Open Source Objects for Teaching and Learning

Michigan State University’s Learning Online Network with CAPA (Computer-Assisted Personalized Approach) is building an open platform for the development and distribution of online content. The network, dubbed LON-CAPA, would make online content freely and openly available to any instructor in the sciences or social sciences. LON-CAPA was developed at MSU’s Laboratory for Instructional Technology in Education (LITE), and grew out of earlier MSU initiatives, including the successful CAPA and LectureOnline platforms.

The online content is composed of a resource pool of educational objects, applets, or small slices of content that are written, created, and contributed by instructors participating in the program. Gerd Kortemeyer, director of LITE and principal investigator on the LON-CAPA team, describes the platform as a resource assembly tool, “a shopping cart,” with which an instructor can go through “aisles” gathering content until the entire instructional piece is complete.

LON-CAPA is analogous to a coursepak or a jigsaw puzzle, he says. Users decide how much content to take: as little as a single animation, or as much as an entire semester’s worth of material.

Think of LON-CAPA as a digital library with an instructional management system built in. Currently, it includes material for courses in physics, calculus, chemistry, biology, food science, and psychology. Some disciplines, such as physics, contain quite a lot of material, enough to fill entire semesters. The platform offers automatic checking of homework problems, with helpful feedback available to those who come up with incorrect answers.

Each component is independent. “Instructors can choose the level of granularity desired,” Kortemeyer says. Some teachers may want to select single GIF files, animations, chapter sections, and problem sets, carefully crafting a personalized approach to the course. Others can adopt online textbooks, complete with problem sets and figures.

LON-CAPA’s flexibility and adaptability are important features. Since anyone can contribute content, there is unlimited potential for growth. The open source platform is deliberately set up for ease of use, so that selecting and adopting content is very simple. Rather than screen content before it is posted, Kortemeyer’s group has opted to let users determine the quality of each posting. “Much as visitors to Amazon.com post their reviews of books, our users will evaluate material that is put into LON-CAPA and will not only assess it but can actually make improvements to it,” he says.

“We have at least 10,000 physics resources,” Kortemeyer notes. Other disciplines contain fewer content bits, but more is being added all the time. He notes that the platform isn’t specific to the sciences and d'esn’t deliberately exclude the humanities. “It’s just that certain aspects of it, such as the automatic checking of homework problems, lend themselves better to the sciences and mathematics,” he says.

Users might draw from LON-CAPA for a distance education course where all of the instruction is delivered in a virtual environment, but they might just as easily use material as part of a lecture course or as lab materials. The adaptability of the platform makes it appropriate for all sorts of situations.

At first glance, one might think that piecing together a course from a number of small fragments would require a large investment of instructor prep time, but in actuality that isn’t the case. Kortemeyer says that the granularity options allow teachers to get as detailed in developing the course syllabus as they wish and that building the syllabus takes as long as adopting a new textbook. Once the course gets going, he notes, “there’s no homework to grade, which saves a lot of time.” As with any online course, however, instructors using the platform should expect to spend some time communicating with their students via e-mail or the built-in communication tools.

At the moment, 18 institutions belong to the LON-CAPA network, and the group hopes to have at least 30 partner institutions within a year. Kortemeyer hopes that in addition to contributing content, many of the users will contribute open source tool code as well, ensuring that the platform will be self-sustaining. Member institutions have to agree to maintain a “library server,” storing some of the content, and larger institutions host an access server as well.

Member K-12 institutions have actually been given a server as part of the NSF grant supporting teacher research within the project. MSU has hosted a two-week training session of the first four school districts to join the program, and plans to continue training new partner institutions. Next year’s LON-CAPA conference will be held at Florida State University, where Kortemeyer says they hope to draw at least 80 participants.

Their long-term goal is to spin the program off into a not-for-profit self-sustaining organization that maintains the network, manages content royalties, handles maintenance of the library, and provides technical support and regular training sessions. With NSF funding, the group hopes to attract the attention of potential member organizations and quickly build a large base of participants.

For more information, contact Gerd Kortemeyer at korte@lite.msu.edu or visit www.lon-capa.org.

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