Tag Archives: Higher Education

Budgeting for Assessment

Workloads for Academics in Higher Education are often very complex, with teaching loads, research tasks and administration all juggling for our attention with lots of task switching adding to the complexity. For many academics, teaching loads are a significant part of their work, but explicitly looking at the time spent on assessment could bring better results for staff and students alike.

Contact Hours to Admin Hours

There are usually ad-hoc assumptions about the amount of administration time a module takes above and beyond the contact hours spent in front of a class. For our purposes contact hours could just as easily be delivering synchronous and asynchronous hours on-line as time spent in more traditional on-campus delivery.

A common such assumption is that it takes two hours of this administration time for each hour of contact, sometimes more. That administration time can be subdivided into various tasks such as preparation of teaching materials, delivery of assessment, and other correspondence with students etc..

Preparation time on teaching materials can obviously be markedly higher for the first presentation of a module, or after significant changes. Many academics are already undertaking substantial additional preparation time to re-factor materials for on-line delivery at the moment.

Assessment Hours

I want to focus on the time spent on assessment because I feel this is a serious time sink for most academics. This is partly because when it comes to reform of learning and teaching in a curriculum, assessment is often the last consideration because we are nervous about the serious consequences of getting things wrong. It is also partly because we can sometimes draw the conclusion that time spent on assessment equates directly to quality.

How often have you attempted to place a budget on your assessment time before delivering a module? I mean the time taken to design an assessment, deliver it to students, assess the submissions and deliver feedback. My guess is that very few of us have done this.

The outcomes of this can be serious. We often design assessments focusing on the first half of these tasks that take a tremendous and unquantified amount of labour to fully deliver, often much more than we really expected. This can result in a very stressed academic or team of academics, or the delivery of feedback is too late to be effectively useful to the students, or the quality and depth of the feedback suffers. Any combinations of these outcomes is also potentially likely.

Budget influences Design, poor Design blows the Budget

Agreeing a budget with a line manager, or even with yourself, can be informative. If you think the budget is too low you are faced with the choice of making the argument that additional resource is really required, or that you need to re-design the assessment to fit within your budget.

Of course, there are often times when additional resource really is required, but my argument here is that this should be a conscious choice, planned for and if possible agreed with your line manager who may be able to bring practical assistance, or at least balance out the rest of your workload.

Even if you agree a high budget, a good plan, and a good design minimises the risk of blowing that budget.

Design Choices

So what choices can we make to reduce the time burden? Some choices not only have no adverse effect on quality, but can actually deepen the quality of feedback or reflection opportunities for students. Here’s a very non-exhaustive list of thoughts in this direction.

  • Do you really need all those questions to confirm your learning outcomes? Do you have some questions that are just repeating the assessment of the same aspects? Trim them if so. Extra material can be used for tutorials instead.
  • Have you considered the use of a good rubric if you aren’t already using one? This can improve transparency of outcomes to students both before and after assessments and provide some generic feedback, leaving you with more time to give more focused feedback and can hugely improve the speed of marking.
  • Can you partially automate some of the assessment? If assessments are being delivered on-line many Virtual Learning Environments allow you to set assessments with questions with set or calculated answers so some of the marking and feedback can be automated. You can combine these with deeper more free response questions.
  • Can peer assessment accomplish some of your goals? If you are nervous about using peer assessment (and it does need care) what about using it in a formative way as part of your assessment diet. This can also greatly deepen students’ understanding of how their work is marked and assessed.
  • Can self assessment accomplish some of your goals? This can encourage highly reflective learning and allow you to guide the feedback based on the students’ initial assumptions.

What are your ideas to reduce your assessment budget will keeping, or even deepening the quality?

Even if you don’t undertake this formally with your line manager, try setting yourself as assessment budget, and consider how to work within it so that you can deliver authentic assessments, quality feedback in a way that leaves you time, focus and attention for the other parts of your job.

The Tyranny of Resilience and the New Normal

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic there is a word and a short phrase that are both in very common usage. All too often they are used in unhelpful and arguably incorrect ways.

Elasticity has Limits

Resilience has an interesting etymology, coming from the Latin ‘resilire’, ‘to recoil or rebound’. It came to encompass ideas of elasticity, naturally enough, as its meaning evolved over centuries. From an engineering point of view, the most important aspects of elastic behaviour for our purposes are that:

  1. An elastic object returns to its previous state after the load is removed;
  2. Past a certain load, elastic behaviour is no longer seen, permanent change remains after the load is removed.

You might already see where I am going here.

The Temporary Abnormal

The “New Normal” contains a similar unspoken assumption: that we have passed through a phase of one normality, through some transition, into a new normality.

But the truth is we are still under unusual load, still in the transition, and this is not the new normal. Using that phrase to imply otherwise can be potentially disrespectful and distressing to the everyday experiences of people who are struggling with the circumstances of the pandemic and in many cases the constantly changing and/or escalating demands it places on them.

It’s like that unhelpful use of the word “resilience” — used by some people allocating load to imply that coping with trying circumstances is purely the responsibility with those under extreme load. That usage reminds me of a quote from the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

We have normality. I repeat, we have normality. Anything you still can’t cope with is therefore your own problem.

Douglas Adams


But in reality the problems that emerge in the temporary abnormal are a shared responsibility – from recognition to resolution. Individuals should not be left to feel they are on their own and that if they were only resilient enough everything would be fine, regardless of the load.

We must all remain mindful that resilience has its breaking point, its “elastic limit” and we have a shared responsibility to pay attention to this.

The New Normal is yet to come

There will indeed be a new normal, but it’s going to take quite a while to emerge. Some of this will be enforced upon us, some of this will be negotiated, and some of it will be opportunistically seized.

Much innovation will come in the transition phase, “the temporary abnormal”, and we can expect to see a great deal of this to survive into the post COVID-19 acute phase. Many old assumptions will be revisited and fall away. There’s room for optimism and enthusiasm here, that while many thing will not rebound to how they were before we have a wonderful opportunity to shape the future that will eventually emerge.

Battleships Server / Client for Education

I’ve been teaching a first year introductory module in Python programming for Engineering at Ulster University for a few years now. As part of the later labs I have let the students build a battleships game using Object Oriented Programming – with “Fleet” objects containing a list of “Ships” and so on where they could play on one computer against themselves. But I had often wanted to see if I could get as far as an on-line server application based on similar principles that the students could use. This would teach them client server fundamentals but also let them have fun playing against each other.

Last year I finally attained that goal. I built a very simple web-server using Python Django to manage players, games, and ships. I wanted to use Python partly because it’s become my language of choice for web applications, but also because I wanted the code to be as accessible and understandable to the students as possible. I have initially placed very little emphasis on the User Interface of the server – this is partly deliberate because I wanted the students to have a strong incentive to develop this in the clients. I did however build a very simple admin view to let me see the games in progress. Additionally Django provides a very easy way to build admin views to manipulate objects. I have enabled this to let admins (well me) tweak data if I need to.

The Server

The server provides a very simple interface – an API – to let the students interact with the game. They can do this initially very directly using a web browser. They can simply type in specific web addresses to take certain actions. For instance

http://battleships.server.net/api/1.0/games/index/

will, for a battleships server installed on battleships.server.net (not a real server), list all the current active games. You’ll note the api/1.0/ part of the URL. I did this so that in future years I could change the API and add new version numbers. That’s partly the focus of a later section of this blog.

The output of all the API calls is actually encoded in JSON. This is still fairly human readable, and indeed some web browsers, like Firefox, will render this in a way that is easy to explore. Again, this makes it possible for the students to play the game with nothing more than a web browser and a certain amount of patience. This is good for exploration, but certainly not the easiest way to play. Here’s some sample output from my real games server with my students (poor Brian).

Sample games index JSON output
Sample games index JSON output – this is designed to be read by machines (a client program) but it’s still clear enough for humans so students can read it directly.

The code for the server and documentation about the API is all publicly available on my GitHub repository. You’ll also find some basic installation instructions in case you’d like to run your own game server.

I did want to build some very basic views into the server, I built a more human version of the games list, and I also built this view which was designed only for admins – obviously in the hands of normal players it would make the game a bit pointless.

Game overview for admins
Game overview for admins only.

This allowed me to see a little of what was actually going on in the games my students were playing, as well as showing the current state of ships and who owns what, it also showed a bit more info – here for another game than that above:

Game history and ship list
Game history and ship list

As you can see this shows some of the history of the game so far – this information is available to clients in the API, and likewise the list of surviving ships are shown. The API call for the ships still surviving only shows the ships for the player making the call, with a secret (password) that was generated when the player was created.

You may notice that the server automatically names ships with names taken from the Culture novels from Iain M. Banks.

The Client(s)

In this way the students are using their web browsers as a highly unsophisticated client to access the server. Actually playing the game this way will be frustrating – requiring careful URLs to be typed every time and noting the output for further commands. This is quite deliberate. It would be easy to build the web server to allow the whole game to be played seamlessly from a web browser – but this isn’t the point – I want the students to experience building a client themselves and developing that.

For my module last year I gave the students a partially complete client, written in Python, using text only. Their aim for the lab was to complete the client. No client would be exactly the same, but they would all be written to work against the same server specification. In theory a better client will give a player an edge against others – a motivation for improvements. One student built the start of a graphical interface, some needed to be given more working pieces to complete their clients.

I’ve placed a more or less complete client on GitHub as well, but it could certainly do with a number of improvements. I may not make those since the idea of the project is to provide a focus for students to make these improvements.

What Went Well

The server worked reasonably well, and once I got going the code for automatic ship generation and placement worked quite nicely. I built a good number of unit tests for this which flushed out some problems, and which again are intended as a useful teaching resource.

I spent a reasonable amount of time building a server API that couldn’t be too easily exploited. For instance, it’s not possible for any player to be more than one move ahead of another to prevent brute force attacks by a client.

The server makes it relatively easy for as many players as one wants in a given game.

What Went Wrong

I made some missteps the first time around the block.

  • the game grid’s default size is too large – I made this configurable, but too large a grid makes the chances of quick hits much more remote – which the students need for motivation. I only really noticed this when I built my admin view shown above.
  • in the initial game, any hit on a ship destroys it, there is no concept of health, and bigger ships are more vulnerable. This is arguably not a mistake, but is a deviation from expected behaviour.

What’s Next

This year I may add another version of the API that adds health to ships so that multiple hits are needed for large ships. By moving all of this to a new version number in the URL as above, e.g.

http://battleships.server.net/api/2.0/games/index/

I hope to allow for improved versions of the game while still supporting (within reason) older clients accessing the original version.

I might also add admin calls to tweak the number of ships per player and size of the ships. There are defaults in the code, but these can easily be overriden.

Shall We Play A Game?

There’s absolutely no reason the clients need to be written in Python. There’s no reason not to write one in C++ or Java, or to build a client that runs on Android or iOS phones. There’s no reason that first year classes with a text mode Python client can’t play against final year students using an Android client.

If you are teaching in any of these languages and feel like writing new clients against the server please do. If you feel like making your clients open source to help more students (and lecturers) learn more, that would be super too.

If you have some improvements in mind for the server, do feel free to fork it, or put in pull requests.

If you or your class do have a go at this, I’d love to hear from you.

Assessment handling and Assessment Workflow in WAM

Sometime ago I began writing a Workload Allocation Modeller aimed at Higher Education, and I’ve written some previous blog articles about this.

As is often the way, the scope of the project broadened and I found myself writing in support for handling assessments and the QA processes around them. At some point this necessitates a new name for WAM to something more general (answers on a post card please) but for now, development continues.

Last year I added features to allow Exams, Coursework, and their Moderation and QA documents to be uploaded to WAM. This was generally reasonably successful, but a bit clunky. We gave several External Examiners access to the system and they were able to look in at the modules for which they were an examiner and the feedback was pretty good.

What Worked

One of the things that worked best about last year’s experiment was that we put in information about the Programmes (Courses) each Module was on. It’s not at all unusual for many Programmes to have the same Module within them.

This can cause a headache for External Examination since an External Examiner is normally assigned to a Programme. In short, the same Module can end up being looked at by several Examiners. While this is OK, it can be wasteful of work, and creates potential problems when two Examiners have a different perspective on the Module.

So within WAM, I put in code an assumption of what we should be doing in paper based systems – that every Module should have a “Lead Programme”. The examiner for that Programme should be the one that has primacy, and furthermore, where they are presented other Modules on the Programme for which they aren’t the “lead” Examiner, they should know that this is for information, and they may not be required to delve into it in so much detail – unless they choose to.

This aspect worked well, and the External Examiners have a landing screen that shows which Modules they are examining, and which they are the lead Examiner.

What Didn’t Work

I had written code that was intended to look at what assessment artefacts had been uploaded since a last user’s login, and email them the relevant stuff.

This turned out to be problematic, partly because one had to unpick who should get what, but mostly because I’m using remote authentication with Django (the Python framework in which WAM is written), and it seems that the last login time isn’t always updated properly when you aren’t using Django’s built in authentication.

But the biggest problem was a lack of any workflow. This was a bit deliberate since I didn’t want to hardcode my School or Faculty’s workflow.

You should never design your software product for HE around your own University too tightly. Because your own University will be a different University in two years’ time.

So, I wanted to ponder this a bit. It made visibility of what was going on a little difficult. It looked a bit like this (not exactly, as this is a screenshot from a newer version of an older module):

Old view of Assessment Items
Old view of Assessment Items

with items shown from oldest at the bottom to newest at the top. You can kind of infer the workflow state by the top item, and indeed, I used that in the module list.

But staff uploaded files they wanted to delete (and that was previously disallowed for audit reasons) and the workflow wasn’t too clear and that made notifications more difficult.

What’s New

So, in a beta version of 2.0 of the software I have implemented a workflow model. I did this by:

  • defining a model that represented the potential states a Module could be in, each state defines who can trigger it, and what can happen next, and who should be notified;
  • defining a model that shows a “sign off” event.

Once it became possible to issue a “sign off” of where we were in the workflow, a lot of things became easier. This screenshot shows how it looks now.

Example of new assessment workflow
Example of new assessment workflow

Ok, it’s a bit of a dumb example, since I’m the only user triggering states here (and I can only do that in some cases since I’m a Superuser, otherwise some states can only be triggered by the correct stakeholder – the moderator of examiner).

However, you can see that now we can still have all the assessment resources, but with sign offs at various stages. The sign off could (and likely would) have much more detailed notes in a real implementation.

This in turn has made notification emails much easier to create. Here is the email triggered by the final sign off above.

The detailed notes aren’t shown in the email, in case other eyes are on it and there are sensitive comments.

All of this code is available at GitHub. It’s working now, but I’m probably do a few more bits before an official 2.0 release.

I will be demoing the system at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London next Monday, although that will focus entirely on WAM’s workload features.

Semi Open Book Exams

A few years ago, I switched one of my first year courses to use what I call a semi-open-book approach.

Open-book exams of course allow students to bring whatever materials they wish into them, but they have the disadvantage that students will often bring in materials that they have not studied in detail, or even at all. In such cases, sifting through materials to help them answer a question could be counter productive.

On the other hand, the real world is now an increasingly “open-book” environment, which huge amounts of information available to those in the workplace which is now almost always Internet connected.

So I decided to look at another approach. Students are allowed to bring in a single, personalised, A4 sheet, on which they can write whatever they wish on both sides. There are a few rules:

  • the sheet must be written on “by hand”, that is to say, it cannot be printed to from a computer, or typed;
  • the sheet must be “original”, that is to say, it cannot be a photocopy of another sheet (though students may of course copy their original for reference);
  • the sheet must be the student’s own work, and they must formally declare as much (with a tick box);
  • the sheet must be handed in with the exam paper, although it is not marked.

The purpose of these restrictions are to ensure that each student takes a lead in producing an individual sheet, and to inhibit cottage industries of copied sheets.

In terms of what can go on the sheet? Well anything really. It can be sections from notes, important formulae, sample questions or solutions. The main purpose here is to prompt students to work out what they would individually distill down to an A4 page. So they go through all the module notes, tutorial problems and more, and work out the most valuable material that deserves to go on one A4 page. I believe that this process itself is the greatest value of the sheet, its production rather than its existence in the exam. I’m working on some research to test this.

So I email them each an A4 PDF, which they can print out at home, and on whatever colour paper they may desire. The sheet is individual and has their student number on it with a barcode, for automated processing and analysis afterwards for a project I’m working on, but this is anonymised. The student’s name in particular does not appear, since in Ulster University, it does not appear on the exam booklet.

The top of my sheet looks like this:

The top of a sample guide sheet.

So, if you would like to do the same, I am enclosing the Python script, and LaTeX that I use to achieve this. You could of course use any other technology, or not individualise the sheet at all.

For convenience the most recent code will also be placed on a GitHub repository here, feel free to clone away.

My script has just been rewritten for Python 3.x, and I’ve added a lot of command line parameters to decouple it from me and Ulster University only use. It opens a CSV file from my University which contains student id numbers, student names, and emails in specific columns. These are the default for the script but can be changed. For each student it uses LaTeX to generate the page. It actually creates inserts for each student of the name and student number, you can then edit open-book.tex to allow the page to be as you wish it. You don’t need to know much LaTeX to achieve this, but ping me if you need help. I am also using a LaTeX package to create the barcodes automatically.

I’ve spent a bit of time adding command line parameters to this script, but you can try using

python3 open-book.py --help

for information. The script has been rewritten for Python 3. If you run it without parameters it will enter interactive mode and prompt you.

I’d strongly recommend running with the –test-only option at first to make sure all looks good, and opening open-book.pdf will show you the last generated page so you can see it’s what you want.

Anyway, feel free to do your own thing, or mutilate the code. Enjoy!

#!/usr/bin/env python

#
# Copyright Colin Turner 2014-2017
#
# Free and Open Source Software under GPL v3
#
import argparse

import csv
import re
import subprocess
import smtplib
from email.mime.application import MIMEApplication
from email.mime.multipart import MIMEMultipart
from email.mime.text import MIMEText


def process_student(args, row):
    """Takes a line from the CSV file, you will likely need to edit aspects of this."""
    'kicks of the processing of a single student'
    student_number = row[args.student_id_column]
    student_name = row[args.student_name_column]
    student_email = row[args.student_email_column]
    print('  Processing:', student_name , ':', student_email)
    create_latex_inserts(student_number, student_name)
    create_pdf()
    send_email(args, student_name, student_email)


def create_latex_inserts(student_number, student_name):
    """Write LaTeX inserts for the barcode and student name

    For each student this will create two tiny LaTeX files:

     * open-book-insert-barcode.tex which contains the LaTeX code for a barcode representing the student number
     * open-book-insert-name.tex which will contain simply the student's name

    These files can be included/inputted from open-book.tex as desired to personalise that document

    student_number is the ID in the students record system for the student
    student_name is the name of the student"""

    # Open a tiny LaTeX file to put this in
    file = open('open-book-insert-barcode.tex', 'w')

    # All the file contains is LaTeX to code to create the bar code
    string = '\psbarcode{' + student_number + '}{includetext height=0.25}{code39}'
    file.write(string)
    file.close()

    # The same exercise for the second file to contain the student name
    file = open('open-book-insert-name.tex', 'w')
    string = student_name
    file.write(string)
    file.close()


def create_pdf():
    """Calls LaTeX and dvipdf to create the personalised PDF with inserts from create_latex_inserts()"""

    # Suppress stdout, but we leave stderr enabled.
    subprocess.call("latex open-book", stdout=subprocess.DEVNULL, shell=True)
    subprocess.call("dvipdf open-book", stdout=subprocess.DEVNULL, shell=True)


def send_email(args, student_name, student_email):
    """Emails a single student with the generated PDF."""
    #TODO: Might be useful to improve the to address
    #TODO: Allow subject to be tailored.

    subject = args.email_subject
    from_address = args.email_sender
    # to_address = student_name + ' <' + student_email + '>'
    to_address = student_email

    msg = MIMEMultipart()
    msg['Subject'] = subject
    msg['From'] = from_address
    msg['To'] = to_address

    text = 'Dear Student\nPlease find enclosed your guide sheet template for the exam. Read the following email carefully.\n'
    part1 = MIMEText(text, 'plain')
    msg.attach(part1)

    # Open the files in binary mode.  Let the MIMEImage class automatically
    # guess the specific image type.
    fp = open('open-book.pdf', 'rb')
    img = MIMEApplication(fp.read(), 'pdf')
    fp.close()

    msg.attach(img)

    # Send the email via our own SMTP server, if we are not testing.
    if not args.test_only:
        s = smtplib.SMTP(args.smtp_server)
        s.sendmail(from_address, to_address, msg.as_string())
        s.quit()


def override_arguments(args):
    """If necessary, prompt for arguments and override them

    Takes, as input, args from an ArgumentParser and returns the same after processing or overrides.
    """

    # If the user enabled batch mode, we disable interactive mode
    if args.batch_mode:
        args.interactive_mode = False

    if args.interactive_mode:
        override = input("CSV filename? default=[{}] :".format(args.input_file))
        if len(override):
            args.input_file = override

        override = input("Student ID Column? default=[{}] :".format(args.student_id_column))
        if len(override):
            args.student_id_column = int(override)

        override = input("Student Name Column? default=[{}] :".format(args.student_name_column))
        if len(override):
            args.student_name_column = int(override)

        override = input("Student Email Column? default=[{}] :".format(args.student_email_column))
        if len(override):
            args.student_email_column = int(override)

        override = input("Student ID Regular Expression? default=[{}] :".format(args.student_id_regexp))
        if len(override):
            args.student_id_regexp = override

        override = input("SMTP Server? default=[{}] :".format(args.smtp_server))
        if len(override):
            args.smtp_server = override

        override = input("Email subject? default=[{}] :".format(args.email_subject))
        if len(override):
            args.email_subject = override

        override = input("Email sender address? default=[{}] :".format(args.email_sender))
        if len(override):
            args.email_sender = override

    return(args)


def parse_arguments():
    """Get all the command line arguments for the file and return the args from an ArgumentParser"""

    parser = argparse.ArgumentParser(
        description="A script to email students study pages for a semi-open book exam",
        epilog="Note that column count arguments start from zero."

    )

    parser.add_argument('-b', '--batch-mode',
                        action='store_true',
                        dest='batch_mode',
                        default=False,
                        help='run automatically with values given')

    parser.add_argument('--interactive-mode',
                        action='store_true',
                        dest='interactive_mode',
                        default=True,
                        help='prompt the user for details (default)')

    parser.add_argument('-i', '--input-file',
                        dest='input_file',
                        default='students.csv',
                        help='the name of the input CSV file with one row per student')

    parser.add_argument('-sidc', '--student-id-column',
                        dest='student_id_column',
                        default=1,
                        help='the column containing the student id (default 1)')

    parser.add_argument('-snc', '--student-name-column',
                        dest='student_name_column',
                        default=2,
                        help='the column containing the student name (default 2)')

    parser.add_argument('-sec', '--student-email-column',
                        dest='student_email_column',
                        default=9,
                        help='the column containing the student email (default 9)')

    parser.add_argument('-sidregexp', '--student-id-regexp',
                        dest='student_id_regexp',
                        default='B[0-9]+',
                        help='a regular expression for valid student IDs (default B[0-9]+)')

    parser.add_argument('--smtp-server',
                        dest='smtp_server',
                        default='localhost',
                        help='the address of an smtp server')

    parser.add_argument('--email-subject',
                        dest='email_subject',
                        default='IMPORTANT: Your semi-open-book Guide Sheet',
                        help='the subject of emails that are sent')

    parser.add_argument('--email-sender',
                        dest='email_sender',
                        default='noreply@nowhere.org',
                        help='the sender address from which to send emails')

    parser.add_argument('-t', '--test-only',
                        action='store_true',
                        dest='test_only',
                        default=False,
                        help='do not send any emails')

    args = parser.parse_args()

    # Allow for any overrides from program logic or interaction with the user
    args = override_arguments(args)
    return(args)


def main():
    """the main function that kicks everything else off"""

    print("Hello")
    args = parse_arguments()

    print("Starting open-book...")
    print(args)
    csvReader = csv.reader(open(args.input_file, 'r'), dialect='excel')

    student_count = 0
    # Go through each row
    for row in csvReader:
        student_number = row[args.student_id_column]
        # Check if the second cell looks like a student number
        if re.match(args.student_id_regexp, row[args.student_id_column]):
            student_count = student_count + 1
            process_student(args, row)
        else:
            print('  Skipping: non matching row')

    print('Stopping open-book...')


if __name__ == '__main__':
    main()

I use a LaTeX template for the base information, this can be easily edited for taste.

\documentclass[12pt,a4paper]{minimal}
\usepackage[latin1]{inputenc}
\usepackage{pst-barcode}
\usepackage[margin=2cm]{geometry}


%
% Does it all have to be Arial now? <sigh>
%
\renewcommand{\familydefault}{\sfdefault}

\author{Professor Colin Turner}
\begin{document}
\begin{centering}
\textbf{EEE122 Examination Guide Sheet}

This sheet, and its contents that you have added, can be brought into
the examination for EEE122. The contents \textbf{must} be compiled
by yourself, be handwritten, and be original (i.e. \textbf{NOT} 
photocopied or similar). You may use the
reverse side. You may retain a copy you have made before the examination
but the original must be handed in with your examination scripts at the
end of your examination.

%\input{open-book-insert-name.tex}
% D'Oh! Not supposed to put a name on anything going in the exam.
\input{open-book-insert-barcode.tex}
\hfill
\begin{pspicture}(7,1in)
%\psbarcode{
%\input{./open_book_insert.tex}
%B00526636
%}{includetext height=0.25}{code39}
\input{open-book-insert-barcode.tex}
\end{pspicture}
\end{centering}

\vfill
\begin{centering}
Please read the following declaration and tick the box to indicate you agree:

I declare this sheet to have been compiled by myself and not by another, and that the student number above is mine.

%\rule[-1 cm]{10 cm}{1 pt}
\framebox[0.3 cm]{ }

\end{centering}

\end{document}

Pretty Printing C++ Archives from Emails

I’m just putting this here because I nearly managed to lose it. This is a part of a pretty unvarnished BASH script for a very specific purpose, taking an email file containing a ZIP of submitted C++ code from students. This script produces pretty printed PDFs of the source files named after each author to facilitate marking and annotation. It’s not a thing of beauty. I think I’ll probably write a new cleaner version in future.

#!/bin/bash
# 
# A script to take C++ files in coursework and produce pretty printed PDF
# listings named with the author information.
#
# It takes a ZIP file of .cpp and .h files and produces a ZIP file of PDFs
#

# Requires
#   enscript
#   ps2pdf
#   munpack

#
# Called for each file to be encoded
#
pretty_print_file()
{
  # Extract the Author JavaDoc information
  author=(cat1 | sed -n -e 's/^.*@[Aa]uthor .*/\1/gp')   # And the local part of the email address   author_snip=(cat 1 | sed -n -e 's/^.*@[Aa]uthor.*<<img src="https://www.piglets.org/blog/wp-content/ql-cache/quicklatex.com-6bbee176f5e99b093ce5754610f65df6_l3.png" class="ql-img-inline-formula quicklatex-auto-format" alt=".*" title="Rendered by QuickLaTeX.com" height="9" width="12" style="vertical-align: 0px;"/>@.*/\1/gp')

  # How many lines did we get back?
  lines=(echo "author_snip" | wc -l)

  # If we got no author info
  if [ lines -eq "0" ]     then       author="no-author"       author_snip="no-author"   fi    # If we got no author info                                                                                         if [ -z "author_snip" ]
    then
      author="no-author"
      author_snip="no-author"
  fi

  # if we got too many
  if [ lines -ge "2" ]     then       author="multiple-authors"       author_snip="multiple-authors"   fi    echo "File1, Author author (author_snip)"
  output=author_snip-1
  output+=".pdf"
  echo "Encoding output..."   enscript -q --color=1 -C -r -Ecpp -fCourier8 -o -1 | ps2pdf - parsed-output/output }  # # Usage info # if [ ! -f1 ]
  then
    echo "Usage: unpack_coursework <email_file>"
    exit
fi

# Make a temporary directory and copy the email file into it.
echo "Creating temporary directory..."
dir=`mktemp -d`
echo dir cp1 dir # Move to that directory pushddir

# Unpack the email
echo "Unpacking email..."
munpack 1  # Create a directory into which to drop the pretty printed output mkdir parsed-output  # Not so elegant, but extract any .cpp and .h source from resulting ZIPs echo "Unpacking any zips..." for f in *.zip do   unzip -Cjf *.cpp
  unzip -Cj f *.h done  # Produce an author renamed, pretty printed PDF for each header file shopt -s globstar echo "Parse .h files..." for f in *.h do   pretty_print_filef
done

# And the same for source files
echo "Parse .cpp files..."
for f in *.cpp
do
  pretty_print_file f done  # Pull together all the pretty printed content into a new ZIP echo "Zipping parsed output..." cddir/parsed-output
zip parsed-output *.pdf
cd ..

# Back to the directory we started in.
popd

# Copy the parsed ZIP to the current directory for inspection and marking
cp dir/parsed-output/parsed-output.zip .  # Cleanup echo "Deleting temporary directory..." #echodir
rm -rf $dir

 

 

OPUS and Assessment 3 – Regime Change

This is the third and final article in a short series on how OPUS, a system for managing placement on-line, handles assessment. You probably want to read the first and second article before getting into this.

Regime Change

It’s not just in geo-political diplomacy that regime change is a risky proposition. In general you should not change a regime once it has been established and students entered on to it. If you do, there is a risk that marks and feedback will become unavailable for existing assessments, or that marks are calculated incorrectly and so on. Obviously it is also non-ideal practice for the transparency of assessment.

Instead you should create a new regime in advance of a new academic year, change the assessment settings in the relevant programmes of study to indicate that regime will come into force in the new year, and brief all parties appropriately. All of this is done by the techniques covered in the first two articles. If you have done all that, well done, and you can stop reading now.

This article is about what to do if students are on a given assessment regime in OPUS, and somebody decides to change that regime midstream, when marks are already recorded for early items.

TL;DR DON’T DO THIS, TURN BACK NOW!

This shouldn’t ever happen, as noted really you need to ensure your regime changes are correctly configured and enabled before any students start collecting marks.

And yet, it does happen, or at least it has happened to me twice that I have been asked to make tweaks to a regime where student marks already exist. Indeed it is happened to me this week, hence this article.

Even changing small details like titles will effect the displayed data for students from previous years. Tweaking weightings could cause similar or more serious problems.

So what happens if we create a new regime and move our students onto it midstream? Well, the existing marks and feedback are recorded against the old regime, so they will “disappear” unless and until the students are placed back on that regime.

If you want to do this, and copy over the marks from the old regime into the new regime, there is a potential way to do this. It is only been used a handful of times and should be considered dangerous. It also probably won’t work if your original marks use a regime where the same assessment appears more than once in the regime for any given student.

But, if you’re here and want to proceed, it will probably be possible using what was deliberately undocumented functionality.

You will need command line, root access (deliberately – this is not a bug), in order to do this. If you haven’t got root access you need to get someone who does so you can… Read all the instructions before starting.

0. BACK UP ALL YOUR DATA NOW

Before contemplating this insanity, ensure your OPUS database is backed up appropriately. I’d also extract a broadsheet of all existing collected assessment for good measure from the Information, Reports section of the Admin interface.

That said, this functionality deliberately copies data, it doesn’t delete it – but still.

0. NO REALLY, BACK UP ALL YOUR DATA NOW, I REALLY MEAN IT.

 

Ok, you’re still here.

First of all this approach only makes sense (obviously) if the marks you have already captured are valid. I.e. the assessment(s) you want to change are in the future for the students and haven’t been recorded. If not, then obviously OPUS can’t help you do anything meaningful with the marks you have already collected.

1. Make your New Assessment(s)

Maybe you plan to just change from one stock assessment to another, or perhaps you want to adjust a weighting on an existing assessment that hasn’t been undertaken by students in this year. In this case, you can skip this step.

But if needed, create and test any new assessments following the approach laid out in the second article in this series. Do make sure you spend some time testing the form.

2. Add and Configure a New Assessment Regime

Create your new assessment regime, as detailed in the first article, but don’t link it to any programmes yet.

Your new regime should be configured as you wish it to be. Remember, for there to be any point in this exercise, the early assessments already undertaken by the students need to be the same (though not necessarily in the same order) – otherwise OPUS can’t help and you need to sort out all the marks in transition entirely manually.

3. Note the IDs of the Old and New Regimes

Things start to get clunky at this point. Remember, we are heading off road. You will need the database ID of both the old regime and the new one.

You can obtain these by, for instance, going to Assessment Groups in the Configuration menu and editing the regimes in turn. The URL will show something like this:

URL

At the very end, you will “id=2” so 2 is the id we want. Write these down for both regimes, noting carefully the old and new one. It’s almost certain the new id will be larger than the old one.

4. Choose your timing well

You want to complete the steps from here on in, smoothly, in a relatively short time period. It is advisable that you switch OPUS into maintenance mode in a scheduled way with prior warning. This can be done from the Superuser, Services menu in the admin interface, if you are a superuser level admin – if you aren’t you shouldn’t be doing this without the help of such a user. You can also enter maintenance mode with the command line tool.

5. Use the Command Line Tool with root access

OPUS ships with a command line utility. With luck, typing “opus” from a root command prompt will reveal it. It’s usually installed in /usr/sbin/ and may not require root access in general, but it most certainly will insist on it for this use.

OPUS Command Line Tool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If that didn’t work, go find it in the cron directory of your OPUS install and run it with

php opus.php

If you needed this to work, you’ll need to use instead of just using “opus” in the next command. We need a command called copy_assessment_results and you’ll note it’s not on the list. It’s not on the dev_help list either, because … did I mention this is a stupid thing to do? You need to enter in the command as follows changing the id for old and new regimes to be those you wrote down in step 3. All on one line.

opus copy_assessment_results old_regime_id=1&new_regime_id=2

Don’t run this more than once, the code isn’t smart enough not to copy over an additional set of data with possibly “exciting” results.

This copies assessment results and feedback, and marks from one regime to another. It’s potentially wasteful but it can’t identify the correct students and doesn’t delete data as an obvious precaution.

6. Enable the New Regime for Students

Even in maintenance mode, Superuser admins can log in and act. You can switch over your regime now. Maybe do this for one programme and test the results before using the bulk change facility discussed in the previous article.

With luck you will see your shiny new assessment regime with the old marks and feedback for the existing work in the old regime copied over. Older students on the old regime should still show their results and feedback correctly.

If not – well, this is what that backup in step 0 was for, right? And you’ll have to do it manually from the broadsheet you exported as well.

7. Re-enable Normal Access

Either from the command line tool with

opus start

or from the Superuser, Services menu, re-open OPUS for formal access.

8. Corrective Action

Explain to relevant colleagues the pain and stress of having to do this and that in future all assessment regime changes should be done appropriately, before students begin completing assessments.

OPUS and Assessment 2 – Adding Custom Assessments

This is a follow on to the previous article on setting up assessment in OPUS, an on-line system for placement learning. You probably want to read that first. This is much more advanced and requires some technical knowledge (or someone that has that).

Making New Assessments

Suppose that OPUS doesn’t have the assessment you want, then you will have to build your own, from scratch, or by modifying an existing one. This takes some minor HTML skill and access to your OPUS code to add a new file. So if you can’t do this yourself, ensure you get appropriate support.

Look at an existing assessment closely first. Go back to Advanced on the OPUS admin menu, and then Assessments.

For each assessment, clicking on Structure allows access to underlying variables that are captured. These can be numeric, text, or checkboxes, and some validation is possible too.

The Structure of an Assessment

you need to work out what things you will capture, and create a skin for the assessment, most usually from modifying one from another. This following snippet from a related Smarty template shows this is just HTML, but OPUS, through Smarty drops in an assessment variable that gives access to any existing values, and any validation errors. <pre class="lang:xhtml decode:true" title="An extract from a template.">{* Smarty *} {* Template for SEME Final Visit *} {* Assessment specific layout *} {* Really, only the form contents need to be added *} {* Note the use of get_value and flag_error to *}Â Â  Â  {* bring in assessment specific material *}  ... ...  <tr> <td class="property" rowspan="5">Use of English</td> <td colspan="1"><strong>Mark</strong></td><td colspan="4"><strong>Comments</strong></td></tr>  <tr><td colspan="1">   {assessment->flag_error(“mark5″)}
<input type=”text” class=”data_entry_required” size=”2″ value=”{assessment->get_value("mark5")}" name="mark5"> </td> <td colspan="4">   {assessment->flag_error(“comment5″)}
{include file=”general/assessment/textarea.tpl” name=”comment5″ rows=”7″ cols=”60″}
</td>
</tr>

<tr><td colspan=”5″>Marking Scheme</td></tr>
<tr>
<td> Uses language to clearly express views concisely </td>
<td> Expresses clearly but with some minor errors </td>
<td> Good expression, logical flow, reasonably concise </td>
<td> Reasonable flow, some contorted expressions, a little verbose </td>
<td> Poor expression, verbose, some colloquialisms </td>
</tr>


This is a representative snippet. You can see this full template here. Note the “special” code in between braces { }. The variables in the template pertain to the names in the structure.

Create and Save Your Template

Create your template, probably using one of the existing ones to help you understand the format. This provides the layout and skin for your pro-forma and allows you to do anything you can wish with HTML/CSS. Be mindful of security considerations, but you aren’t writing main code, just an included bit. OPUS will top and tail the file for you when it runs.

Save it under the templates/assessments directory in your OPUS install. I recommend you make a subdirectory for your institution.

Avoid using the “uu” directory. This is used for pre-shipped assessments and those used at Ulster University. There is a chance your changes will get clobbered by a new OPUS version if you put your template in there.

Adding the Assessment variables into OPUS

Then you need to create your new Assessment item itself as at the top of the article. Once you have created it, click on structure and add each variable you will capture in turn, whether it is text, a number, or a checkbox, and any simple validation rules – such as minimum or maximum values.

The final detail of one variable
The final detail of one variable

The description appears in feedback and validation, so make sure it is meaningful to the end user. The name is the variable name as it appears in your template. The weighting field is used to determine if numeric values contribute to the score. Usually use 1 if you want the score to be counted, and 0 if you want the score to be ignored. Finally you can choose whether each field is compulsory or not. Optional fields will be ignored in a total when OPUS creates a percentage.

Once complete, add your new assessment into a test regime as detailed in the first article and do some careful testing before adding the regime to live students.

OPUS and Assessment 1 – The Basics

OPUS is a FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) web application I wrote at Ulster University to manage work based learning. It has been, and is used by some other universities too.

Among its features is a way to understand the assessment structure for different groups and how it can change over years in such a way that legacy data is still correct for audit.

You don’t have to use the in-built assessment functionality in OPUS, but the features were written to promote transparency of assessment, and ensure all stakeholders could easily access assessment information for a student.

So here’s how to do it, it takes a bit of set-up but then should run smoothly until you ever decide to change how you assess. This is one of a short series on the matter.

Assessment Regimes

OPUS uses a “bank” of individual assessments that can be built from different weightings into as assessment regime. To be precise OPUS provides a means of capturing the rubric for each assessment and the feedback to students. Each assessment has a Smarty template which “skins” the assessment form. These can be found in the Assessment section of the Advanced tab of the admin interface.

A list of OPUS assessments
A list of OPUS assessments

For most people using OPUS, you build an assessment regime from these components in a pick and mix fashion. Head to the Configuration tab, and select Assessment Groups. This may well be empty, in an out-of-the-box install, in which case create a group with an appropriate name and some commentary on what it is for.

A list of Assessment Groups
A list of Assessment Groups

Once you have a group, you will see an option to edit the regime that is associated with it.

A typical assessment regime.
A typical assessment regime.

When we add an item, a dialog appears to enter some information.

A regime item.
A regime item.

In this we pick which of the assessments from the very start we want to use, you might decide, for instance, to use the same assessment twice in a given regime, at different stages. Give the student a description of what the assessment name should be for them, a weighting (which could be zero for formative only assessments).

You can also specify who should assess this – it could be the academic tutor assigned to the student, the workplace supervisor, the student themselves or labelled as “other”.

The year is specified in relation to the year of placement, and should usually therefore be zero. Finally start and end are the month and day (MMDD) for when work should begin on such assessments, and the deadline. These are used to help prompt staff and order assessments for students.

Adding Regimes to Programmes

Once an assessment regime has been created, you need to tell OPUS you want to use it with students in a given programme.

Go to Configuration and then Organisation Details and get to the school of study that’s relevant and pull up their list of programmes. For each programme you can click on assessment, from here you can select which regime is appropriate for the programme, and the year in which the regime started and ended being valid. You can leave out an end year to let the decision roll on.

More often than not you wish to apply these changes to at least a School. Clicking on Bulk Change Assessment will allow you to select all the programmes within a School, the new assessment regime you want and the start year, and it will do the rest.

Once you have done this the functionality in OPUS to show the assessments, their structures and marks, and to enable marking will appear for all relevant students and the staff working with them.

Sample Assessment Information
Sample Assessment Information

A table like that above will appear under each related student (this one is dummy information) and students can click view to see the pro-forma whether complete or not to understand how they will be assessed, or what the results were as appropriate.

An assessment pro-forma
An assessment pro-forma

Naturally staff who have no business with a student cannot see the marks or information pertaining to them.

When completing an assessment on a student a member of staff has 24 hours to edit their findings before the results “lock” and can only be removed by an administrator – this allows most minor errors to be corrected.

Workload Allocation Modelling Update – Scalability

I have been doing some more work on my software to handle Academic Workload Modelling, developing a roadmap for two future versions, one being modifications needed to run real allocations for next year without scrapping existing data, and another being code to handle the moderation of exams and coursework (which isn’t really anything to do with workload modelling, there’s some more mission creep going on).

Improvements to Task Handling

Speaking of mission creep I noted in the last article I’d added some code to capture tasks that staff members would be reminded off and could self-certify as complete. I improved this a lot with more rich detail about when tasks were overdue and UI improvements.

I wanted to automate some batch code to send emails from the system periodically. I discovered that using a Django management command provided an elegant way to the batch mode code into the project that could be called with cron through the usual Django manage.py script that it creates to handle its own internal related tasks for the project from the command line.

#
# Regular cron jobs for the wam package
#
#  m h  dom mon dow user command
# Every week
#
# Each Monday at 7 am, send all reminders
0 7 * * 1 root /usr/bin/python3 /usr/local/share/wam/manage.py email_reminders
# Each Wednesday and Friday at 7 am, send reminders for overdue and less than 7 days to deadline tasks
0 7 * * 3,5 root /usr/bin/python3 /usr/local/share/wam/manage.py email_reminders --urgent-only

It was easy to use this framework to add command switches and configuration of verbosity (you might note I haven’t disabled all output at the moment so I can monitor execution at this stage). I have set this up to email folks on a Monday morning with all the tasks, but also on Wednesday and Friday if there are urgent tasks still outstanding (less than a week to deadline).

I’ve been using this functionality live and it has worked very well. I used Django templates to help provide the email bodies, both in HTML and plain text.

Sample Task Reminder Email
Sample Task Reminder Email

Issues of Scale

My early prototype handled data for one academic year, albeit with fields in the schema to try and solve this at a later stage. It also suffered from a problem in that if other Schools wanted to use the system, how would I disaggregate the data both for security and convenience?

In the end I hit upon a solution for both issues, a WorkPackage model that allows a range of dates (usually one academic year) and a collection of Django User Groups to be specified. This allows all manually allocated activities, and module data to be specified with a package and therefore both invisible to other packages (users in other Schools, or in other Academic Years). I was also able to put the constants I’m using to model workload into the Django model, making it easier to tweak year on year.

class WorkPackage(models.Model):
    '''Groups workload by user groups and time
    
    A WorkPackage can represent all the users and the time period
    for which activities are relevant. A most usual application
    would be to group activities by School and Academic Year.
    
    name        the name of the package, probably the academic unit
    details     any further details of the package
    startdate   the first date of activities related to the package
    enddate     the end date of the activities related to the package
    draft       indicates the package is still being constructed
    archive     indicates the package is maintained for record only
    groups      a collection of all django groups affected
    created     when the package was created
    modified    when the package was last modified
    nominal_hours
                the considered normal number of load hours in a year
    credit_contact_scaling
                multiplier from credit points to contact hours
    contact_admin_scaling
                multiplier from contact hours to admin hours
    contact_assessment_scaling
                multiplier from contact hours to assessment hours
    
    '''
    
    name = models.CharField(max_length = 100)
    details = models.TextField()
    startdate = models.DateField()
    enddate = models.DateField()
    draft = models.BooleanField(default=True)
    archive = models.BooleanField(default=False)
    groups = models.ManyToManyField(Group, blank=True)
    nominal_hours = models.PositiveIntegerField(default=1600)
    credit_contact_scaling = models.FloatField(default=8/20)
    contact_admin_scaling = models.FloatField(default=1)
    contact_assessment_scaling = models.FloatField(default=1)
    created = models.DateTimeField(auto_now_add = True)
    modified = models.DateTimeField(auto_now = True)
    
    def __str__(self):
        return self.name + ' (' + str(self.startdate) + ' - ' + str(self.enddate) + ')'
    
    class Meta:
        ordering = ['name', '-startdate']

I’m pretty much ready to use the system for a real allocation now without having to purge the test data I used this this year. I can simply create a new WorkPackage.

I need to write some functionality to allow one package’s allocations to be automatically rolled over to the next as a starting point, but I reckon that’s maybe two or three more hours.

Future Plans for the Application

The next part of planned functionality is an ability to handle coursework and examination and the moderation process. It will be quite a big chunk of new functionality and moving the system again to something quite a bit bigger than just a workload allocation system.

This of course means I need a better Application name, (WAM isn’t so awesome anyway). Suggestions on a post card.

Django Issues

I think I’m getting more to grips with Django all the time – although I often have the nagging feeling I’m writing several lines of code that would be simpler if I had a better feel for its syntax for dealing with QuerySets.

The big problem I hit, again, was issues in migrations. I created and executed migrations on my (SQLite) development system, but when I moved these over to production (MySQL) it barfed spectacularly.

Once again the lack of idempotent execution means you have to work out what part of the migration worked and then tag the migration as “faked” in order to move onto the next. This was sufficient this time, and I didn’t have to write custom migrations like last time, but it’s really not very reassuring.

Further Details

As before, the code is on GitHub, and the development website on foss.ulster.ac.uk, if you want more details.