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Dennis Keeler - Convincing IT services

Dennis Keeler - Convincing IT services

by Arnold Pizer -
Number of replies: 0
inactiveTopicConvincing IT services topic started 6/1/2004; 9:28:21 PM
last post 6/4/2004; 1:52:06 PM
userDennis Keeler - Convincing IT services  blueArrow
6/1/2004; 9:28:21 PM (reads: 1027, responses: 3)
Hello. I'm currently talking with my university's IT Services about setting up a Webwork server. They'd like me to explain why Webwork would be a better choice than MapleTA. The argument of "free, labor of love, written by math professors" goes a long way with me, but they might prefer the support of a commercial product.

I tried MapleTA in the Fall semester (Calculus I) and Webwork in the Spring (Calculus II). I received no technical complaints from the students on Webwork, though maybe that was because it was a more technically competent class. For myself, I had consistent problems with the Java previewer in MapleTA under Windows, until the previewer was upgraded. But I also now have intermittent problems with the previewer in Webwork in Mac OS X (with IE, Camino, Firefox, Safari); sometimes nothing appears in the preview but a white rectangle, even though I get "parsed: cos(t)". I think maybe both previewers are built on WebEQ, which hasn't impressed me with its consistency. (On a side note, I wonder if some on-the-fly dvipng could be used for previewing instead of WebEQ.)

Anyway, I'm looking for opinions on Webwork vs MapleTA. Also, IT would like to know: After initial set up, when will Unix administrator access be required? (From what I read, it would only be for creating new courses.)

I'd also like to tell IT Services about Webwork2, but I'm having trouble finding a roadmap which gives a big picture of the new functionality of Webwork2.

Thanks for any suggestions you may have. -Dennis

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userGavin LaRose - Re: Convincing IT services  blueArrow
6/2/2004; 8:34:25 AM (reads: 1222, responses: 0)
Hi Dennis,

I think WeBWorK2 does not require administrator access to administer courses after initial set up.  I'll let others with more experience with WeBWorK2 say more about that.

We've used both MapleTA and WeBWorK here at the University of Michigan, and we've found that the dvipng generated images (and, in WeBWorK2, preview--though that may be replaced with jsMath, which is a very sweet font-based math display mode) work well.  We've had few to no problems with the previewer in WeBWorK1.x, and extensive trouble (now apparently resolved) with the previewer in MapleTA.  In its defense, when the MapleTA previewer works it appears to be slightly superior to what appears in WeBWorK1.x.

The one reason I can currently see to use MapleTA over WeBWorK is if one needs a proctored/test mode, which WeBWorK doesn't currently offer.  I'm hoping to get one written this summer, however.  Other than that, my experience has been that for a technically savvy user (and I should mention that I'm biased here because I do have administrator access on the servers I'm using) both MapleTA and WeBWorK are easy to set-up and maintain.  From a student or instructor viewpoint, I haven't seen much difference between the two.  From an administrator's viewpoint, I've found that the technical knowledge needed to set up WeBWorK exceeds that for MapleTA, but that once things are set up there is little difference between the two.

MapleTA does look like a more sophisticated package, and does have more functionality. 


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userMichael Gage - Re: Convincing IT services  blueArrow
6/2/2004; 8:49:04 AM (reads: 1236, responses: 0)
Dear Dennis,

Support for WeBWorK is pretty good, even though it is provided largely by a volunteer community.

I'd be curious to know more about your experiences with preview. Which version of webwork were you using and on what machine? Preview in webwork 1.9 is accomplished using the java app HotEqn (from Finland) preview in webwork 2.0 occurs automatically (it doesn't need a separate window) and is accomplished using on-the-fly dvipng as you suggest. As of last week it can also use jsMath to render equations.

I've not used MapleTA, so I can't give a direct comparison. I have seen demonstrations of AIM which is much like WeBWorK but based on Maple. It looks quite nice. (

WeBWorK 1.9 requires only sporadic unix access -- when creating a new course, adding a new professor or scoring a course. WeBWorK 2.0 is designed to work without any UNIX access, even for creating new courses. Unix access may be currently required for some cleanup and archive activities, but we aim to make it possible to work entirely from the web. Experienced users will still find that some jobs are accomplished more efficiently using unix -- particularly maintaining large numbers of courses or editing many problems.

I can't point you to a road map yet, but you can try out webwork2 at use profa for login and profa for password to see the professors side of things. practice1 (practice1) will give you the student view.

The student view is largely unchanged from webwork1.9 except for enhanced navigation and automatic preview (and jsMath).

The ability to pick problem sets is greatly enhanced for professors.

Under the hood there are LOTS of changes. WeBWorK2 uses mod_perl, not CGI, it is more moduluar, it has the potential to use mutiple renderers on the back end if load is high, it can use databases besides GDBM (in particular mySQL), etc. etc. etc. etc.

Once the unix infrastructure is ready: (dvipng, GD, mod_perl, tex, Apache::Request, numerous CPAN modules) it's relatively easy to install WeBWorK2. (see best yet it can be installed from a CVS so that updating is VERY easy.

The biggest downside to WeBWorK currently is lack of extensive, well organized documentation. Everyone can help on this! (Hint) We'll get there -- we're academics so telling other people what do and how to do it shouldn't be that hard. :-)

-- Mike

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userDennis Keeler - Re: Convincing IT services  blueArrow
6/4/2004; 1:52:06 PM (reads: 1243, responses: 0)
Thanks for the very useful feedback. IT Services has asked that I evaluate both MapleTA and Webwork2 for awhile this summer. (MapleTA has been upgraded since I used it in the Fall, so maybe I'll like it better than I did.) If we go with Webwork, we'll definitely go straight to version 2, as both IT Services and I were impressed with the new interface. And I definitely like the ability to avoid Java (see below); that's a big advantage of Webwork2 over MapleTA in my view.

As you requested, Mike, I've attempted to test various the Webwork 1.9 previewer with various Mac OS X browsers. FYI, my system has gone through all updates, so I'm at Mac OS 10.3.4 and Java 1.4.2. For consistency, I used
<>;, Set 0, Question 2, typing 2*cos(t)^2 in the second blank. After rebooting, I found:

Firefox 0.8 (Mozilla variant) - no problem
Camino 0.8b (Mozilla variant) - no problem
Safari 1.2.2 - worked fine, though output was in a different font, thinner and more pixellated; also Ans 1, Ans 2 were written with the number under Ans

Mozilla 1.6 - the previewer left a blank area for *cos . So the output looked like
2       (t)2 (superscript 2). Pressing Preview Again got the right output.

For the next test, I had to quit Mozilla 1.6, since Netscape 7.1 won't run at the same time.
Netscape 7.1 - same behavior as Mozilla 1.6
Internet Explorer 5.2.3 - on the first try, I got 2      (t)2(superscript 2). Hitting Preview Again, I got a blank white rectangle. By typing something for Ans 1 (specifically 3^2) and hitting Preview Again, the correct output came to both rectangles.

I quit Netscape, restarted Mozilla. The previewer then gave a rectangle with "Loading Java Applet..." in the middle, and hitting Preview Again did not remedy the situation.

I've rebooted since, and I've had the 2     (t)2 problem with Firefox 0.8 also. It seems that as the Java applet gets used multiple times, under multiple browsers, it starts to malfunction.

Thanks again for the help.  -Dennis

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