Monday, 13 August 2012

Custom maths component for Uniqurate

I am very keen to see QTI used in other disciplines than maths, and I believe it's an important aspect of the current projects - I've specifically used the term "de-mathsing"in the past.

However, the reality is that even in non-maths disciplines people still need e-assessment resources that can handle some element of maths. We may not be talking about the complex, computer algebra system-enabled level seen in some of the MathAssess resources - ultimately, my feeling is that creating such rich content will most likely always be the purview of Expert Mode and those individuals who can craft QTI resources within it. Nevertheless, the ability to specify a simple expression and build a question around it spans many, if not most subject areas, and it is not unreasonable on the part of the user community to expect their e-assessment tool to support this.

In the early days of Uniqurate I'd expected much of this need to be served by individual quick maths components that we would identify across a range of disciplines - much as was the case with the quick maths triangle. However, most of the feedback emerging of late was more generic - a need for "more maths" was being articulated without very much in the way of detail. I wanted to scratch this itch but avoid travelling down the same path as Mathqurate. Thus, a general "simple maths" component started to formulate in the back of my mind, and I'm pleased to announce that the release of Uniqurate that I deployed on Friday introduces this new functionality.

You will observe that the components are now divided into three tabs, Text, Maths and Other (as the list of components on the left side was beginning to disappear off of the bottom on my MacBook screen :-) In the Maths tab alongside the existing "triangle" component is our new maths component. When dragged onto a question canvas this results in a fairly simple component that just shows Question Text and Answer, but clicking on one of those fields will pull up a new window that looks like that below:

The screenshot above shows a good example of how this component may be used. Here, we have a question around the old chestnut pi r2. It might be argued that this is actually a trick question - we're specifying our radius in centimeters but actually want the area in millimeters! This lets us showcase the different feedback that can be set up. Note that there is a correct and "non-correct" answer - the latter being what I might refer to as wrong, despite others out there hating such a pejorative term :-) However, you can also add custom feedbacks which will be triggered on alternative answers. Our example above shows only one, but you can have as many as you like.

The example shown involves only one variable (pi doesn't count, it's a constant, along with e) but you can have as many variables as you like - the table underneath the answer field will expand to accommodate them all. Our example is also using explicit values in the min and max fields - but you can use variables or even expressions there. The constraint field also gives you further control, by specifying conditions that must be met when the question runs - you might use this to avoid zero values in variables, for example, or to ensure that a variable value makes sense in the context of the value of another variable.

Even if I do so say so myself, I am very pleased with how this component came out. Initially, I was not expecting to be able to achieve the level of flexibility available in the final version - certainly the use of expressions in the min and max fields was not in my mind at the beginning, and even the use of variables in those fields I considered problematic. The whole thing was opened up courtesy of a chunk of code I created a couple of weeks or so ago that converts a sensible, human-readable maths expression into QTI. So, if one pipes


into this function, one gets

        <mathConstant name="pi"/>
            <variable identifier="r"/>
            <baseValue baseType="integer">2</baseValue>
    <baseValue baseType="integer">10</baseValue>

straight back. Regardless of the complexity of the expression - whether it is just a single, explicit value or a six line, bracket-tastic epic, what you will get is a QTI excerpt that can be injected into a question wherever an expression is expected.

I won't go into more detail; this is perhaps a little more techie-oriented than is the norm on this blog (or certainly in posts I write here) but I wanted to mention it for the benefit of other developers who might be confronted with similar needs. There may be applications for this code not only for editor apps but for those who are converting resources in other standards into QTI. Uniqurate (like all of our projects to date) is open source and the code is available on SourceForge. Those of you so inclined, feel free to grab and hack - and be sure to let me know if you do (I'm looking at you, Mr. Pierce :-)

Meanwhile, for the rest of you - please go off and use it, break it, and (inevitably!) come screaming back to me. To test your questions you'll need to use JAssess for now, as support within QTIWorks for the QTI features this component depends on is still being developed. As ever, you'll find JAssess on the QTI Support site along with a wealth of other useful resources. At the moment, you will also need to get in touch with Graham Smith to be able to run your own questions in JAssess, but you'll find his email address prominent on the initial JAssess landing page.

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