May 17, 2006

Open source package passes personal learning test

Author: Tina Gasperson

In the world of education, technology plays an ever-increasing role in student management and other administrative tasks. Teachers all over the world are using an open source GPL-licensed course management system called LON-CAPA, and the result are "revitalizing," "unique," and "creative," according to some of its users.

LON-CAPA is a Web-based course management system that was developed at Michigan State University (MSU). In addition to providing a way for educators to manage students and homework assignments, LON-CAPA gives students personalized problem sets, quizzes, and exams in a format that allows them to complete tasks wherever they have access to the Internet.

MSU professors piloted the Computer-Assisted Personalized Approach (CAPA) in 1992 with a small physics class. In 1999, CAPA got together with the Lecture Online Network, a physics-specific project that served course material over the Web, and it became LON-CAPA, the Learning Online Network/Computer-Assisted Personalized Approach. The program provides each student with a unique assignment and helps students learn material by providing unlimited opportunities to re-work problems until they get them right, and providing tips and hints. The system records participation and performance, sending results directly to the instructor and the student. LON-CAPA accommodates any kind of course or class. Today, LON-CAPA serves some 40,000 "course enrollments" worldwide, from middle school to graduate courses. The number of actual students using LON-CAPA is somewhat less than 40,000, since each student can work through more than one course at a time.

Two educators using LON-CAPA, Paul Ciske of Mio AuSable High School in Mio, Michigan, and Brad Moffat of Selwyn House School in Westmount, Quebec, Canada, shared some of their experiences.

Ciske has been teaching science and math classes at Mio AuSable for 14 years. Before the school installed LON-CAPA, teachers assigned homework the old-fashioned way –- directly from textbooks. "If a similar system [to LON-CAPA] was available, we didn't know about it," Ciske says. The school set up a Windows-based network with "many workstations sprinkled across the school" for student access, and a mobile computer lab that moves from classroom to classroom for group assignments.

Moffat teaches physics and calculus to boys at Selwyn's pre-university program. He says that LON-CAPA is the first automated system the school has ever used. Selwyn is running a Novell network with Windows XP and a laptop program that has 300 to 400 laptops connecting to the network. "We weren't really looking" for a course management system, Moffat says. "A friend described the system and it sounded good. I was attracted by the prospect of a virtually unlimited source of high-quality practice work that allowed the students to re-correct as many times as I allow, without additional correction workload for me."

Ciske was familiar with LON-CAPA because he was at MSU working on a master's degree when it was first developed. "I was invited to join, it seemed to have many potential benefits, so we signed on." Mio AuSable received a grant to get the system set up, including hardware, and to train Ciske. MSU sent a team out to install and configure it. "It took them a good part of a day to get it set up," he says. "Initially we had problems with our firewall conflicting with LON-CAPA, but those problems have long been resolved."

Moffat had an easier time of it. "It was installed and configured in about 45 minutes," he says. "The first assignment was in front of the students four months later."

Both men are pleased with the way LON-CAPA makes students more responsible for their own work. Ciske says his students get more feedback. "I teach four different classes," he says. "Often, hand-graded homework is simply checked for completion, not for correctness. This isn't good, but is the reality of not enough time. [With LON-CAPA], students get feedback immediately on being right or wrong, and for me it is now less effort than when I used to grade for completion."

Moffat concurs. "The immediate feedback from instant correction makes them see the homework almost as a video game," he says. "The last correct answer motivates them to try the next."

Because each student receives a unique assignment, copying is virtually eliminated. "Students are more likely to do their own work," Ciske says. "Many students get through school by copying. That is less likely [with LON-CAPA]. They could get someone to do it for them, but there is no grey line between 'helping' and copying."

"The individualized questions force a different quality of collaboration among work groups," Moffat says. "Instead of blind copying, they must copy the process or the equation techniques. At this level, that's exactly what we want."

Ciske is fairly happy with LON-CAPA just the way it is, but Moffat suggests some additions for what he terms pressing needs. "A review button. At the end of each sequence, I'd like to see 'would you like to try again?'" Moffat also requests an organized archival system. "Let's get Google involved. I'm sure they'd love to fund [LON-CAPA], especially if you use their search engines."

Both teachers have glowing praise for the student and staff response to LON-CAPA. "During the first year I was using it with my physics class, I had given a set of problems to the class on thermal equilibrium," Ciske says. "They were expected to work on them on their own and submit their answers during the week on their own time. One day, a student walked into class, looked me in the eye and said, 'You know, last night I got every one of those problems right on the first try.' He was proud and letting me know it. He was confident that he knew the material and was ready to go. I have never seen that response to a book work assignment. It was that day I knew i was working with something special."

For Moffat, the biggest "bottom-line" benefit has been the creative focus. "Our science staff has been revitalized around this effort," he says. "The energy and feelings of accomplishment in the staff room are exciting. Sure, the students are benefiting, but we also have teachers and department heads thinking in creative new directions. Game on."

Click Here!