February 21, 2022

How typing ruined STEM assessment and how we’re fixing it

Manjinder Kainth, PhD

Technology is usually an empowering force when it enters a domain, but in the case of STEM assessment, it has historically been a hindrance. It created a divide between language and mathematics which has caused a domino effect. After realising this, we used state of the art technology to fix it.

A language is a tool we use to communicate with one another, but most people only think of spoken languages when imagining communication. The truth STEM people know all too well is that we have many languages besides spoken languages to convey information. The most popular one is mathematics, but we also have chemistry diagrams, tables, etc. On paper, these languages are equal. It is as easy to write words as mathematics, but the advent of technology considerably changed this.

Usually, when we add technology into a system, we improve all parts. In the case of written communication, technology created a chasm between the written languages and STEM languages. Most (not all) written languages are one dimensional because one character comes after another. It's the main reason why keyboards are so effective. STEM languages are two dimensional. Characters can be above, below, left, right, larger or smaller. They often include symbols and characters from other languages besides the ones shown on your keyboard. This structure creates a negative bias towards STEM languages, as we have to encode extra information to convey the same information as we would on paper.

As a result, STEM typing was left by the wayside. Many websites do not allow for the typing of mathematics or other STEM languages in their systems. The best we have had for a while is LaTeX, a document markup language that offers a lot of flexibility to encode STEM information. Unfortunately, it has a high barrier to entry, and it usually requires downloading specific environments onto the user's device. All the while, mobile users have it even harder than desktop users. People have tried to create digital keyboards, but due to the vast number of symbols used in STEM, you cannot display them all in a user-friendly way.

The worst consequence of this paradigm is in the field of digital assessment. When assessing written essays or reports, educators can immediately digitise their workflow for their students. For most students, it is easier to type essays than it is to write them by hand. The opposite is true when assessing STEM work digitally. Due to the difficulties in entering their answers and working, digital STEM assessment systems have suffered greatly. Relying on technologies such as multiple-choice or final answer marking removes the context of the student's answer method. The method is required to give valuable feedback to help students improve from their mistakes.

Because of this, we endeavoured to create an editor which makes it as easy as possible to answer STEM questions. A sophisticated editor would then allow students to write their entire method and enable educators to give more valuable feedback.

We built an editor that addresses all these issues and uses technology to empower the users rather than hinder them. Users can 

These technologies are seamlessly integrated within one editor to create a unified experience for students to give their entire method. As a result,  teachers can provide feedback on that method.

We needed not to hinder the ability to type standard text while implementing this. That is why you can format headers, bold, italics, strikethrough, quote, enumerate, or bullet points in text answers. Next, we ensured we could support existing ways to write mathematics, i.e. LaTeX and markdown. Though these are inefficient, many people still use them and have existing questions and content that they would like to transfer quickly. For complex diagrams or documents, you can upload images and PDFs.

The next step was to build an intuitive way to type maths. Instead of trying to find the pi symbol on a visual keyboard, you simply type the letters "pi", and the character appears! This flexibility gives you the benefit of typing text while having a visual representation of mathematics. 

Intuitive maths entry. Type out characters and functions as expected and have them render in real time.

The game-changing stuff comes when we add in many ways to handle mathematics. We utilised the fact that all mobile phones have cameras for mobile users. Users can use optical character recognition to write their mathematics on paper, take a picture, and have it automatically digitised in an easily edited format.

Optical character recognition to digitise an example of handwritten maths.

Finally, users can also use handwriting directly on their device, with a stylus, which is still the fastest way. We then use handwriting recognition to pull out the mathematics.

Use a stylus to handwrite maths directly into the editor.

Our editor represents a paradigm shift in expressing STEM information digitally. Over time as we improve the editor, we will include easy ways to write tables and chemistry diagrams, which you can currently do through markdown.

Manjinder Kainth, PhD
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I’ve been intricately involved in teaching for many years. I have over 6 years of private tutoring experience, taught in higher education, and most recently worked on designing and delivering crash courses for a high school.