February 08, 2007

CAA Fitness for Purpose: Administration

Follow-up to Fit for Purpose? from Computer-aided assessment for sciences

Administering online assessment can be a nightmare—I have lost sleep over it. Although setting the parameters for delivering an exam online will never be entirely straightforward, let me suggest a few desirable features to smooth the way.


User Accounts: If a single sign-on (SSO) system, such as the open-software system Shibboleth, can be integrated with a CAA package, an assessment can be made instantly accessible to a group of students registered for a module on the institutional database. At the same time, students signed on to the network have immediate access to all the available assessments for the modules they are registered for. In the absence of SSO, assessment software should make it easy for the details of students permitted to access a given assessment to be uploaded manually, for instance accepting comma-separated values from a spreadsheet containing the appropriate fields. An option to give students permission to create their own assessment accounts is also useful; it should allow them to browse the available assessments and register for any that take their fancy.

Setting Permissions: When creating an assessment, it should be straightforward for the author to set a whole range of permissions: who can see the test, edit the test, take the test, when they can do so, how long it should last, how many attempts are allowed, who can access the results, and so on. It is helpful if these permissions can be set and subsequently edited in an easily-accessible window, which displays the full range of permissions available. It is also handy to be able to save templates of standard sets of permissions for re-use.

Sending Feedback: It is vital for an author to have detailed control over (i) the levels of feedback: hints, right or wrong, simple answer, full worked solution and (ii) when it is delivered: directly after an answer is submitted, immediately after the test is completed (feedback, like revenge, is a dish best served hot), or later, after the assessment is closed.

Answer Records: If the assessment software stores users’ answer files – and only that designed for simple self-assessment doesn’t – then it is very important to be able to search those files efficiently. It should be easy to search all the database fields that are used to create assessments and accounts with all the usual functionality available in a respectable database; thus, for example, it should be possible to pull out all the answers to question 5 on assessment 2 done by students called “Smith” who are either based in the Mathematics Dept or whose students numbers begin with 02 (the year of entry). If the database has a field for email addresses, it should be possible to send emails to selected subsets of registered users containing information about, for example, their results and module administration.

Analysing Results: I have to confess that I have little experience in this area and that my views on what is desirable and useful are poorly developed. I would welcome some input from more experienced readers here. It is obviously helpful to be able to (i) analyse results in as much detail as the database allows and (ii) present the data in easy-to-grasp numerical and visual ways. A number of standard statistical tests can be applied to the data to provide insight into the success of an assessment and the performance of the users; for instance, one helpful test I have used measures the effectiveness of single a multiple-choice question (as part of a larger exam) in discriminating between students of differing ability (as indicated by their overall performance on the exam). Please let me have your views on the best tests to build into the software, by email or via the commenting option below.

January 29, 2007

CAA Fitness for Purpose: User Experience

Follow-up to Fit for Purpose? from Computer-aided assessment for sciences

Another heading in my check-list of criteria for judging whether CAA software, particularly that with mathematical capabilities, is up to the job. As usual, I welcome your comments and further ideas. Today I look at the heading

User Experience

Logging in and Submitting: Within a given intranet, so-called “single sign-on” avoids having to distribute special user IDs and passwords to students, who then have to remember them to access an assignment. With single sign-on, it is easier to call on institutional databases to display personal information (name, number, mug-shot) onscreen as an identity check for student and invigilator alike. Once signed on, students should be able to click quickly to the test they want to take. It should be clear how their answers to questions should be submitted for marking (grading), singly and/or in one final submission, and whether multiple attempts are permitted. Answers should be regularly saved to a local drive in case of network or software failure.

Navigation and Layout: It should be easy to navigate quickly through the questions (in any order), and to choose to display them all together on a scrolling page or one at a time. From any test page it should be clear which questions (i) have already been attempted and (ii) have been finally submitted. Each page layout should be visually easy to interpret (e.g. displayed equations, clear separation of question statement from answer boxes with hypertext for actions close by, adjacent questions with different background colours). Anchors to keep the right part of a long page in view, drop-down menus, and prompts to open help windows can all improve the user experience and sense of being in control.

Entering Answers: Entering text with standard keyboard characters is usually unproblematic – answer-boxes should accommodate the longest imaginable answer, they should display an easily-readable font, and should have the focus with a flashing cursor when appropriate. Entering non-standard symbols, in particular mathematical expressions, presents a challenge. There are some well-tried ways of dealing with this: informal entry using pocket-calculator conventions, LaTeX markup, a palette of standard symbols that can be dragged into the answer box. CAA software is unforgiving when trying to make sense of the kind of informal entry easily understood by humans, and so rigorous adherence to correct mathematical syntax (brackets, arithmetical operations, functional notation) is usually required. (For instance, WeBWorK is fairly tolerant of informal entry and includes a summary of user syntax in a pane on the right-hand side of its pages.)

Recording Progress: There are usually several stages in answering a question online: (1) entering the answer in the appropriate box(es); (2) validating the answer to check that the program correctly interprets it (especially if symbolic expressions are involved); (3) saving the answer (often combined with validation); (4) reviewing the answer and editing it; (5) submitting the answer for marking/grading; (6) making further attempts if allowed; (7) submitting the final attempt. It is important for this progress data to be displayed in a table on every page of the assessment, with direct navigation to uncompleted questions. It is also helpful to record individual question and total scores in this table and to display ”time remaining” in say minutes and an analogue clock.

Training and In-Test Help: It is desirable to give students a practice assignment in conjunction with an online tutorial to familiarise them with the assessment format and the syntax for entering symbolic notation. This can be delivered in advance of the test or as an initial part of it. A summary of this user guidance should be easily accessible at any stage of the test, perhaps through a help-box or in a separate pane of the test window.

Accessibility: Here is a short checklist of desirable feature for optimising access to web pages: (1) user control of font styles and sizes (especially important for the display of mathematics, which may be embedded as graphics); (2) text equivalents for graphics and multimedia; (3) simple and logical navigation; (4) control over text and background colour. (5) Compatibility with a screen-reader that handles mathematics and other symbolic notation (programs now exist to read mathematics that is coded in MathML – e.g. Design Science’s MathPlayer: see http://www.dessci.com/en/products/mathplayer/tech/accessibility.htm). Entering mathematical answers is particularly difficult for visually-impaired users and so an intelligent screen-reader for validation of answers would provide helpful reassurance.

January 24, 2007

CAA Fitness for Purpose: Pedagogy

Follow-up to Fit for Purpose? from Computer-aided assessment for sciences

This is the next contribution to my list of criteria for judging whether CAA software, particularly that with mathematical capabilities, is up to the job. Today I look at the heading


Question types: MCQs, MRQs, yes/no, hot-spot, drag-and-drop, and so on—the more the merrier! For the assessment of deeper mathematical knowledge, more searching questions can be set when the assessment package can call on the services of a computer algebra system (CAS) – eg Maple TA and STACK. An option for multiple-part questions is valuable, especially if (i) partial credit is available and (ii) answers to later parts can be judged correct when calculations based on incorrect answers to earlier parts are correctly performed.
Marking/Grading, Scoring: It is important for the author (i) to have complete control over the marking system for each question, (ii) to be able to give the user full information about how each question will be scored, and (iii) to have the option of revealing scores to the user’s at specified stages. Default marking schemes may be useful but should be easy to over-ride and should allow an author to specify a different marking scheme for each question. If an answer involves mathematical expressions, the software should be able to parse equivalent answers.
Feedback: I believe this to be the most important pedagogical feature of CAA software! The author should be able to provide various types of feedback to each question (e.g. (1) whether the submitted answer was right or wrong, (2) the bare marks scored, (3) the correct answer—for instance, the correct MCQ choice, numerical entry, or symbolic expression, (4) the full worked solution) and to specify the point at which the feedback is made available (e.g. upon submission of a single answer, of a completed assessment, or at some later time). If questions contain variable parameters, the feedback should be tailored to the parameter values used. Another useful feature is an option to provide one or more graded hints after a wrong answer and to adjust the marks accordingly. An advanced feature, explored in Mathletics, is to be able to use a student’s answer to guess at errors or misconceptions (malrules) and to respond to them in the feedback.
Random features: The inclusion of varying degrees of randomness in the construction of individual questions and whole assignments/tests/exams can significantly enhance the educational value of CAA and simultaneously reduce the risks of cheating. For each question at the assignment level, the software should be capable of selecting randomly from a specific bank of questions which all test the same skill/knowledge/understanding. At the question level, there is considerable scope for randomised variation, using place-holders to vary such things as units, names, even subject contexts; and in mathematical subjects, using parameters within specified ranges of numerical values that require students to carry out different calculations, each testing essentially the same knowledge or skills. Considerable care is needed to ensure the questions make sense for all choices of variables (for instance, avoiding division by zero), but in a science discipline, it is possible to generate millions of different, but educationally-equivalent, questions. This makes copying answers pointless and allows students to have virtually unlimited practice in formative mode. When sufficient randomness is built into a question template, it becomes a “reusable learning object ”, a special case of a reusable learning object (RLO) beloved of educational theorists who study computer-mediated learning.

January 23, 2007

Fit for Purpose?

Software for computer-aided assessment comes in many shapes and sizes serving many purposes, ranging from simple quiz-building to the construction of complex question templates involving random parameters that are designed to test deeper understanding and provide intelligent feedback.

It is evaluation time for the software we have be trying out in the Science Faculty at Warwick. Because my project is specifically aimed at science disciplines, we have concentrated the trials on four CAA packages with serious mathematical capabilities: Maple TA, Mathletics, STACK and WeBWorK.

In order to judge the merits of these behemoths, it is important to lay down the criteria we will use. I have therefore started to produce a list of features and qualities that might be considered desirable in CAA software of this kind. PLEASE ADD TO MY LIST OR SUGGEST AMENDMENTS.

I have set out the features and qualities under the following headings:

  • Authoring
  • Pedagogy
  • User-experience
  • Administration
  • Data Security
  • Robustness

I will deal with each heading in separate blogs for ease of digestion. Today I start with:


Ease of use (Ability to author questions in browser window, intelligent fully-functional editor (see Work-flow below), quick access to current projects, good GUI and navigation, natural syntax for writing questions, flexible file and folder structure for organising work, automatic save before closing browser, easy user account creation, spreadsheet import and export of both account and assignment data, optimised for accessibililty, re-usable user-created templates for (i) writing tests (ii) sets of properties and permissions.)
Mathematics entry and handling (WYSIWYG maths editor for symbolic and mathematical expressions. GIF-free options – MathML, (La)TeX, or WebEQ with MathPlayer. Platform-independent visually-pleasing rendering of symbols with scalable fonts and colours. Tex quality for both rendering and range of symbols. Intelligent display of mathematical objects (e.g. polynomials).)
Sharing questions and assignments/tests (Import/export of (i) questions created in same software and (ii) text from other applications. Compatibility with QTI and other interoperability standards. Control of permissions for other users,)
Creating assignments/tests (Easy selection from question banks. Easy control of assignment delivery options (ability to permute questions, permute parts of MCQs, choose “single scrollable page” or “one question per page”. Full control over length of test, period of availability, user-access, feedback timing.)
Work flow (WYSIWYG editor with (i) full features (e.g. find and replace) and (ii) instant rendering of modified entry. Cut and paste in all question fields (including mathematical expressions). Regular automatic-saving option. Control over time out. One-click question try-out.)
Testing (Ability to try out questions and feedback exactly as it would be experienced by a user. Separate windows for question testing and editing. Debugging and comprehensive error-reporting.)
Question, assignment and user tagging (Ability to create a number of database fields (e.g. level, topic, subtopic, creation date) for quick search and retrieval of questions from large banks. Likewise for retrieval of users from performance database.)

January 11, 2007

Think ahead

Spotted in the Terrace Gardens, Richmond upon Thames:

You have been warned!

You have been warned!

Clues of the year

If someone asked for my “best cryptic crossword clues of 2006”, I would include these, culled as usual from The Week:

Mater, mater! (7 letters, starting with O)

Food for dismissive feminist? (5,4)

January 10, 2007

Clippy says it all

Writing about web page http://www.technologyreview.com/Infotech/17969/page1/

It’s always comforting to have one’s prejudices confirmed.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Charles Simonyi, Microsoft’s former chief architect, the tutelary genius behind its most famous applications, the inventor of the method of writing code that the company’s programmers have used for 25 years.

The excerpt explains why I hate software that intrusively imposes its idea of what I need and makes it hard for me to change it.

“On a gray afternoon last October, I sat down with ­Simonyi in Bellevue, WA, in front of two adjacent screens in his office at Intentional Software, the company that he founded after he left Microsoft in 2002 to develop and commercialize his big idea (meta-­programming). Simonyi was racing me through a presentation he was preparing for an upcoming conference; he used Microsoft Office PowerPoint slides to outline his vision for the proposed great leap forward in programming. He was in the middle of moving one slide around when the application just stopped responding.

In the corner of the left-hand screen, a goggle-eyed paper clip popped up: the widely reviled “Office Assistant” that Microsoft introduced in 1997. Simonyi tried to ignore the cartoon aide’s antic fidgeting, but he was stymied. “Nothing is working,” he sighed. “That’s because Clippy is giving me some help.”

I was puzzled. “You mean you haven’t turned Clippy off?” Long ago, I’d hunted through Office’s menus and checked whichever box was required to throttle the annoying anthropomorph once and for all.

“I don’t know how,” Simonyi admitted, with a little laugh that seemed to say, Yes, I know, isn’t it ironic?

It was. Simonyi spent years leading the applications teams at Microsoft, the developers of Word and Excel, whose products are used every day by tens of millions of people. He is widely regarded as the father of Microsoft Word. (I am, of course, using Word to write these sentences.) Could Charles Simonyi have met his match in Clippy?

Simonyi stared at his adversary, as if locked in telepathic combat. Then he turned to me, blue eyes shining. “I need a helper: a Super-Clippy to show me where to turn him off!” Simonyi was hankering for a meta-Clippy.”

October 04, 2006

Chain Reaction

Reading a personal statement for a university application which began

“I used to agree that ‘hell is other people’, but since leaving home and discovering Anthropology, I have changed my mind.”,

I was reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos and then of this nice crossword clue

Secret American resort (2, 6).

August 16, 2006

Chalk and Talk

Writing about web page http://o.tearne.org/G103/download.htm

Mathematics rituals, Warwick style

(G103 is the UCAS code for a 4-year undergraduate MMath Degree)

US Patent 6,988,138

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4790485.stm

When Blackboard merged with Web CT in late 2005, it became the largest company marketing Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs). Last month Blackboard was granted a very broad patent (translated into plain English here) and has issued a writ against a Canadian company Desire2Learn for breach. If you believe, as I do, that such ridiculously general patents stifle innovation, the "Noedupatents" wiki offers suggestions for converting outrage into action

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