A first look a WeBWorK

In my last post (nearly three months ago) I commented on online assessment, and in particular on Pearson’s MyMathLab Global, which we have been using for our engineering mathematics. This is quite a good, full-featured and robust package; its only fault (if indeed a fault it be) is that it’s commercial. This works fine if you are structuring your course around a set text, but over the years I have moved further and further away from such texts. I have not found a text which could be used comfortably with my extraordinarily heterogeneous student cohort, who enter our courses with all different levels of mathematics competency, and all different levels of written and spoken English.

A good text must be carefully, simply, and clearly written, with plenty of useful examples, and above all well scaffolded exercises which move gently from the very simple to the complicated. Most (all?) textbooks in my experience suffer greatly from this. Our current preferred textbook: “Modern Engineering Mathematics” by Glyn James, has quite appalling exercises. Also, it’s bit of a heavy monster of a book, like most mathematics textbooks, and I don’t see why students should have to lug it around with them. But anyway, if you do buy the book, either in hardcopy, or in electronic form, you get a code which gives you one years access to MyMathLab and all ts trimmings.

So this last semester I have used my own notes and exercises for engineering mathematics, and sent students off to MyMathLab for their weekly online tests. There were problems:

  1. Students who first started over a year ago (who, for example, might have had to take a break between their mathematics subjects) found that their access codes had expired. I spent the first few weeks of the semester writing almost daily emails to the publishers begging for some more access codes. To their credit, the local Pearson reps were in every way helpful, accessible, friendly, and understanding.
  2. Right towards the end of the semester I kept finding students who had fallen through the cracks, so to speak, and hadn’t been able to access their tests at all. (And had got busy with other subjects and kept forgetting about them)
  3. Some answers were marked wrong, when they weren’t. I had one student who sent me a screen shot to show that he had entered “12″ as the numerical answer to a problem, which was marked wrong: the correct answer, apparently, was “12/1″. There was also confusion with decimal places: a question would ask for say 4 correct decimal places, and no matter how carefully the students entered their answers they were marked wrong.

I have wanted to experiment with WeBWorK for a while now, but I couldn’t find a way to install it locally – until I realized that I could install it (and a web server) on my desktop at work, which runs Ubuntu 12.04. I did this (it took most of a day, with only a modicum of swearing, and messages to the WeBWorK forums), but now I have a working system, even if only running on a desktop, rather than on a dedicated server.

WeBWorK has many excellent features:

  1. It’s free: open source, no less. You can pay for MAA to host your course if you don’t want to set up your own local service, but even that option is very inexpensive.
  2. It has a huge problem library: the Open Problem Library has something around 25,000 problems from most areas of undergraduate mathematics. You might not find problems on, say, cohomology or modular forms, but these advanced topics would hardly be well served by an online homework system. We are assuming here we have a large class (in the many 100′s) of students in their first or second year of university study. And for this sort of basic mathematics, WeBWorK is terrific.
  3. The authoring system for creating new problems is very straightforward: just a matter of some elementary editing. I tried authoring a problem in MyMathLab once, and although it’s quite possible, life’s too short.
  4. WeBWorK seems to play very nicely with LaTeX and Sage, so that the mathematics is properly typeset, and you can have all the power of Sage available to you if you need it.

That’s as far as I’ve got so far. You can get a feel of WeBWorK without installing it by checking out some of MAA’s “Model Courses”, of which a list is here. There doesn’t seem to be any online hosted method for browsing the problem libraries to see what’s in them, as far as I know. I think this could be something worth making available so that teaching staff can decide whether they think WeBWorK would suit them and their courses.

In my current state of thinking, if I can get a better hosted system at my work (that is, not my desktop), I may well use WeBWorK for my next teaching semester.

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