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University of Manchester Takes First Steps in Creating Fully Online Courses Supported by Maple T.A.

12 June 2018

Many students are familiar with the concept of online education, having taken courses with online components, such as lectures, quizzes and assignments. As technology continues to advance, digital tools are making it possible for institutions to deliver full courses through distance learning or online courseware. Faculty at the University of Manchester are investigating using Maple T.A., the testing and assessment software from Maplesoft, as part of their initiative to convert the school’s Master of Science (M.Sc.) Electrical Power Systems Engineering course into a distance learning course, with the course offered fully online. Maple T.A. would supply the critical testing and assessment part of the course.

The University offers more courses than any other school in the UK. With so many courses to manage, it was especially important to choose an assessment tool that they could use everywhere, including both technical and non-technical courses. They use Maple T.A. in science, engineering, humanities, and arts courses to test students on a wide range of course content, making use of thousands of questions that the faculty developed to help students gain a greater understanding of key materials and concepts. The institution provides a seamless learning environment for both students and instructors by integrating Maple T.A. into their course management system, Blackboard.

With their new distance learning approach to education, the school is targeting students from around the world, as well as industry employees. According to Dr. James Brooks, a lecturer at the university, the biggest challenge is to maximize flexibility while maintaining a strong reputation. “The M.Sc. course, as it stands, has a very strong reputation. Many students who come through speak very highly of it,” he said. “Now with the online version of the course, with students doing all the testing and coursework from their own computers away from the campus, we need to ensure we maintain that standard.”

In developing the course, Brooks and his colleagues conducted research into how other science and engineering institutions are providing distance education. He and his team identified key areas they wanted to emphasize on, in creating their own online course: Conceptual Understanding, Software and Practical Skills, Mathematical and Engineering Analysis, and Project Work.

They wanted students to be equipped to explain concepts and principles through exams and labs, complete project work, and carry out research. In all of these tasks, it was important that students could make use of symbols, diagrams, and sketches, just like they would in a classroom-based course. After some investigation, based on their experience with Maple T.A. and its success at the school, they decided it was the best assessment tool to meet their objective and began further investigating its capabilities.

Initially, Brooks converted course worksheets into Maple T.A. assignments, and required that students obtain a high grade on each of them. Students were permitted to re-do assignments as often as they needed to in order to learn the concepts. While the majority of students achieved a 100% grade, the approach itself presented some challenges, Brooks said. “There were things we needed to consider, such as how students could show their work for problems and receive marks for partially correct answers,” he said. “Also, there is the impersonation and cheating obstacle. How do we know it’s the student completing the exam?”

To address some of these challenges, the university is currently conducting trials on delivering course exams through Maple T.A. using a digital proctoring approach. The exam is timed and delivered at a fixed hour, with students taking the exam in front of a live webcam that can be monitored by the exam overseer. This confirms the identity of the student and prevents the transfer of question and answer materials, with everyone taking the test at the same time. The trials so far have been positive.

Faculty are also working on pairing Maple T.A. with an oral exam. The oral exam would consist of a one-on-one video conference interview with a tutor or teaching assistant. This also gives faculty an opportunity to understand the students’ thought processes, and review their methods for working through questions.

Brooks and his team are currently assessing the efficacy of their approach, including the amount of time, resources and manpower that would be required to deliver the distance education course successfully on a broader scale. As the development team works out the final details, the university is set on delivering its first full distance learning option supported by Maple T.A. The software has been a valuable tool for the university for several years. While they’ve worked to address some technical and procedural challenges, student response has been largely positive. Brooks and his colleagues hope the success of this course will translate to further distance learning offerings at the school, as using Maple T.A. to this end opens up possibilities that bring education more in line with modern systems of learning. “The selling point is they can do everything from their own computer,” he said. “Maple T.A. allows us to better refine our questions, save a great deal of time on marking, and ultimately maximize our educational offerings.”

For more information, please contact:

Tina George
Maplesoft
Tel:  +1 519 747 2373 ext 352
Email: tgeorge@maplesoft.com
Web:  www.maplesoft.com
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