CASE STUDY: UNIVERSITY COLLEGE CORK
SPARK OF INTEREST
Tom Carroll, Mathematics, UCC and Kieran Mulchrone, Applied Mathematics, UCC have a long standing interest in Mathematics Education at university having collaborated on a project entitled “Development of an online mathematical learning application for first year science, engineering, food science and commerce students” funded by the President’s Strategic Fund in 2005. Kieran Mulchrone established an online M.Sc. in Mathematical Modelling and Scientific Computing in 2014 and is completing an MA in Open and Distance Learning with the Open University in 2016. It is no surprise that when a call came for a CIT-hosted workshop on Numbas our interest was piqued and we attended. Numbas was a positive revelation which opened up many possibilities. Our key motivation at this time was helping science students who take a compulsory course in Mathematics in first year at UCC. This is a large cohort of 500 students of mixed abilities, experiences with and attitudes to Mathematics. Efficient management of resources was also to the forefront during a time of government cutbacks.
EXPERIENCE WITH ONLINE MATHEMATICS
Our previous experience of online Mathematics was challenging. Development of resources is typically time consuming and then often provides little variation for students. Prototypes were interesting but upscaling proved almost impossible. We had experimented with using Mathematica as a background workhorse and using some of its innate abilities to break down solutions into steps; however this typically did not provide useful feedback to students. Kieran has used the virtual learning environment (VLE) Blackboard for many years and experienced the limitations of its built-in assessment capabilities (i.e. multiple choice questions, comparison of exact numeric answers, no symbolic abilities).
NUMBAS AT UCC
Although Numbas is not a panacea for online Mathematics, it does solve many of the obstacles we had encountered earlier. It provides a platform for problem development; it allows for assessment of symbolic answers; it can provide intelligent random parameter generation for variation; it can incorporate graphical (both static and dynamic) material into questions; it automatically grades answers and integrates with VLE’s; it can provide feedback. Numbas appeared to have huge potential for helping with not only moderately sized classes but also with large service classes for budding scientists.
With the help of funding from the National Forum, Numbas was used in MA1001 (Calculus for Science Part I) in Semester 1 2015. There were approximately 500 students and Numbas was used to provide practice exercises where students could test their understanding with immediate feedback and also it was used for continuous assessment online examinations. Unlike CIT it was not possible to supervise examinations in small group sessions and we decided to use an allocated time slot where students could take the exam either on university computers or their own laptops. Students were given instruction on Numbas in tutorials and a video was produced which stepped them through the process. This ultimately led to difficulties due to failure of the VLE to transfer results from Numbas SCORM packages into Blackboard (it turns out that this is a known issue with Blackboard). This problem undermined the usage of Numbas as a continuous assessment tool. However, its use as a practice tool was unaffected.
Numbas will once again be used in Semester 1 in MA1001 at UCC except that we have changed VLE from Blackboard to Moodle which does not have the same issues with SCORM. Additionally, Numbas will be extended to provide exercises in other service courses for second year engineering students and will be used by other lecturers in our group.
• Numbas is a framework for constructing flexible Mathematics questions.
• Providing meaningful feedback in Numbas is time consuming – this takes the place of our previous difficulties in making flexible questions.
• VLE’s can be temperamental and need careful evaluation before integrating Numbas.
• Never over-estimate the technical capabilities of students – not all are members of the Net-Generation. Provide clear instructions about how to use unfamiliar technologies.