When your project goes to the dogs

3 min read

After something like 15 years of connecting both virtually and face-to-face, I am very happy to finally be working with Alan Levine (@cogdog) on a project. I needed some technical help installing and configuring three open source math based homework systems that are being evaluated as part of the BCcampus Open Homework System project. Even though these are not WordPress projects, I know there is more to the dog than WordPress, and approached him to see if he would be able to help out with the project. And I am very glad that he said yes as he has brought exactly what I needed to make this part of the project go smoothly.

His first order of business was to configure some web space for the project. Now, I would have expected that he would have sent an email with three IP url’s pointing to different installs (something like or some other user unfriendly url that we often have to work with when working with sandbox servers). Instead, Alan set up a one page landing page and worked with our internal network tech to configure subdomains for each of the installations so that the faculty testers would have some sane links to follow while they were testing the three systems.

Screenshot of the this is not a test test site for the BCcampus open homework systems

Not only does this provide a fine landing place for testers to have everything in one neat and tidy package, but Alan has gone one step further to turn this landing page into a project status page so that, at a quick glance, everyone involved with the project can see the status of the technical work he is doing in a very open and transparent way.

Screenshot showing example of project status

He has also set up a way for testers to report issues back to him for follow up using a simple Google Form. Anyone who has an issue during the testing period can fill the form out and send him a screenshot of the problem, collecting all the technical issues for each platform in a handy single spreadsheet that will be invaluable at the end when we are evaluating the testing results.

Along the way, you see little glimpses of the human touch that marks it as an Alan project. Like the disclaimer he included at the bottom of the landing page with an animated homage to Mission Impossible.

Screenshot of Mission Impossible self-destructing tape from 60's TV showI really appreciate little touches like this that add a bit of levity and fun to a project.

I also appreciate that Alan has not hesitated to jump in and make contact with the developers of the three applications we are testing. So far he has discovered at least 2 minor issues in the code for one of the applications and has been working with the developers to fix the code. That is value added. Regardless of whether or not we decided to use this particular piece of software, Alan has made the project better by uncovering these errors and working with the developers to fix them.

Working in open source has it’s own challenges. One of them being that you need to add value to the community to have a voice in the community. Build some goodwill with the development community and establish a relationship. This kind of direct communication with the developers to help them improve their code goes a long way in establishing the foundation for long term relationships which puts you in good stead with the community, and Alan does it very well.

I am really happy this project has gone to this particular dog.


Robert Bodily January 22, 2020

This is exciting. iMathAS vs Numbas vs WebWork. I’m excited to see the results of the evaluation.

Clint Lalonde January 23, 2020

Thanks Robert. It was your work pulling together the Open Oregon report that has led me down this path. Especially Numbas as that one was off my radar until I read it in your report.

Carlos Bazzarella January 28, 2020

Very interesting indeed !!! I’d love to see the criteria table used to compare these 3 systems (from the user/student perspective, from question creator perspective and from the technology perspective).
Having some experience developing similar systems I would like to provide my help if needed.

Clint Lalonde January 29, 2020

Thanks Carlos. We’re still in the early stages of our testing, and these are not the only platforms we are working on. We’re also looking at ways to extend Pressbooks using H5P as a possible solution for those disciplines that are not as dependent on math or scientific notations.

Cog.Dog January 23, 2020

And the dog has much tail wagging for the opportunity you provided him; all kinds of learning going on under the hood. Each time I get some obscure SMTP error or missing module message, there’s an abundance of suggestions available in multiple places. Openly and freely shared.

Clint Lalonde January 23, 2020

Three cheers for the interwebs. For all it’s shortcomings, it still is a heck of a tool when you need to GSD.

Carlos Bazzarella January 29, 2020

Just a thought but after looking at these 3 Open Homework Systems, how come they don’t share a common question file format? Each one uses a different format and approach which makes them completely incompatible with each other. This is odd because the most important thing is the Question Bank and you want that to be not only open but portable and adopted by others.

How about working on specifying a standard open format that can easily be imported/exported into/from those 3 systems (and possibly others)?

Clint Lalonde January 29, 2020

That is a good idea, and one we are considering as part of this work – how to make the content as broadly shareable as possible within the constraints of the technologies that we are working with. For example, WeBWorK has a question library called the Open Question Library which is a fantastic resource, but only available to instructors using WeBWorK. It would be great if there was a way to be able to leverage those questions in other systems to make it a truly Open Problem Library. But that is something that would need to be discussed closely with the current WeBWorK project team as there are both technical and licensing considerations to that. But it is something we are exploring as well.

Carlos Bazzarella January 29, 2020

Yes, I’ve come across the Open Question Library but it is just for WeBWorK as you mentioned. The huge issue with WeBWork is that the format is basically a superset of the Perl programming language and this is a show-stopper as an exchange format. Definitively need to come up with a structured format and convert from WeBWorK’s .pg format to this new structured one. Numbas & iMathAS have a much nicer, contained, documented and structured format which could be the basis of this new format.

Clint Lalonde January 29, 2020

The technical part could be built. It would be complicated, but a translator could be built. The bigger issue is the licensing of each question as they are not CC licensed. So, you would have to track down who authored what question and ask their permission to re-use their question in another system. That is a huge logistical task with no guarantee that those who authored the questions would be amenable to having those questions used outside of WeBWorK.

Carlos Bazzarella January 31, 2020

I see so that Question Bank is a no go then for auto translation. On previous comment I said that “Numbas & iMathAS have a much nicer, contained, documented and structured format which could be the basis of this new format.”. My bad, iMathAS format is also a non-starter for a portable Question Bank format because it is pretty much the PHP Programming language. The great news is that Numbas is fantastic !!! Really well done and documented, perfect for an exchange format. As such I am doing some prototyping supporting that format.

Carlos Bazzarella February 20, 2020

Hi Clint,

Just an update on my Numbas experimentation… As of right now I have a second implementation of the system with a simpler UI (subset of features). So that file format is absolutely great as a basis for a standard random question generator format.

Please let me know if you would like to try it or if you have anyone in mind that would like to take it for a spin (if you know Numbas you should be right at home and there are links to docs in the UI).

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