April 26, 2010

Migrating from WebCT to Moodle with Regular Expressions

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

Mel Shantz, along with his colleagues at Ahuntsic over the years, has put many hours of preparation time into the creation of web-based quizzes. With the college’s decision to change its course management system (CMS) from WebCT to Moodle, those hours of preparation time were in danger of being lost unless an efficient method of migrating the quizzes to the new CMS was found. Short of typing out each of the quiz questions, proofreading them, and re-piloting the quizzes on the new platform, Mel has been attempting to export his quizzes from WebCT and import them into Moodle using the quiz tool’s import filter. However, the process has proven to be less than fully satisfactory. Only multiple choice questions and short answer questions are supported by the import filter. Even then, he, along with other users, has found inconsistencies between the quiz created in WebCT and the quiz imported by Moodle.

Further adding to his problems with the transition has been an attempt to use Regular Expressions to improve the reliability of the way the CMS scores students’ answers. Regular Expressions, or Regex, is the name for a programming language used in many applications for parsing text for meaning and errors. Mel explained that Regex allows him to award partial marks for misspelled answers, answers missing punctuation or answers with two spaces between words or incorrect capitalization. Using regular expressions is like using a wild card that allows a test designer to take a number of allowable variations to the right answer into account using six or seven simple codes. Although not always perfect, a simple regex expression can be used to anticipate a range of answers which could accept hundreds of individual and correct answers in a simple short answer question. Wikipedia has an interesting and quite complete article on Regular Expresions. To experiment with your own code, you can visit Henk Schotel’s site to test Regular Expressions.

The Moodle Wiki Dealing with Importing Quizzes

Mel first became acquainted with Regular Expressions in WebCT through its online users forums. If you go to Moodle there are a number of forums by Joseph Rézeau and Tim Hunt out of Open University which have discussed how the programming language can be integrated into the quiz module in Moodle. Lots of people post ‘regex’ expressions that serve as models for those just getting started that help to improve questions. A number of these are linked in a document prepared by Mel for a presentation.

Henk Schotel’s Site to Test Regular Expressions

Mel argues that the effort he is investing in solving this pedagogy-technology puzzle is important as Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) takes on a greater role in language instruction in Quebec. “The goal is to get from CALL to iCALL, where the ‘i’ stands for intelligence,” Mel explains. “What we don’t want to do is to repeat the same mistakes we made in the classrooms of the past where we turned what were meant to be measurements of language learning into spelling bees. Spelling and punctuation are important, but they are not everything. Learning language is not all or nothing, so we have to make sure that our quizzes’ questions don’t score answers as all or nothing as we shift a greater portion of our testing online. If we don’t,” Mel cautions, “we risk alienating at risk students from what may be the most important part of their education-the language-learning component. Alternately, you are going to see a rebellion against the machine where teachers go back to hand-corrections and the heavier workloads and bad posture that entails.”

Intelligent CALL, with Moodle and Regex, is beginning to change language learning into one of the most dynamic and engaging subjects taught at college today.

Mel is a strong believer in the potential of web-based learning to support what language teachers do in the classroom. He points out that students are working more than before and appreciate being able to access course material after-hours. “There is so much more we can do to help our students, and Moodle has a lot of potential in that regard. Moodle has got this teacher/institution/developer community out there, helping to refine the open source code with plug-ins and extensions.” Mel explains it this way, “Like many open source projects, there’s a peer to peer thing where if something interests you, you can try to create it, and others may decide to give you a hand. This opens a whole range of pedagogical doors which make for interesting exploration”

One feature of Moodle that Mel believes teachers should learn about is its Workshop Module. Mel explains, “You can create a correction rubric for student writing through an online form template that is easy to use. Then, through random selection, students score each other’s work and the teacher scores the same work. Moodle will then compare how closely the teacher’s score matches the student-generated scores. In a way, the goal of Workshop is for the students is to try to get inside the teacher’s mind and understand what makes for good writing. The Workshop Module that makes this form of peer-assessment combined with assessment-of-assessment possible is intended to become more central to the design of future versions of Moodle, beginning with Moodle 2.0-something to watch for.

This peer-evaluation feature, Mel argues, is so powerful at getting students to interact with their own writing in a thought provoking way that teachers should make the effort to try Moodle, either through ProfWeb or through their institution. Mel sums it up well when he said, “Intelligent CALL, with Moodle and Regex, is beginning to change language learning into one of the most dynamic and engaging subjects taught at college today. The reason is that new technologies put the student in control of their learning by valuing their contributions in new ways.”

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