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Comprende!

tl;dr: I wrote a quiz interface on top of a MediaWiki/WikiBase installation. It ties together material from Wikidata, Commons, and Wikipedia, to form a new educational resource. I hope the code will eventually be taken up by a Wikimedia chapter, as part of an OER strategy.


The past

There have been many attempts in the WikiVerse to get a foot into the education domain. Wikipedia is used extensively in this domain, but it is more useful for introductions to a topic, and as a reference, rather than a learning tool. Wikiversity was an attempt to get into university-level education, but even I do not know anyone who actually uses it. Wikibooks has more and better contents, but many wikibooks are mere sub-stub equivalents, rather than usable, fully-fledged textbooks. There has been much talk about OER, offline content for internet-challenged areas, etc. But the fabled “killer app” has so far failed to emerge.

Enter Charles Matthews, who, like myself, is situated in Cambridge. Among other things, he organises the Cambridge Wikipedia meetup, and we do meet occasionally for coffee between those. In 2014, he started talking to me about quizzes. At the time, he was designing teaching material for Wikimedia UK, using Moodle, as a component in Wikipedia-related courses. He quickly became aware of the limitations of that software, which include (but are not limited to) general software bloat, significant hardware requirements, and hurdles in re-using questions and quizzes in other contexts. Despite all this, Moodle is rather widely used, and the MediaWiki Quiz extension is not exactly representing itself as a viable replacement.

A quiz can be a powerful tool for education. It can be used by teachers and mentors to check on the progress of their students, and by the students themselves, to check their own progress and readiness for an upcoming test.

As the benefits are obvious, and the technical requirements appeared rather low, I wrote (at least) two versions of a proof-of-concept tool named wikisoba. The interface looked somewhat appealing, but storage is a sore point. The latest version uses JSON stored as a wiki page, which needs to be edited manually. Clearly, not an ideal way to attract users these days.

Eventually, a new thought emerged. A quiz is a collection of “pages” or “slides”, representing a question (of various types), or maybe a text to read beforehand. A question, in turn, consists of a title, a question text (usually), possible answers, etc. A question is therefore the main “unit”, and should be treated on its own, separate from other questions. Questions can then be bundled into quizzes; this allows for re-use of questions in multiple quizzes, maybe awarding different points (a question could yield high points in an entry-level quiz, but less points in an advanced quiz). The separation of question and quiz makes for a modular, scalable, reusable architecture. Treating each question as a separate unit is therefore a cornerstone of any successful system for (self-)teaching and (self-)evaluation.

It would, of course, be possible to set up a database for this, but then it would require an interface, constraint checking, all the things that make a project complicated and prone to fail. Luckily, there exists a software that already offers adequate storage, querying, interface etc. I speak of WikiBase, the MediaWiki extension used to power Wikidata (and soon Commons as well). Each question could be an item, with the details encoded in statements. Likewise, a quiz would be an item, referencing question items. WikiBase offers a powerful API to manage, import, and export questions; it comes with build-in openness.

The present

There is a small problem, however; the default WikiBase interface is not exactly appealing for non-geeks. Also, there is obviously no way to “play” a quiz in a reasonable manner. So I decided to use my recent experience with vue.js to write an alternative interface to MediaWiki/WikiBase, designed to generate questions and quizzes, and to play a quiz in a more pleasant way. The result has the working title Comprende!, and can be regarded as a fully functional, initial version of a WikiBase-driven question/quiz system. The underlying “vanilla” WikiBase installation is also accessible. To jump right in, you can test your biology knowledge!

There are currently three question types available:

  • Multiple-choice questions, the classic
  • “Label image” presents an image from Commons, letting you assign labels to marked points in the image
  • Info panels, presenting information to learn (to be interspersed with actual questions)

All aspects of the questions are stored in WikiBase; they can have a title, a short text, and an intro section; for the moment, the latter can be a specific section of a Wikipedia article (of a specific revision, by default), but other types (Commons images, for example) are possible. When used in “info panel” type questions (example), a lot of markup, including images, is preserved; for intro sections in other question types, it is simplified to mere text.

Live translating of interface text.

Wikidata is multi-lingual by design, and so is Comprende!. An answer or image label can be a text stored as multi-lingual (or monolingual, in WikiBase nomenclature) strings, as a Wikidata item reference, giving instant access to all the translations there. Also, all interface text is stored in an item, and translations can be done live within the interface.

Questions can be grouped and ordered into a quiz. Everyone can “play” and design a quiz (Chrome works best at the moment), but you need to be logged into the WikiBase setup to save the result. Answers can be added, dragged around to change the order, and each question can be assigned a number of points, which will be awarded based on the correct “sub-answers”. You can print the current quiz design (no need to save it), and most of the “chrome” will disappear, leaving only the questions; instant old-fashioned paper test!

While playing the quiz, one can see how many points they have, how many questions are left etc. Some mobile optimisations like reflow for portrait mode, and a fixed “next question” button at the bottom, are in place. At the end of the quiz, there is a final screen, presenting the user with their quiz result.

To demonstrate the compatibility with existing question/quiz systems, I added a rudimentary Moodle XML import; an example quiz is available. Another obvious import format to add would be GIFT. Moodle XML export is also on the to-do-list.

The future

All this is obviously just a start. A “killer feature” would be a SPARQL setup, federating Wikidata. Entry-level quizzes for molecular biology? Questions that use Wikidata answers that are chemicals? I can see educators flocking to this, especially if material is available in, or easily translated into, their language. More questions types could emphasise the strength of this approach. Questions could even be mini-games etc.

Another aspect I have not worked on yet is logging results. This could be done per user, where the user can add their result in a quiz to a dedicated tracking item for their user name. Likewise, a quiz could record user results (automatically or voluntarily).

One possibility would be to live for the questions, quizzes etc. in a dedicated namespace on Wikidata (so as to not contaminate the default namespace). That would simplify the SPARQL setup, and get the existing community involved. The Wikitionary-related changes on Wikidata will cover all that is needed on the backend; the interface is all HTML/JS, not even an extension is required, so next to no security or integration issues. Ah, one can dream, right?

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