Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2001 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 5, Issue 4
The Scholar Project
Heriot-Watt University, UK
Biography: Jane Paterson is a research fellow in assessment but previously worked as SCHOLAR Maths author. She has just completed her masters in Computer-Enhanced Mathematics Education.
Abstract: The SCHOLAR project began in 1999 at
Introduction: The Scholar project at
The SCHOLAR teams are structured as follows:
A subject leader: A highly experienced subject specialist employed by Heriot-Watt.
Courseware developers: The authors who are either employed by Heriot-Watt for their expertise in writing and delivering learning materials or are seconded school teachers from the neighbouring communities.
Technical assistants: Recent graduates, mainly from Heriot-Watt, who have skills in the particular subject, computing, graphics or technical issues. They assist the authors in developing the material.
In addition, the services of many other professionals in Heriot-Watt are used to compile the final print and web versions.
The SCHOLAR Mathematics site at July 2001 comprises the fifteen topics that form the Advanced Higher. Over the remainder of 2001 the twelve topics forming the Higher will appear.
Every topic employs the same format and consists of the theory, diagrams, fully worked examples, animations, interactivities and exercises. There are also additional sections when appropriate. Each of these aspects is now examined in more detail:
Theory: Throughout all of the SCHOLAR Mathematics material at both Advanced Higher and Higher levels, a conscious decision was taken to write the materials in such a way that they could be used not only, as originally intended, in the class room/lecture theatre with teacher/lecturer support, but also by the independent learner. Thus the theory provided in the text version is almost totally reproduced on the web and is sectioned for easier access. By doing this, the students can have access to the material in school and at home. They can print out particular sections rather than carry heavy books and can also access the text if they arrive at school/home having forgotten the textbook. The flexibility that the web site offers will be a major advantage in seeking additional partners for the project in years to come.
Diagrams: The authors using the application, Freehand, draw most of the diagrams. By doing this, the diagrams can be kept deliberately simple in order to allow the students to concentrate on the learning points of that section. The scales used, for example, on graph work are minimal and colours are chosen only when their use reinforces the learning. Other packages tend to provide too much sophisticated detail for what is needed.
Worked Examples: The Scholar team feel that worked examples are of paramount importance in the learning cycle and not only show the students correct ways of reaching the answer but also provide a useful reference point for revision. Almost all of the worked examples that are given in the text are reproduced for the web version.
Animations: Following the same criteria as for the diagrams, the authors produce animations, this time using Flash. These animations, unlike interactivities, offer limited student input. The main aim is to demonstrate, dynamically, any learning point where the visual representation is easier to grasp. Colour is used, but kept to a minimum to avoid any conflict with eyesight problems. This is also the case with movement, where a conscious effort is made to balance the delights of highly complex dynamic movies against those that convey the learning point in an interesting varied way accessible to all students.
Interactivities: Software developers produce these activities in Director and Java for the SCHOLAR mathematics team. There are fewer of these throughout the materials as they are generally more complicated to produce. The students are expected to calculate values based on the information given and generate the animation using these values. The animated outcome depends on the students' input. Care is taken in the construction of these activities in order to avoid undue delays in downloading the applets. This is another reason for using them sparingly as the learning has to flow naturally to allow the students to progress without distractions caused by the equipment being used. At this level of learning too, students can become very impatient and repeatedly click to continue before the download is complete if it is too slow, thus losing some of the important points that the interactivity hoped to convey.
Exercises: In SCHOLAR Mathematics, considerable emphasis is placed on computer-aided assessment. Two types of questioning are used. In some cases where a straightforward question is asked as part of the learning process, the question is set within the authoring application, XMetaL. This is useful for graph sketching, calculator screen dump answers, very short answers and computer programs. It is also a convenient method through which the student is encouraged to engage with the material without formally accessing a test. It can however only provide a screen shot of the model answer and mark it correct/incorrect. The second type of questioning is carried out on-line using the assessment engine called CUE [2,3] which is a web development of the CALM project at Heriot-Watt in collaboration with UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate) and EQL (a commercial company in West Lothian). The question types at present used in CUE provide considerable variety for the on-line learner.
Judged Mathematical expression
Multiple Choice/Multiple Response
Word and Phrase match
The Mathematics material, whilst making use of all types of question, benefits greatly from judged mathematical expression answers where the assessment engine is able to mark both numerical and complicated algebraic answers. CUE also provides stepped questions for those who are less able to complete the original question, partial credit when only parts of the question have been answered correctly, a variety of delivery modes, immediate feedback and random parameters. The students, as a result, have one of the largest question banks in Mathematics available at this level. Access to the on-line assessments is freely available to all registered students when they may wish it and not only when they are in the classroom. The result of any interaction between students and the CUE exercises is recorded in a results database. Access to the results is immediate and available at two levels: student level and tutor level. The students have access to all data pertaining to their personal password. The tutors have access to all records for the students registered under their supervision. This second type of questioning through CUE is used for topic exercises, review exercises and revision practice examinations. As mentioned already, the use of randoms and a variety of question types gives the students considerable practice in the questions that they may encounter in a formal exam. It must be stressed that at present all assessments in SCHOLAR are diagnostic (revision), formative (exercises) or practice summative (end of topic or end of course tests). The questions set in CUE also support multimedia that broadens the scope of the possible questions and answers. Given the opportunity, further question types will be developed including ordered/unordered lists, hidden multiple choice, gap fill, drag and drop and computer adaptive testing.
Additional Sections: Within each topic in both Advanced Higher and Higher there are additional sections for revision, for proofs where appropriate, and for extended information. The aim of a revision exercise is to provide a check on the abilities of the students in the techniques and methods given in the prerequisites to the course. Any proofs that are specifically mentioned in the official content guidelines of a course are included within the relevant subsections. Those optional proofs that may be of interest to the more able student or used for extension work are placed in the proof section so that there are no unnecessary distractions from the theory. A brief comment on mathematicians involved in the topic over the centuries is included in the extended information section. This section also provides a selection of web links to sites covering the topic. These links should help to deepen and broaden the enthusiastic student's understanding of the topic.
Other enhancements to the materials include calculator activities and programs, challenge questions and group investigations. Further sections can be easily added if the content guidelines change or the emphasis switches to a different concept within that topic.
It is intended that the materials will be repackaged for other courses and the structure within each topic should help with this.
Evaluation: Evaluation is
taken seriously and in the pilot year, several types have been undertaken. An
independent editor with extensive experience in learning and teaching carried
out an evaluation of the learning styles and pedagogy within the Mathematics
materials. His comments were useful and the suggested improvements/adjustments
were made to the materials immediately. Staff within the department of
Mathematics at Heriot-Watt also reviewed the materials to ensure firstly that
the content was mathematically sound and secondly to confirm that it was
appropriate not only for the school sector but also for the first year students
at the university. Teacher staff development days have also been held regularly
to encourage comments from those who are using the courses. These are
continuing. In general, the comments are very favourable with only a few
reservations mainly on the use of the web for teaching and learning rather than
on the content. Through two schools liaison teachers, contact with students
currently using the materials will be maintained and it is hoped that this will
generate some feedback from them - the people who really matter. Further
presentations and demonstrations of the materials have taken place in
universities, institutions and other education establishments with feedback
constantly showing that the material is well received.
Problem Areas: There have in fact been relatively few problems with producing web-based materials. From the Heriot-Watt point of view maintenance of the site has been undertaken over school holidays and then consists of very little down time. The format of the materials, particularly in Mathematics, is still of some concern as the mathematical expressions are still not centred within the text in a way which makes the materials comparable to the text to read. This issue which is outwith our control may be resolved when all browsers support MathML. From a user's point of view, most problems have occurred within the networks which particular institutions use. For example, general restrictions have been placed on plugins or web sites and this caused initial difficulties for some schools. These have been resolved easily with dialogue between Heriot-Watt technical staff and those within the institution concerned. The availability of computers for each student has not been as much of a problem as expected and any lingering issues here are actively being pursued by those involved. Web access has been encouraging with less occurrences of the Internet going down than feared. Most problems within our control have now been resolved and none of them caused undue disruption to those involved.
In conclusion, the SCHOLAR project has met its targets and deadlines. The material is of a consistently high standard and considerably enhances the learning for the students registered on the courses. The future looks very promising and SCHOLAR hopes that many more students and their tutors will benefit from the materials in years to come.