Writing to think: Questions on the web
Saturday April 26, 2014
I have made some things online that involve "asking and answering questions" in the traditional multiple-choice-test way. I built the software to do that (with Python on Google App Engine, again differently with node.js on Heroku) both times.
The popular services just mentioned mostly collect information without any feedback; when you want to have a "correct" answer there isn't much functionality. Where is a good existing solution? There's internet detritus like MakeaQuiz.net. There's Quizlet, which seems pretty neat but also isolated perhaps by its attempt to chase education spending. (It also supports, like most education sites, an unhealthy distinction between student and teacher.)
The desire for profit seems to poison projects that could otherwise have a broader positive effect. Projects affiliated with the very cool JiTT methodology disappeared into companies. I'm not even sure what sort of thinking led to the closing of the Khan Academy source.
But it isn't just the profit motive that keeps question-and-answer technology balkanized; there's no real standard, and I don't think it's very easy to come up with one. The systems I built aren't easily transferred anywhere for use by others, for example. This is my fault, but I also don't think it's a very easy thing to design.
There are some attempts at standards for questions, at least. BlackBoard has a way to load questions from some tab-delimited formats. Moodle has something called GIFT. There's the Question and Test Interoperability spec, which is such a huge mess you need to employ a stapler guy to support it. And there's something called QUOX. Oh my.
And these are all purely for assessment, where earlier there were some purely for survey/data collection. It seems to me that they shouldn't be so different. Fundamentally isn't it all just questions?
Another take on this, I suppose, is sites like Stack Overflow, which represent a different sort of questioning. And there is OSQA, "the Open Source Q&A system", which is cool. You could run that on your server, or for that matter run Moodle, or some survey platform, most likely. So that's also another delivery model: the run-your-own-server-with-pre-built-software model. A lot of setup/maintenance overhead, and still not a lot of interoperability as far as I can tell. (OSQA is also available hosted.)
Just one more: There are also frameworks for building assessments, which try to generalize while still providing some structure. I was happy to find out about the one linked, for Rails; I don't know if there are others or if any are widely used.
Markdown is pretty much the best thing ever. (Note to self: get off wordpress...) Can we come up with a markdown solution to the question problem? Something super light-weight, that blends easily into text files that humans would actually write...
The kramdown (etc.) markdown extension for definition lists seems like a candidate. Here's how it works:
This is the "term". : This is the "definition".
Get's rendered something like this, using the standard HTML definition list tags:
- This is the "term".
- This is the "definition".
So let's say the term is the question, and the (possibly many) definitions are answer choices. Of course we could have a blank definition represent a text box (or text area):
What do you think? :
A multiple-choice survey could be as easy as this then:
What's your favorite color? : red : blue : green
To add correctness functionality, a little more syntax could be added:
Sugar is sweet. : true* : false
Maybe this could be a short answer question:
What is the capital city of Wisconsin? : Madison
Of course you have the problems of evaluating text answers (Is "
Madison, WI" also correct? etc.). Generally, there is of course an awful lot of functionality that you want from questions, and it may be hard to reduce it all down. Some things should be obvious: true and false is a special case of multiple choice. But other things like scoring, when/whether to show the correct answer, etc. seem difficult to abstract very far.
The illustrious Ramnath, who always seems to be doing cool things several years before I know about them, has thought about this markdown question idea to some degree. I want to find out more about what he's done.
This post was originally hosted elsewhere.