Monday, May 26, 2014

WeBWorK::Asheville May 19 - 22, 2014

WeBWorK::Asheville   May 19 - 22, 2014

WeBWorK::Asheville::2014 was held at Western Carolina University from Monday, May 19 through Thursday May 22, 2014.   Thanks very much to Geoff Goehle at WCU for organizing the code camp.  

This was a small focused code camp attended by Mike Gage, Geoff Goehle, Peter Staab, Bruce Romano, Jason Aubrey  and John Travis and devoted principally to making progress on 
  • WeBWorK 3 -- the new AJAX based interface being developed by Peter Staab
  • the install script -- automatically installing the entire WeBWorK stack being developed by Jason Aubrey

In addition we made a start on writing a grant proposal for dissemination of WeBWorK to community colleges and to high schools, worked on refining examples that use both MultiAnswers and Scaffolding (sequential or compound problems) in the same WeBWorK question, and created a first draft of a procedure to be followed when checking in new code to the repository.  

This camp  and previous code camps are supported by the NSF through a national dissemination grant to the MAA. 

  • Much of the first day was spent getting the infrastructure for WeBWorK3 in place on several systems.  WW3 uses a  module called Perl Dancer ( to connect the problems and data on the server to the AJAX front end.  It can be installed in a number of ways but our current plan is to install it as a “fast-cgi” module on apache.  The most difficult part in accomplishing this was installing the fcgi module into Apache.  This is accomplished in slightly different ways on each operating system so it took a while to get everything working.  
  • The systems Ubuntu, Debian, CentoOS and Fedora are now supported by the ww_install script, so it should be relatively simple to install an entire WeBWorK stack (both WeBWorK code and all of the unix supporting modules including fcgi) from scratch if you are running those systems either directly or within a virtual machine on your desktop or laptop computer.  Freebsd is not yet one of the supporting systems and the MacOS version of freebsd has it’s own twists so it is not yet as straightforward to install on those systems but with patience it can be done. By the end of the day we had the system running on the development system on my macBook Pro and demonstration version running on freebsd on machines at the University of Rochester.

  • If you would like to experiment with the new WeBWorK3 interface sign in at   using “profa” as the login name and “profa” as the password. (The site has only a local certificate so some browsers may warn you about this.  It's safe to visit it, honest. :-) )    To see the WW3 interface in action click on the WeBWorK3 link at the top of the left margin.  Go ahead and play around but don’t expect any of your work to be saved. 

  • The ww_install script is now almost bullet proof and usually builds a newly installed stack without human intervention, but we intend to continue tweaking it to make it perfect.  The install script can be obtained from Jason Aubrey’s github site  if you wish to try it out.

We established a pretty quick turn around pattern for fixing UI bugs in WW3:  Peter updating the UI, Geoff and the rest of us checking the results, and then Geoff checking in the pull requests.  We established a similar pattern for checking Jason’s updates to the ww_install  script.  Geoff made available several snapshotted virtual machines so that we could try out the ww_install script, test, then erase all the changes on the machine and start over.

Other work included constructing a model sequential/compound problem (I’ve started calling these scaffolded problems ) where the later parts of the problem are revealed only after the first parts have been done correctly.  This particular problem used both multianswers and the scaffolding structure. Since both of these relabel answers in their own way we spent some time determining the best way to make these two features work together.  We’ll post our example in the Problem Techniques section of the wiki once we have a final version.

As a byproduct of working extensively with github we were able to largely catch up with the pull requests to the site.  Those interested in the process of modifying the WeBWorK software should take a look at the site to see what has been accomplished over the last year as we have moved from version 2.5 in   to 2.8.1 (currently) and 2.9 (now a release candidate).
As a second byproduct Geoff created a first draft of a procedure to be followed when checking new code into  This document also has advice for developers as to how best present their code so that it can be easily reviewed and then if accepted incorporated into the WeBWorK code base.

Branch ww2.9 is now a release candidate.  We intend to allow a period of a month or so in order to continue tests, fix any major bugs, write release notes for the wiki and then pull release 2.9 into the master branch.  Please checkout version release/2.9 using profa/profa as login/password.
The develop branch has also been stabilized and can be used safely for classes by those who are familiar with managing unix systems. If issues are discovered it is easy to back out to release 2.9 or 2.8.    
Develop contains the showMeAnother feature developed by Chris Hughes of Portland Community College.  You can view  the development process on github. Chris has posted details on his blog which can be reached through
Bruce Romano continued to work on a Simple Editor front end for use in WW3.  This will allow newcomers to WeBWorK to create and edit standard questions through a form interface which will hide some of the boiler plate that makes PG code somewhat intimidating to first timers. 
"Simple Editor is now working in the WW3 interface.  All answer options are working plus I've added the option of an equation as an answer.  I also implemented the use of randomized constants as an option."
  His efforts are not yet available in the WW3 branch on but can be found in Peter Staab's alpha development version at

The WW3 branch at is still experimental.  It is pretty stable and could be used cautiously for small classes but is not yet ready for large classes or situations where even small glitches or missing features can cause major consequences.

The processes of  creating, scheduling and assigning homework assignments, updating classlists, and browsing the library are all substantially streamlined in WW3. One can revert to the standard WW2 instructor tools in those cases where a feature is not yet available in WW3. As of this writing the student interface in WW3 is largely unchanged so students are not affected by the new system. 

See the demo site (  ) as described above if you want to try out the WeBWorK3 interface.  Please report bugs as you find them  and you are welcome to add comments to this post or to the WeBWorK forums about the new WW3 interface.

We're looking forward to continued development over the summer with a focus on accessibility to take place at the WeBWorK::Portland code camp taking place just before Mathfest this August. (See  WeBWorK::Portland Aug 3-7  for more details. )

-- Mike

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