Chapa approves LON-CAPA
Math teacher introduces new online homework platform
Published: Thursday, January 13, 2011 - 9:56pm
URBANA — Accelerated Calculus 3 and Advanced Topics students no longer feel remorse wasting trees. Executive math teacher Craig Russell is experimenting with a homework method by which students use LON-CAPA, an e-learning platform also known as a Course Management System (CMS) or Learning Management System (LMS).
"LON-CAPA stands for Lecture Online Network with Computer-Assisted Personalized Approach," said Russell. "Its history is a bit interesting; it has been here at UIUC for about 5 years."
Students previously wrote required homework problems using the standard textbook and paper method. LON-CAPA means that problems other than the proof and exploration.
LON-CAPA possesses the standard features, such as a calendar, of many learning platforms, but it differs from traditional e-learning platforms in that its many web servers can communicate with each other.
"We don't get hard copies, which I like just for my personal records or for studying for tests, but it is more convenient in general," said senior Zach Korol-Gold.
Although his use of LON-CAPA began recently, Russell's experience with similar online quizzes began with Mallard ten years ago.
"Students were nearly unanimous in acclaiming the software," said Russell. "They could work on the quiz problems and keep working until they were satisfied with their score."
As his teaching style evolved, Russell began to appreciate the Mallard quizzes as a place for students to work through problems without having to show so much work, so that he could grade more carefully.
"The best quizzes, and the ones many students over the years have told me they appreciated, were delivered via Mallard, a software package developed by Professor Donna Brown," said Russell.
In the spring of 2010, Russell learned that the Mallard servers would be shut down in the fall. He began the process of looking for a replacement.
His contacts at Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services (CITES), the host for Compass and most things techno-related on campus, mentioned LON-CAPA as an alternative that is in use on campus.
"I know that some physics courses at UIUC use WeBWorK, and that the calculus with Mathematica courses at UIUC have begun replacing Mallard quizzes with LON-CAPA quizzes," said Russell.
In the fall, Russell wrote and administered ten questions in two different quizzes for Advanced Topics.
"It's pretty easy to use and well organized," said junior Jason He, who used LON-CAPA for Advanced Topics class.
Russell worked with Alejandra Stenger of the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology to get the LON-CAPA course set up.
"I spent half an hour with Alejandra back in the fall, then spent a few hours beating my head against the computer screen to learn how to write questions," said Russell.
Russell was satisfied with the randomization feature, although he did get feedback that, on occasion, some of the multiple choice or matching problems didn't show up correctly. According to Russell, LON-CAPA could be improved in other ways as well.
"This isn't much of an issue, but on a multiple choice question, a student could try A then B then C then D and gee, one of these will be correct, even without using a brain to think about the question!" said Russell.
In addition, Russell still hasn't figured out how to award partial credit.
"I can have the software grade each part of a problem correctly, and even give each part of the problem a different weight, but all I see in the score is a 0 or full credit," said Russell.
Russell did not eliminate all written homework from Calculus 3. The most important part of the weekly homework remains the written exploration and proof. Russell hopes to try new teaching methods in the future, even though LON-CAPA turned out to be very promising.
"Nothing is ever permanent," said Russell. "I'll keep trying new things, hopefully discarding the ones that don't work out as well."