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Real Life Stories

Published February 23, 2014

Linking Creative Commons and Open Source Material to WeBWorK

I first used WeBWorK in 2007, as a graduate teaching assistant at McGill. Afterwards, I taught mathematics at different places (University of British Columbia, University of Toronto, Concordia and Cégep Montmorency) and had the chance to work with different teaching environments and technologies. Now at Vanier College, it seemed time to do some experiments with WeBWorK to take a good thing and make it better. Basically, I’m modifying WeBWorK problems to add links to resources.

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Creating Interactive Documents

One type of resource I have embedded in WeBWorK is an interactive document created with Mathematica inside an HTML page. If a student needs help on a problem, they can click on the link in the WeBWorK problem, and the interactive document will open inside their browser.

Here is an example of an interactive document linked to a standard calculus question about computing the volume of a solid of revolution. You can see how a region in two dimensions can rotate around an axis to form a solid of revolution. Beyond the visual explanation of what’s going on, you can add a theoretical explanation for computing the volume such as by slicing the volume of the solid of revolution into small cylinders.

I make these interactive documents on my own using Mathematica, which is basically a programming language. I asked the college to buy the software for me. Once created, I export documents in the CDF format (Computable Document Format) which needs a reader, but the reader is free so the students don’t need to pay anything. It’s basically analogous to the relationship between Adobe Creator and the Adobe pdf reader. The same approach can be implemented using the software Maple.

Actually, I had used Mathematica before, but I would say to learn to do something like this would take the uninitiated teacher a couple of weeks to master. There is a manual that comes with the program as well as a help section and a documentation center, but I have discovered that when I want to learn a language, I just copy paste commands and modify them.

A Dynamic Explanation of a Solid of Revolution in Mathematic

A Dynamic Explanation of a Solid of Revolution in Mathematica

A Dynamic Explanation of the Calulation of the Volume of a Solid of Revolution

A Dynamic Explanation of the Calulation of the Volume of a Solid of Revolution

Easy Resources to Give Students Multiple Options for Understanding

I’m very supportive of open source textbooks, and so I’ve created a link to one where you could read someone else’s explanation of a concept in addition to the course textbook. In WeBWorK, I link to a particular pdf page in the document where a given concept is discussed. The text I use is from Grand Valley State University and carries a Creative Commons license. I can refer my students to it in confidence, knowing that I’m respecting copyright. With this particular version of Creative Commons, the only thing required is to credit the original author, distribute without charge and impose as a condition on users of the text to give credit to the original author when they in turn use it as a resource.

Extract from the Active Calculus e-book used by the students

You can read an extract from the Active Calculus e-book used by the students

Although it’s a bit geeky, I sometimes ask students to take pictures of the chalkboard and then link them to WeBWorK.

My students, as well as the photos, inspired me to create yet another easy resource. I just decided to use my document camera to make videos of myself solving the problem at home. I think this is a very nice method because the students don’t only see the solution, they see the approach which you use to arrive at the handwritten solution in real time. I think students can relate better to a human hand on a piece of paper than an impersonal slide.

Students are invited to take pictures of the chalkboard in class

Students are invited to take pictures of the chalkboard in class

Student Reactions to Creative Commons, Open Source Resources and IT

Although there are textbooks which already use interactive documents, they are expensive for students, and I support accessible education. I don’t want students to pay a lot for material that they will not need for a long time, particularly when there is so much excellent material that is open source.

Oral feedback from my students has been overwhelmingly positive. In order to accommodate student and teacher interest, the Mathematica plugin will be installed in the whole college next fall. For the moment I’m just showing these resources in class and asking students to download them at home.

The interactive parts are particularly popular as introduction to new concepts because I think this generation of students is more at home playing with buttons and moving things around than reading textbooks and understanding material from a static perspective, however these traditional resources remain important for a deeper understanding.

Sharing resources between teachers has allowed me to escape the confines of my own teaching style. I find different resources offer the teacher different approaches to use in the classroom. The vast choice of materials available has allowed me to accommodate different learning styles as well. And with WeBWorK, since it’s open source, you can just add all the different sources and different formats, and then, the students will learn from whatever resource they find most comfortable.

Do you use online resources created by other teachers? How do you distribute online resources to your students?

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