FEd December 1997 Newsletter - Automating Assignment Delivery on the World Wide We

December 1997



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Automating Assignment Delivery on the World Wide Web

Larry Martin and Aaron Titus

Physics teachers have been using electronic media in their teaching for some years. Computers, in particular, have been quickly adopted into physics classrooms, because it is a natural extension of using computers in our research. With a wide variety of computer platforms has come a wide variety of pedagogical software of varying usefulness. With the advent of the World Wide Web and its cross-platform capability, a new tool has become available to deliver instruction any time, any place, to any platform. Much of the initial development of this new medium was driven by the needs of our research community to deliver research results electronically so that dissemination among experts could occur more rapidly than traditional publishing might allow. It seems natural to extend this widely supported technology into our classrooms.

Early uses of the Web in teaching have sometimes derisively been called "shovel-ware," meaning that traditional syllabi and lecture notes were simply exported to Web sites. As new methods became available on the Web, they were less likely to be adopted because of the difficulty in learning and using them. For example, as "forms" became available, the difficulty of learning to write the needed hypertext markup language (HTML) to produce radio buttons, text area boxes, etc., was enough to prohibit many from using this technology. Some simple forms have been used but often the extent of the post-processing was to email the results to the teacher, which was no more desirable than asking teachers to collect more papers to grade. What is needed is a way of generating the forms automatically and then collecting the results and grading them automatically. It is also desirable that the questions have some element of randomization so that student collaboration is limited. Such power is available through the use of a common-gateway interface (CGI), a program that runs on the Web server to create Web pages "on the fly" for display on the student's Web browser. The CGI may also handle collection, storage, and grading of the students' responses.

For several years at North Park University, and more recently at North Carolina State University, we have been developing and using such programs to aid in the delivery of interactive instruction. This article describes a program called WWWAssign (often pronounced as "Web Assign"), freely available from our Web site, which allows relatively easy construction of lists of questions ready for automated Web delivery and grading. This CGI is written in Perl and is fairly readable by anyone familiar with programming. Such assignments have been by us as homework, tutorials, quizzes, tests, and even exams. The formatting of the questions into HTML form is handled by the CGI which has been used successfully on Unix, Macintosh, and PC webservers.

For any assignment, there is a descriptor file containing basic information about the assignment, including a pointer to a file of names of students allowed to take the assignment. The students at our institutions log in using their normal user names and passwords, so there is no need to create new passwords.

Other information in the descriptor file is carefully annotated. An advantage of our program is that an assignment may have multiple sections, making it possible to present information in a later section which may "give away" an answer to a previous section; however, the student may not "go back" and fill in another answer since it has already been submitted.

Four modes of questions are presently supported: multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, numerical and essay. All but the last are automatically graded, and essays may be teacher-graded through a simple Web interface. The basis of an assignment is a flat text file of questions and answers with a few simple formatting constraints which allow the CGI to determine the mode of the question. The format of the source file is line based, with one line for each question, followed by a single line containing the answer.

The default question mode is multiple choice (of which "true-false" questions are a subset). The question is typed on a single line (including any HTML for extra formatting or links to pictures), followed by the correct response, and as many distractors as desired. From the question, the WWWAssign CGI will produce a "radio-button" form with the positions of the correct answers and distractors suitable randomized.

A fill-in-the-blank question creates a text box for the student's answer. The answer line contains all possible correct responses separated by tabs. The program will not accept misspelled answers; the match must be exact. A numerical answer line contains the correct number and the proper units. The default tolerance is plus or minus 1 percent, although an override tolerance may be added. For essay questions, the answer line starts with two numbers specifying length and width for the text box. These indicate an expectation for the length of the response. An exemplary answer may be added; this will appear to the students when they receive their graded key. The essay grading interface presents students' responses anonymously to the instructor to preserve some measure of objectivity. A new type of tagging on questions is used to created randomized questions. Each student may be given a set of random numbers in their problems. Several examples of the use of this method are available on our Web site.

Our experience is that these Web-based assignments are popular with students, since they can receive immediate feedback on their score. They also appreciate the fact that they are now forced to keep up on the reading and classwork by the regularity of the assignments. Such attention to "time on task" has been severely limited in the past due to teachers' inability to collect and quickly grade papers. Students will rarely heed the advice "do it anyway" unless they know it has a direct impact on their grade. This program allows students to complete assignments anywhere, anytime, on the platform of their choice.

We offer this program to the academic community in the hopes that it may be of service in our common task, that of creatively engaging our students in investing their time and talents to learning our discipline and becoming a part of our community of scholars. Information, documentation, and the program are available from [http://www.northpark.edu/~martin/WWWAssign].

Larry Martin is professor of physics at North Park College in Chicago, and Aaron Titus is at North Carolina State University, Raleigh.