIT has developed the Stellar Course Management System so its professors can manage all aspects of homework including due dates, collection, and returning grades. The site also allows teachers to post resources, update an academic calendar, engage the class in discussions, and send eMail to individuals or the entire class.
MIT’s Stellar Course Management System