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[seul-edu] tutor-web (long)

Hello, all

I would like to invite comments on something which I am working on at
the moment:  

A unified system to replace my PowerPoint presentations, class
handouts in Word or TeX, student quizzes, homework and mid-terms and a
few other things.

Now, I give courses and talks in biology, mathematics and statistics,
ranging from highly technical to media-style presentations, so I need
a fairly flexible system which can handle raster graphics as well as
data presentations, text or bullet slides etc.  Few things are more
tedious than grading quizzes so these should definitely be automated.
This has led me to try to set up a generic system for use in any
future course which I may give.

For those who can't be bothered with a long e-mail, the current state
of affairs is on http://www.tutor-web.net -- but I didn't say it was
ready.  For the others, please continue and then look at tutor-web.net.

The following happens to be what I am working towards at the moment.
I am more than willing to be convinced that this is wrong, but I can't 
be bothered with flames.


The philosophy: It seems to me that the way to make this sort of thing
most useful is to get as many teachers and programmers involved as
possible. I feel quite sorry for students who seem to want to
understand what I am saying, but I can't get through to them.  I would
like to provide them with a means for self-study.  Ideally, a student
should be able to walk through my course in his/her own time, possibly
looking at an alternative course when he can't figure out what I'm

Given that few students can be bothered studying if
they don't have to, I'm doing this under the assumption that taking
the online quizzes will eventually be a requirement for coming to
exams (replacing homework assignments as much as possible).

Design:  The design is around presentation pages.  I would like the
same pages to be used for projection onto a screen as are used by the
student for his/her own use.  This requires that one can have
forward/backwards buttons in specified places on the screen, not at
the bottom of a long page (i.e. let's pick up the ppt feature that it
is easy to flip pages).  

A standard page should be just one page - i.e. just use key words and
graphs which can fit onto one screen.  Provide a "D"etail key to
obtain more detail - but not if the student knows the stuff.  Make
flipping through real fast for those who are fast but provide lots of
details for the slow or deliberating ones.

Clicking on a button which takes the user out (e.g. to alternate
material or quizzes) should probably always result in a new popup
window, leaving the original one intact.

All presentation pages should have the same layout.  Thus any student
coming to any page will know what button to use for what purpose.

Structure:  The user should not be invited to leave the
system.  The whole point is to get people to study and hence the pages 
should point to quizzes and further pages.  They should not point out
to the Internet in general.  Thus we need to move away from the
anarchy of the Web and a bit back towards structured information, but
maintain the best of each.

Platforms: I would like this to work on any unix-style server platform
and to be able to serve any browser-capable client platform.

Openness: As open as possible.  Basically, anyone should be allowed to
use the course material.  This is something I feel very strongly
about, so those who want to hog their own material should not use the
tutor-web in any way.  Having said that, there is a question of
appropriately quoting whatever one decides to use -- i.e. *you* should
be allowed to use *my* slides, but I really would like credit somehow
-- that has not been addressed yet, so at the moment one should not be
too touchy about authorship of stuff that goes in.

Standards:  Just use open standards.  No M$ stuff.  Make sure anything 
we put in can be automatically converted to html and postscript.  Use
gimp or xv for editing figures, emacs for text, latex for fancy text
(math) etc etc.

Storage of course material: At the moment it's all in ASCII files.
(and png for graphics - could also use gif but can't be bothered
reading the license agreement).  This is fine for me at the present,
but I really would like to get people involved in designing a database
system for storing this sort of hierarchical information.  Given
openness and graphics concerns, postgresql would seem to be the way to

Generating pages:  Eventually, each page should be generated on the
fly.  At the moment, the whole of the tutor-web is generated using a
batch command.

Structure of content: The structure is hierarchical, from a department
through courses to lectures and "slides" within lectures.  These are
just words which I use since they conveniently refer to the way I
present information.

Text:  Use ASCII for ordinary text, with a very simple command
language for bullet lists and the like.  Allow the use of LaTeX if
people want fancy stuff (but need to work on making the output
reasonable for single page viewing - lth and latex2html are not quite
enough although they are fine for the detailed background info). 

Matematics:  Use LaTeX for formulae, converting to html or postscript
on the fly, as required (currently this is batch-processed).

The quiz: Each page should have a "Q"uiz button, intended to whip up a
question on the topic.  Now, since these should be *used* rather than
just be for fun, two students sitting beside each other should not get
the exact same questions.  Three methods should be implemented (at
present no questions are in place): Have several questions for the
current page, picking one at random; allow the use of a random number
generator in each question (i.e. allow some simple arithmetic with a
few random numbers) and allow the use of questions from earlier pages
with some probability.  The quiz will be multiple choice.

Users:  A user may be classified as a tutor for a given course, or a
student.  This will give different priviliges.

Login:  Each user will be required to login initially (nothing like
this is implemented yet - should happen real soon now).

Grades for the student: A student should always have his/her grade(s)
at the top of the screen, immediately updated upon answering a
question.  The grades come in threes: lecture grade, course grade and
overall tutor-web grade.  We've designed some of these popup boxes but
not much is in any of them yet.

Grading scheme for the student: A grading scheme is to be finalized,
but it would seem reasonable that a student can go through a quiz as
frequently as they want (the same questions do not always appear) and
e.g. when obtaining 10 correct in a row all earlier failed attempts
are forgotten.  In general, the results from the previous 10 questions
are averaged for each lecture, using 0 as a filler if fewer than 10
questions have been requested.  An average of all lectures is the
grade for the course.  Thus, a student starts each course from 0 and
works up.

Response to wrong answers:  Not properly thought about yet.

Response to correct answers: Might actually want to allow the student
to keep on flipping through questions in the Q-window and let this be
the only flipping required, i.e. a correct answer would automatically
flip to the next question in the Q-window and the next page (in the
page window).  One should not underestimate the need for good students 
to go fast...

Requirements: A student is required to obtain 75% (7.5 out of 10 or
GPA of 3, if you like) in order to pass a course on the tutor-web.
Note that this is not like a paper-test but rather like requiring a
student to hand in 75% of all homework assignments.  The number needs
to be quite high given the possible repeats, so maybe it should be
90% -- but certainly not 50%.  NB:  Any grading scheme needs to be
tested against someone using repeated guesses, i.e. how long would it
take a guesser to pass a course.

Grading the tutor: Any student or tutor may give grades to a course.
These should always be visible.  Thus, here the "Student Evaluation of
Teacher" results are public!  There is a difference between tutor
grades and student grades in this case.

Teacher interface:  This is the biggest caveat at the moment.  One
needs to convert any existing material from whatever proprietary stuff 
is used, to something generic.  It is easy to go from LaTeX.  It is
easy to go from any text files (boring...) and not hard to convert any 
format which includes only text and graphics.  But the user needs to
edit all ASCII files by hand, one slide at a time and to convert
graphics to png format, one figure at a time.

Line drawings:  Gnuplot will be set up to eat one or more simple files 
and automagically generate figures for inclusion in the html or
postscript pages (no, not done yet, but should not be too hard).
Thus, the teacher may only have to provide a data file with a
specific name and the ending of the name can provide the type of
figure required.  Alternatively the teacher can provide a gnuplot
command file.  

Language:  At present, these things are in English or Icelandic,
depending on my mode of thought at each time.  Eventually someone will 
have to figure out a way to handle languages, but at the moment
different languages are simply different courses.  Personally I would
not mind sticking to English but I must admit that I would be
hard-pressed to give my students a lecture in other than their native
tongue, if I can speak it.

Target audience: Tough question.  I started out aiming for the younger
undergraduates, but it does seem that a lot of this could be used in
high school as well and some at younger ages also.

The dream:  A truly free university.

State of affairs:  Most of this is still a wish-list, but a fair
number of things are in alpha stages, i.e. we have some prototypes.

Funding:  Currently out of my pocket.  Depending on response, we may
have to move to other computing equipment, allow an advertisement in a 
bottom corner of each page, or whatever.


If all of this has been implemented already, then please tell me about
it.  If you think it is a load of nonsense, then please tell me why.
If you think it may be useful to classes which you know about, then
I'd like to know.

But if you would like to (1) implement a course in this or (2) do some
teacher-interface programming or (3) CGI programming for grades, then
I would REALLY like to hear from you!


URL     http://www.hafro.is/~gunnar          http://www.hi.is/~gunnar
E-mail  gunnar@hafro.is                      gunnar@hi.is
        Marine Research Institute            Univ. of Iceland
        P.O. Box 1390                        Science Institute
        121 Reykjavik, Iceland               Dunhaga 7, 101 Reykjavik, Iceland
Phone   +354-552-0240                        +354-525-5915
FAX     +354-562-3790
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