Open Dialogues: How to use open tools and resources for problem sets

For a long time engineering instructors have had homework problems for students in UBC’s Learning Management System (LMS). That is, until recently, when they found that students preferred the WeBWorK problems they were getting in their math courses.

Agnes d’Entremont, an instructor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Jonathan Verrett, an instructor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, decided to convert the existing problems to WeBWorK and to create new ones.

WeBWorK is an online homework delivery system that allows students do their homework online and receive instant feedback on their answers. The platform, designed in the mid-90s, is completely open source and allows instructors to create problems that are individualized for each student.

The fact WeBWorK is an open source platform is very important to Verrett.

“As a public university I feel we’re here to educate the public and so resources that I create should be openly available to everyone. The nice thing about WeBWorK is that it’s an open source program. Anybody can access it. People can also take those materials and build on them. That allows educators to have access to more powerful tools to train students,” he added.

Good for students, good for instructors

Since the beginning of the project, d’Entremont and Verrett have involved students. Undergraduate students worked on the coding. Graduate students create brand new problems. And current students are giving feedback on what’s working and what’s not working with the problems that have been created.

d’Entremont says the transition to WeBWorK has been positive for both students and instructors. For the students, she posits, the value of an open platform is that they’re not paying a lot of money for a system like one produced by a publisher. They also get questions that might be more relevant to the specific types of questions that their instructors are going to ask.

“As an instructor, you can modify any problem in the Open Problem Library. You can take and modify it to have the units you want, or the type of notation that you prefer, and then post it again, so you can really customize your course materials,” she added.

“We enter variables and those change based on each student’s question,” explained Verrett. “The advantage with this is that students can collaborate, and I encourage them to. They can share solutions strategies and learn from each other. But at the same time, they can’t just say “The answer is five” because it’s going to be slightly different, so they have to explain their methodology.”

The Open Problem Library

According to d’Entremont, they have already converted 700 existing problems (many of them first year review) from the LMS to WeBWorK, but this is not enough material to run a course in any one subject. “The hope is to build more problems to the point that you could run a course with WeBWorK as your homework system in engineering,” she said.

WeBWorK hosts a problem bank called the Open Problem Library, where anyone can contribute problems in any subject. Presently, there are about 35,000 problems available on the Open Problem Library, but most of them are math problems.

“There are probably around 200 engineering problems on there in only three different subjects. So, we want to expand that,” d’Entremont said.

The two engineering instructors say that they have capacity to build 60 to 80 new problems for each subject in the Open Problem Library, but they hope their project will get other instructors interested.

“My hope is that we plant a seed on the Open Problem Library. We’re starting several subjects that don’t exist there now. If 10 people build five problems each, suddenly we have this amazing resource that’s available to all of us,” she concluded.