Saturday, 8 December 2007

DUMP2.0 Development News

The next iteration of development work for DUMP2.0 is now underway. This iteration focuses on implementing the technical feature that was judged to be most popular when we surveyed the DUMP user base earlier in the year, namely the ability to export questions from DUMP into other popular quiz systems, such as Respondus and QuestionMark Perception. We are also going to implement the slightly less popular feature of exporting questions in various versions of the IMS standard QTI specification during this iteration as well, since the paths to implementing all of these export formats are actually quite closely intertwined.

Before I go on to explain what's going to be done next in detail, it is worth pausing to look at the export functionality the DUMP already offers. The current release of DUMP (0.9.7) supports:
  1. Exporting a Question Bundle as a custom web bundle for formative assessment.
  2. Exporting a Question Bundle as a paper test, with the option whether to highlight the correct answer.
The nice thing about our custom web bundle is that it gives you a self-contained ZIP file that can be exploded into a VLE or your own web space and made available as a formative test resource for students. No server software is required as all of the answer checking is done by some JavaScript in the browser. The web content itself is also rather "cutting edge" in that it uses MathML for display of mathematics, giving high quality rendering of mathematics on browsers which support MathML (namely Firefox/Mozilla and Internet Explorer 6/7 with the MathPlayer plugin). Indeed, we use this functionality extensively in a number of undergraduate courses here in the School of Physics (most notably in Physics 1A). However, this simplicity also comes with a number of limitations:
  • The questions cannot be used for summative assessment (since web-savvy students can easily find the answers)
  • It's not possible to import our questions into other test systems.
  • Many VLEs and web-based systems that we may wish to house content in have surprisingly inept support for web standards so successfully deploying MathML within them ranges from difficult to impossible. (The University of Edinburgh's chosen VLE, WebCT, is an especially bad offender... which I have ranted at length about previously!)
In order to overcome these limitations, it became evident that we should:
  1. Look at how we can export our questions in alternative formats that can be imported into other test systems.
  2. Look at how we can export our maths content so that it can be imported into other systems.
As a first study, I chose to look at Respondus, which is one of the most popular quiz/test systems in use. Respondus is an easy-to-use authoring tool which allows its content to be exported in a number of formats, including the well-established QTI 1.2 specification, as well as specific targeted output formats suitable for importing into various versions of WebCT and other VLEs. This approach of having multiple exports is pragmatic, since the quality of support for QTI varies amongst different VLEs and test systems. In terms of getting material into Respondus, it accepts CSV files and QTI 1.2 files wrapped in an appropriate structure. Once into Respondus, the data is actually stored in a native binary format, which does not appear to be documented publicly so the export/import option is our only real possibility here. As far as Maths support goes, Respondus does support MathML to a limited extend, but not as an input format and it is either converted to images or applets on output. The applet approach requires end-users to have non-free proprietary software installed on client machines, so is not a viable option for us in my opinion.

As a result of this investigation, I am planning to add the following new functionality to DUMP during this work iteration:
  1. Offer the option of MathML or "maths as images" in all web outputs.
  2. Add functionality to export a single question or question bundle in QTI 1.2 format, wrapped up in various ways, including an IMS Content Package and whatever is required to ensure the question imports into Respondus. (This output format will have MathML converted to images as QTI 1.2 does not support MathML.)
  3. Add functionality to export a single question or question bundle in QTI 2.1 format, wrapped up as an IMS Content Package. (This newer version of QTI does support MathML, so will offer the option of having MathML or not. However, few systems currently support QTI 2.1 so this option is currenly more theoretical than usable.)
Much of this work will actually take place inside the Aardvark Processing Framework, which is the part of DUMP (and our Aardvark content management system) that does all of the heavy lifting and conversion on the raw content. Once Aardvark has been updated, an interim release of DUMP will be issued with the new functionality shoe-horned into its existing user interface.

As of this moment, feature 1 (maths as images) has been successfully prototyped and is nearly completed as a new general Aardvark feature that can be used for all Aardvark web outputs. Further work on refining this will occur in the run-up to Christmas. Feature 3 (export as QTI 2.1) has already been done (with MathML only) so will only need a little further work once item 1 has finished. Feature 2 (export as QTI 1.2) will be implemented shortly after feature 1, concentrating on QTI 1.2 initially and then performing any further work required to get this into Respondus. Do note that one downside of the "maths as images" approach is that it will be much harder to edit or adapt questions once they've been exported as that would involve redrawing or otherwise replaceing the images, rather than editing the MathML. We do not anticipate that this will be a concern for most users though.

These new features will open up a plethora of new ways of using the questions in our database. More news soon...