Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 6: Wisconsin’s Victory, Some N.C. State professors are using online homework software

Wisconsin’s Victory

The Faculty Senate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison voted Monday to narrow an 18-year old speech code that permits the punishment of professors for remarks that students find offensive. The new code, which was approved by a vote of 71 to 62, says that “all expressions germane to the instructional setting — including but not limited to information, the presentation or advocacy of ideas, assignment of course materials, and teaching techniques — is protected from disciplinary action.”

The decision marks a new era for a university that, until now, maintained a politically correct speech code. Madison was among the first college campuses to adopt a “hate speech” code (in the late 1980’s), prohibiting students from making offensive remarks. That code was struck down in 1991, but the faculty speech code remained intact, although many professors and students considered it a threat to academic freedom. A 17-member panel was appointed two years ago to look into the code and make recommendations to the Faculty Senate on how to amend it. Those decisions guided the Senate Faculty’s decison on Monday night.

“This is further than anybody thought we could go,” Donald A. Downs, a professor of political science at Madison and a member of the panel that helped make the changes, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “This is clearly the repeal of punitive policies for classroom speech,” added Jason M. Shepard, president of the senior class and a member of Madison’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Campus Center. “The faculty today gave a ringing endorsement to academic freedom and our historic commitment to free speech.”

Some N.C. State professors are using online homework software

Students in some N.C. State University courses are doing their homework and even taking quizzes on the World-Wide Web, thanks to a program designed primarily by N.C. State professors. The program, WebAssign, is used in physics, math, computer-science and statistics courses at N.C. State, provides instant feedback to students as they submit their homework and quiz answers online.

It was developed by Larry Martin, a visiting professor of physics at N.C. State, and by Aaron Titus, formerly a graduate student in physics at N.C. State who is now an assistant professor of physics at N.C. A&T State University. Wolfgang Christian, a physics professor at Davidson College, provided the project with Java-based, animated, physics-instructions programs, which he called “physlets,” that he had created.

WebAssign was recently highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which reported that over 45 high schools and universities nationwide were experimenting with the software. N.C. State is now marketing the software, and the Chronicle reports that several textbook publishers are allowing their textbook questions to be included in WebAssign’s data base as long as students using it are asked to purchase the books. A demonstration of WebAssign is on the World-Wide Web .