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Sep. 26, 2006

Michigan State University open source project fuels bottom-up teaching innovation




EAST LANSING, Mich. — The rise of always-on, high speed Internet connections represents new teaching opportunities for high school and college instructors, many of whom daily face classrooms full of Web-savvy students. But with schools strapped for resources, it’s frequently difficult to scrape together funds to first buy the right hardware and software and then find teachers with the right skills to make the most of the technology.

These are the challenges addressed by the LearningOnline Network With Computer-Assisted Personalized Approach, or LON-CAPA, an innovative Michigan State University Web-based service allowing educators to easily create and share course material across a range of subjects.

The service has led to a technology startup in Haslett and now has a fast growing online library of more than 250,000 shareable resources. This recent momentum suggests that the same bottom-up, community-driven processes that grow viable open source software applications, keep the blogosphere vibrant, and maintain the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, also can lead to innovations in teaching and learning.

The service originated within the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at MSU and the university’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. In 1992, the two campus units piloted a computer-assisted tool to give a class of 92 physics students personalized problem sets, quizzes and exams.

Gerd Kortemeyer, a cyclotron lab research associate in the mid-1990s and principal investigator for the service, helped to expand the application to its current scale. In a recent report to the National Science Foundation, which provided significant financial support in the service’s early phase, Kortemeyer, also an MSU assistant professor of physics, listed 49 secondary schools and 43 colleges and universities as users.

These users are the source of the online collections of lesson plans, problem sets, videos, computer animations, and so on, that have mushroomed in recent years. From 2005-06, the number of shareable resources increased by nearly 65 percent, and the service, which also received support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, may now be one of the world’s largest online libraries of such educator-generated material.

“All of my graded homework is now delivered online via LON-CAPA,” said John Plough, a physics teacher at East Lansing High School. The service allows teachers such as Plough to build personalized assignments for each student. “Students don’t say ‘what did you get for No. four?’ but rather ‘how did you do No. four?’ That’s a big difference when it comes to fostering collaboration and discussion,” he said.

While on sabbatical a few years ago, Plough took the time to code and input much of his physics curriculum into the service. Now other high school and college teachers who are part of the network occasionally access his material for use in their courses, just as Plough sometimes uses information submitted to the service from other educators. Plough said the system has high “catch-on-ability,” a sentiment that other users agree with.

One is Joe Alvord, a physics teacher at West Anchorage High School in Anchorage, Alaska. Alvord learned the rudimentary software skills, including XML and Practical Extraction and Report Language from the For Dummies series of reference books. Now he uses these skills to input his own material whenever he finds gaps in the content. And, echoing the sentiments of those who participate in other user-generated online activities such as blogging or editing Wikipedia pages, Alvord said he gains more than invests in working with the tool.


“I can do a huge amount more for my students,” said Alvord, who now assigns all of his homework online. “Individual help, lab design and new projects are all possible since I am no longer buried in paperwork.”

To keep costs down, the tool is an open source project. Most schools participate by setting up a low- cost server running freely available open source software connected to the service’s network. And those schools who don’t have the necessary financial resources or technical skills to maintain their own server may host their material at eduCog, the new Haslett-based startup established by MSU faculty. A nonprofit organization, eduCog will re-invest its revenue into the MSU service after covering its expenses. The service will receive additional support from MSU and the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

Though built on inexpensive technology, the service has several features that enable rich multimedia content. For example, so-called physlets are Java-based Web applications that are easily modified to teach an array of physics concepts. (One such physlet is available here:


“We've been very pleased with LON-CAPA and have appreciated the diverse styles of problems that the system supports,” said Mark Lucas, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio University.

For more on the Web-based service, visit the Web at:


Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 14 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.

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