Campus: CSU, Long Beach -- April 27, 2001

NSF Awards $163,813 Grant to Math Professor to Develop Internet-Based Homework System

Cal State Long Beach President Robert C. Maxson has announced the awarding of a $163,813 grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to a CSULB mathematics professor for a project that will implement an Internet-based system for generating and delivering math homework to students.

Professor of Mathematics William Ziemer (left) will take charge of enhancing, implementing and disseminating an innovative software application called WeBWorK at CSULB. The new Internet-based homework system is expected to complement and strengthen the Math Department's ongoing efforts to improve the teaching and learning of math.

"Advances in technology, especially through the Internet, have created opportunities for teaching and learning that no one would have thought of 20 years ago," said CSULB President Robert C. Maxson. "It is important for our faculty to explore these opportunities, and that is what this grant does. Ultimately, it will not only benefit our faculty but out students as well."

The WeBWorK at CSULB project is based on a software application initially developed through a NSF grant by the University of Rochester and adapted by Indiana University at Bloomington, Johns Hopkins University and SUNY at Stony Brook. Others that have adopted WeBWorK include Dartmouth College, Ohio State University and the University of Viginia. Harvard and Yale are going to adopt it next semester.

WeBWorK increases the effectiveness of traditional homework as a learning tool by providing students with immediate feedback on whether the answers are correct, giving students the opportunity to correct mistakes while still focusing on the problem. WebWorK also can provide individualized versions of problems, allowing group work but requiring each student to answer his or her own version of the problem.

"For about 10 years, I have been looking for some type of technology-based application to help students do their homework, and nothing I found was any good. This was the first system I didn't have any problems with," Ziemer explained. "This is definitely on the cutting edge. So, we're really getting on the ground floor with this project."

The math professor got the chance to work with WeBWorK at Indiana University at Bloomington as it was being moved from a prototype version (100 students, two professors) to a full-scale version with 2,000 students and 15 professors. He was so excited about the system that he used his sabbatical in fall 1999 to work on the development team and implement IU's program.

A questionnaire was the students' last homework assignment, the compliance rate for which turned out to be 98 percent. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of the Internet-based system with some 80 percent preferring this method of doing homework over regular homework.
"Research indicates that homework is often an ineffective teaching tool," Ziemer said.

Theoretically, the purpose of homework is to allow students to practice new skills, prepare to learn new information in class and to apply new learning. Homework assignments, however, lose their potential effectiveness when the material is more busywork than challenge and when students do not get timely feedback on their work.

"I think this system will be a really good fit with Cal State Long Beach, especially because this is a commuter campus," he continued. "It gives students maximum flexibility for doing their homework and gives them the feedback they need."

The primary goals of the CSULB project are to improve math literacy for undergraduate math students and to enhance the educational effectiveness of homework in a wide variety of lower-division classes within the Math Department. The project will also improve the content and capabilities of the national WeBWorK database program, and it will pioneer the extension of the WeBWorK approach throughout the Long Beach campus, within the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system, and to community high schools.

Through the project, Ziemer and his colleagues will provide key enhancements to the WeBWorK system, including development of additional software tools to enable instructors to create math problems for WeBWorK without writing code. They will also broaden the base of faculty who can effectively use WeBWorK by developing an instructor's guide and web-based teaching guides.
In addition to math, Ziemer also point out that WeBWorK can be used for physics, chemistry and possibly engineering courses.

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