Inside Clemson

Clemson professors trying free open-source online homework platform

By Carolina Kredensor
Class of 2019

The Clemson Libraries recently secured a grant from Clemson’s Information Technology Student Advisory Board (ITSAB) to support an open-source online homework system called WeBWork.

Many instructors in lower-division math, science, engineering and business classes that are heavy in mathematical calculations, use online homework platforms that collect and grade student assignments. Unlike traditional written homework that is graded and returned to students a week later, these platforms give them instant feedback on whether their answers are right or wrong. This helps students identify their mistakes, strengths and weaknesses, which can greatly improve their learning.

But commercial systems can be very expensive, costing as much as $100 per student per course. Produced by large publishers, their questions are tied to expensive publisher textbooks, which often do not fully meet the needs of instructors and forbid them from selecting other textbooks, some of which are free for students to use.

Photo of Michael Burr, Matt Macauley and Matt Saltzman, professors in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, are using open source WeBWork in their courses.
Michael Burr (left), Matt Macauley and Matt Saltzman, professors in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, are using open source WeBWork in their courses.

Matt Saltzman, Matt Macauley and Michael Burr, professors in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, began searching for a solution. They discovered WeBWork, an open source system which was originally developed for a physics course at the University of Rochester and has since been upgraded with many grants, including some from the Mathematical Association of America.

Saltzman installed WeBWork on a server provided by the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences’ Information Technology Services, and Macauley and Burr use it to teach their fall 2019 courses.

WeBWork is free for both faculty and students and can be used in any lower-division STEM and business courses that require students to do homework involving mathematical calculations. “It can provide homework for students in dozens of classes simultaneously,” Salzman said.

“The system also has many advantages over commercial platforms,” according to Burr. “WeBWork is built using a more robust programming language and has more flexibility in generating questions. It also collects data beyond student grades, such as the number of attempts per question, which can be used by instructors to better analyze student performance, determine areas where a student is struggling and assist them.”

The professors hope to use WeBWork again next semester if the current trial of the server is successful. However, there are still a few challenges. Though there are new commercial services that host WeBWork for a fee, Saltzman, Macauley and Burr are hosting it locally to keep costs low. For now, Saltzman is serving as a volunteer administrator, but scaling up and developing a long-term sustainable approach to hosting and maintaining the system will require support from IT staff or students.

Yang Wu, the open resources librarian at Clemson Libraries, worked to find financial assistance to get the project started during the summer of 2019 by contacting Undergraduate Student Government for help.

Reducing the cost of learning materials is a major priority for Logan Young, Undergraduate Student Body president, who worked to secure the grant from the IT Student Advisory Board, a governance group that manages 10 percent of student IT fees and uses it to fund initiatives benefitting students.

Zachary Pate, chairman of ITSAB, welcomed the WeBWork project, noting that cash-strapped students often try to finish a course without required materials.

“I’ve heard so many different stories of students who will calculate how well they can do in a class without purchasing certain items,” Pate said.

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