Since 2008, The Department of Mathematical Sciences, a joint department between Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, has been using Maple T.A. to deliver, administer and grade mathematics courses. What started as a tool to deploy online summer courses turned into a technology to teach and grade parts of several mathematics courses year round. The benefit of using Maple T.A. was so evident that the university recently adopted Maple T.A for all 15,000 of its students and staff.
Maple T.A. is a testing and assessment system that supports complex, free-form entry of equations and intelligent evaluation of responses, making it ideal for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. It offers an advanced authoring environment that lets professors create high quality, custom content easily, and it does the marking automatically, making it simple to analyse the results.
The original use of Maple T.A. at the Department of Mathematical Sciences was to deploy online summer courses designed to help new students get their math up to speed before commencing their studies at the two distinguished universities. That project has been a huge success, with around 1,600 participating students answering thousands of online questions each summer.
According to Tommy Gustafsson, Director of Studies at the department, that first course was the beginning of an evolution in the way mathematics is taught at Chalmers. “We have integrated the Maple T.A. system into an online learning platform called Ping Pong,” he explains. “This allows students to access a variety of learning resources from text to videos; and to send questions to mentors, usually older, more capable students, when they get stuck. When they saw how well the approach worked with the summer course, a few teachers here started to develop materials to support some of the courses we teach as part of our degree programs, like calculus and linear algebra.”
We are also beginning to use Maple T.A. as a learning platform in its own right. For example, we associate instructional videos with questions so students can hear the teacher's voice and watch what he does as he solves a problem on paper.— Tommy Gustafsson, Director of Studies, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Chalmers University
The degree courses are more advanced than the original summer courses, with thousands of questions and some complex topics, but it is a testament to the ease of use of the Maple T.A. system that the teachers were able to create the materials they needed. “Today, many teachers across the department use the system,” explains Gustafsson. “They often create assignments for their students by picking up questions from other courses, and modifying them a bit. That shows just how easy the system is to use and its adoption is spreading through the department like ripples on a pond!”
Students react extremely positively to the Maple T.A. system too. “We often use the system for quizzes that students can take to receive points towards their final exam. They are extremely fond of those,” notes Gustafsson. “We are also beginning to use Maple T.A. as a learning platform in its own right. For example, we associate instructional videos with questions so students can hear the teacher’s voice and watch what he does as he solves a problem on paper.”
The growing popularity of the system created challenges for the department’s IT function, however, which originally hosted the Maple system on its own servers. “It was getting hard for us to get all the support we needed to keep expanding the system and those problems were compounded last year when staff changes meant our IT function lost a lot of relevant expertise,” Gustafsson explains. “We were advised to host the system on Maplesoft’s servers in Canada.”
Earlier this year, Gustafsson and his colleagues agreed to make the change. “At first we were a bit nervous about doing it, because servers in Canada seemed like they were a long way away,” he recalls. “But I have to say that our initial fears proved unfounded. The user experience runs just as smoothly as it did when we hosted the system here and the change process when we upgrade to new versions of the software has been seamless.” The support team has been responsive too, despite the great distances and time zone changes involved. “In fact, the time difference has proved quite beneficial,” says Gustafsson. “If we have an issue or a change request, we can send an email at the end of the day and it is normally done by the next morning. Some of our students think we work right through the night!”
The success of Maple T.A. in the Department of Mathematical Sciences has attracted the attention of other departments too and Chalmers has recently extended its access to the system by acquiring a site-wide licence for all of its 15,000 students and staff.