An Interview with OWL Team Member William Vining, PhD.

If you studied or taught Chemistry in high school or college back in the 1970’s, 1980’s, or earlier, you probably remember homework assignments that required hand drawings of molecules and hand-written responses. By the time the homework had been graded and handed back to students, particularly if the class size was large, the class had moved on to another topic. Because of the lag time, the professor’s feedback could not be easily used to help the student master a set of concepts before the class had moved on to a more advanced topic.

In 1995, Professors Roberta Day and Beatrice (Bea) Botch of the Chemistry Department at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst created the first version of a computer-based coursework resource that would enable chemistry students to submit their assignments online and to receive electronic results. By 1998, when Dr. William (Bill) Vining joined the team to contribute his educational software design expertise, Drs. Day and Botch had already come to the conclusion that they needed to take their solution to the next level. Jeanne Heston reached out to Dr. Vining to learn more about the market needs that the team sought to address and the solution itself.

Jeanne Heston (JH): What was it that first inspired the team to develop OWL?

Bill Vining (BV): When I joined the team, the 1500 UMass Amherst chemistry students would go to the Chemistry department’s tutoring and resource center to use the software that Roberta and Bea had developed in the PLATO Learning Environment®. The early versions of OWL provided automatic grading for assignments, but the early versions were not truly interactive. There was no way to randomize the answers. As a result, it was very easy for students to circulate lists of correct answers to all of the questions. Once we added three-way randomization of questions to OWL, we made it easier for students to truly master the material before moving on to the next set of concepts. When a student answers a question incorrectly, OWL displays a new problem that tests his or her knowledge of the same concepts, but uses a different set of parameters – for the chemistry, the wording of the questions, and the numbers.

JH: Were there other technology solutions that you had used or created prior to OWL? 

BV: The solutions that I had used prior to joining the team were interactive, some CD-based, but they did not provide automatic grading capabilities. Automatic grading benefits both professors and their students. Professors are able to save time, and students can immediately identify their weak areas and focus their study time on those topics — without waiting a week or more before their papers are returned.

JH: How do you determine which features should be part of each version of OWL?

BV: We are continually upgrading OWL in response to customer requests, taking advantage of new technology. Some examples include the visual exercises, simulations of chemical systems, and video tutorials that explain core concepts. In the latest release, OWLv2, we’ve enhanced our sketching program by moving to ChemDoodle. Students can dynamically adjust the molecular visualizations, adding new “parts.” We spend a lot of time speaking with instructors, especially at the OWL workshops that we run once a year. The Cengage Learning sales team members also send us a lot of feedback from our customers. That has been one of the biggest benefits of the Cengage Learning partnership.

JH: Have there been any surprises along the way? 

BV: I guess that the biggest surprise has been the level of popularity that OWL has enjoyed. It was apparently the right thing at the right time!

Do you use online homework and assessment solutions in conjunction with your Chemistry courses? We would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences using the comments section below, or by sending us a message at thinktank@cengage.com.