Friday, 31 August 2012

Testing times on Uniqurate

No, we're not having problems on the Uniqurate project, quite the opposite in fact - today's release adds test authoring. Sorry, I couldn't resist the headline :)

You will find that the button on the main menu to create a test is now enabled, and when used, you'll observe that the edit option changes to reflect that you have a test rather than a single question in memory.

Tests are divided into sections, and each section contains a number of questions. For the simplest use case, you can just leave all the default settings alone, click the Add question to section button a few times and select some questions. Give it a title, possibly fill in a bit of explanatory text that the student will see, and then save the test. Your work should then work in any delivery system compatible with QTI 2.1 tests.

However, Uniqurate does go a little further than that. You can have multiple sections in a test, and select random questions from the section so that no two deliveries of the test are the same. You can repeat a question within a section - useful if you want students to try several times with different randomised values (of course, this assumes that the question has randomised values!). You can even deliver different sections to the student depending on how they've done on the previous sections.

The test screen is a little busier than the question authoring screen, so when time permits we'll try and put together some documentation that talks people through the various options. In the meantime, however, the various little icons help scattered around the screen will pop up help about the option nearby.

Unfortunately, QTIWorks does not yet have tests up and running. JAssess should run tests fine, however, and as long as you avoid the maths components of UQ, the venerable MathAssessEngine should also run them too (although it does have a bit of a problem displaying the question feedback).

Meanwhile, people, as its author I hereby declare our old test authoring tool Spectatus officially obsolete! Awww. Please join me in a minute's silence for that worthy warhorse :-)

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Uniqurate - the final thrust (ooer)

Following the recent RSC workshop, there was a release of Uniqurate that included quite a few bug fixes and a few feature requests. Most of the bugs should have been fixed (and I've probably introduced a whole bunch of new ones, but hey :-) and I've added some of the new features. However, there were a number of ideas for new components that emerged.

We've been fortunate in that around the CAA conference onwards I've been available to work on UQ more or less full time, and as a result we've made a lot of progress in July and August. However, the bad news is that my involvement in Uniqurate ends in November, and along with the fact that once we get into September and teaching commitments rear their ugly head, this quick burn development is going to be curtailed. Short version: there is probably enough time remaining to get test authoring done and perhaps one other component.

So I'm going to put the possible other component to a vote. Feedback from the RSC workshop, plus components that have been mooted in the past, leads us to the following list - numbered for reference, but not in any particular order:
  1. An "Excel" component - essentially a grid of (random) numbers, some of which will be blank, and the student has to fill in the blanks. The blank values would be derived from the non-blank values.
  2. A Medicine Component for questions where you have a list of medicines and a list of "strengths" for each - the question would choose randomly a drug and a strength to set up a calculation (but I'd need a little more explanation here :)
  3. "Fill in the blanks" within text - "blanks" could be either a text field into which the student types, or a pull down menu of choices
  4. Diagram labelling - drag labels onto the right place of a diagram. Potentially, drag bits of a diagram into the right place of a diagram.
These aren't components, but feature requests, any one of which would probably use up the non-test development time:
  1. Option to place feedback alongside the input it refers to
  2. Confidence-based marking
  3. A random wrapper - i.e. you define a group of components, and at question run time it chooses a random component within this wrapper to show. Thus you could set up a variety of different components but with related content - e.g. several maths components with slightly different variations of a concept, MCQs with different but related distractors, etc.
To help you decide, here's some thoughts about these from my perspective:

3 and 4 are eminently doable. Although questions with graphical interactions seem to get good responses from students, the scope of the sister QTIDI project means that we're probably stuck with the legacy Java applet-based graphics for now at the renderer end of things. So if it came down to 3 or 4 my vote would be 3, to concentrate on the component that would result in the best experience when it was finally rendered.

I understand the utility of 5, but it would mean a fundamental change in how the "friendly" mode composes its content, so it would be very complex to do and would burn up a lot of development time for something that is basically aesthetic.

1 and 2 would need to be fleshed out a lot more, and I think there are others with greater cross disciplinary utility - but I'm game if people vote them highest!

6 is often brought up as a popular choice - again, game if people vote it highest.

However, my own vote would be 7. I think it would be relatively easy to implement both from a UI and QTI perspective, yet add a new dimension of flexibility to questions. You could specify a whole raft of similar but subtly different components around a given subject, and really put a student through their paces (although, arguably, one could do this at test level).

Over to you, guys - what do you think?

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.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

New Uniqurate release

A new release of Uniqurate was published yesterday which introduces a new component, the catchily titled "place items into correct order" component. When authoring the question you supply a number of items and specify a correct order for them. Then, when the question is delivered to the student, their task is to arrange them into this correct order.

From a user interface perspective, there are commonalities between this component and the existing multiple choice component - i.e. both of them require the ability to add a variable amount of "answers" to the component. I could have used the existing multiple choice question component as a basis for the UI for the new one, but I decided to adopt a slightly different approach. Rather than having an "add new item" button next to each answer, I used a single "add" button, and introduced the ability to re-order the answers by dragging them. I think this approach is nicer than the existing one on the MCQ component, and if the community agrees I will port it over to the MCQ component.

There are several potential avenues for the next thrust (ooer) of development, and I would be keen to get some thoughts from the community:

Maths Component
Would allow a user to enter a simple expression, i.e. A x B + C / D, possibly some functions too, specify the ranges for each variable, and possibly other parameters such as whether to use integers only etc. I would be open to suggestions on how to represent this in the user interface. My thinking at the moment is that when you drag this component onto the canvas, it fires up a wizard that leads you through entering the expression, then specifying the ranges for each variable etc. Once complete, the wizard would close so that all you have in the canvas/preview is a placeholder represented by the expression, and an edit button. Clicking the edit button would bring the wizard back up.

Select correct answer from pull-down list
It would be easy to implement this as a component in its own right, that would appear as a block within a question. However, I suspect that most people would like to be able to place such components inline within a static block of text. This will be more complex. In terms of how I would represent that from a UI perspective, I would probably arrange it so that one could drag it into place within a static text area. However, that would break the UQ convention with respect to how components are placed onto the canvas. Again, I'm open to suggestions as to how best this should be represented.

Test functionality
I've avoided implementing the ability to compile a group of questions into a test yet, based on the fact that the test capabilities of several of our renderers are still in flux. But this will need doing at some point and now does make a degree of sense, given the fact that UQ now supports a variety of question components, and that there's plenty for you testing types to be getting on with in question-land for the time being!

Any and all feedback will be gratefully received!