Last year I wrote about a cool project I’d joined called Ximera. Bart Snapp and Jim Fowler at OSU have been developing a great set of tools to turn LaTeX documents into interactive websites for students. Within one of these sites, you can ask questions and get real-time answer checking, plot with desmos, and embed videos. OSU uses Ximera for their calculus courses, where you can get a good look at different types of questions that one can ask with this platform. With a small change in the header, these websites can be converted to handouts or even a book.
When they announced another Ximera workshop, their fourth, I jumped at the chance with one goal in mind: writing documentation.
A few of you had reached out to me last year about how to get Ximera up and running locally, and I wasn’t much help. It takes some work to make all the moving parts work together correctly on any individual machine, and that is not my area of expertise. But we have a way to circumvent all of this now using CoCalc (formerly Sage Math Cloud).
You’ll need a CoCalc account with internet access (maybe only to get it started?), which costs $7/month. But if you can swing that, our getting started documents should let you edit your first assignments and set up your first course. And if something doesn’t work properly or if you spot a typo, let me know so I can make edits. Bart and Jim streamlined the workflow a bit since last year, but you will still need to use a terminal within CoCalc, and you’ll need to stay on the right side of the git gods, which can be frustrating. But once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to produce beautiful custom assignments that would take ages in an online homework site or a learning management system.
We also included some documentation on how to install Ximera locally but they might not work quite as well as I’d like. The Ubuntu directions are fairly solid (I think), but you’ll probably hit a snag on the Mac instructions when you get to the gpg key. Those problems are not unresolvable, but they’re technical and temperamental and beyond what was possible to write up nicely. PC instructions don’t exist at all, though if anyone would like to try to install and explain what you did, I’m sure we’d all be overjoyed to add them.
The dev team have worked out a couple more technical kinks since last time. They treat answer checking on things like factoring polynomials in a much more clever way. They’ve implemented non-numerical or -functional answers, so it’s easier to make things like fill-in-the-blank questions now. And they’re getting closer to a functioning free response question environment (one already exists, but the answers don’t really get stored anywhere that’s easily accessible right now).
There’s more documentation yet to write. Another workshop participant is working on describing all the environments and how they work, so once that’s ready I’ll pass it along. And we don’t have anything written on the instructor tools or how to sync to Canvas as far as I know.
The authors are looking toward an official release sometime next year, and I’ll update you when I know more. I’m excited to be a part of this project and I plan to use it a bit in my calc 2 class in the fall. When that’s ready I’m sure I’ll post about it so you can see how it comes together.