History of Course Management Systems at MSU

Purdue, in its perpetual quest to cut corners and save money, is working to expand its use of open-source software, potentially saving students upward of $1 million.

The software, developed by Michigan State University in 1992, is called the Learning Online Network with Computer-Assisted Personalized Approach, or more commonly known, LON-CAPA.

Students in biology courses may be familiar with LON-CAPA, but after the Purdue Student Government came forward with a resolution to expand the courses with which LON-CAPA is compatible, administration gave the green light to expand the software to 4,500 additional students.

Michael Young, a PSG senator in the College of Engineering, drafted the legislation last month after taking a closer look at the heavy fees required for access codes to the existing software.

“There’s been a big discussion at Purdue about reducing the cost of textbooks,” he said in an interview with Journal and Courier. “But no one’s talking about the online homework costs, which in some cases can be more than the textbooks.”

In the fall semester of 2015, geometry and calculus courses will be equipped with the LON-CAPA software, replacing the existing WebAssign software. Purdue is one of only a few universities to implement LON-CAPA on a wide scale – others include Michigan State and the University of Illinois.

The problem, apart from the cost, was the larger, more technical classes weren’t getting feedback from their professors or the software.

Pat Reid, manager of the innovations in teaching and learning department of ITaP, said the math department expressed interest in finding an alternative operating system.

“It has a tie-in to Blackboard, but it provides a different type of assignment,” Reid said. “It provides extra capabilities to the instructors that way.”

Gerd Kortemeyer, the project director for LON-CAPA, said for students of science, engineering, technology and mathematics disciplines (STEM), virtually all the content needed for the course can be found on LON-CAPA’s system, an aggregate of 160 schools uploaded material internationally.

“If someone was teaching physics, they would have all the text material that would be needed and all the homework they could probably wish for already provided in the system ... so quite often, 98 percent of the class they are running is material that is already there,” Kortemeyer said.

Where LON-CAPA excels is in the details that can be manipulated into larger projects or expanded to enhance the online content and address it in the way instructors favor. The hope is this software will provide more resources for students to access, helping them to better prepare for exams.

Michigan State has been using the system since its development in ‘92 and courses using LON-CAPA don’t require textbooks, saving students fees of more than $100 per course.

However, for all its foreseen benefits, not everything about the software is sterling.

“Somebody has compared it before that LON-CAPA is like a Ferrari,” Kortemeyer said. “As a stick shift, it’s not necessarily the most user-friendly car, but it can do a lot. Most people don’t need a Ferrari. Most people want a Toyota Corolla, so if you look at some of the more commercial systems (like Blackboard), they come across a lot more like a Toyota and a lot less like a picky Ferrari.”

The faculty “driving” the system in ‘92 were the people in the STEM positions, willing to test and build the system to what it is today. Kortemeyer warns the LON-CAPA system has “unique functionality,” with a more complicated user interface than systems like Blackboard or WebAssign.

The reluctance of other fields, like languages and humanities, to integrate a system like this into their curriculum has been for this reason. However, Kortemeyer says the software, from what they are able to observe, is more difficult to operate for faculty than it is for the more tech-savvy student body.

Kortemeyer teaches a class aimed at producing CourseWeaver, the next generation of LON-CAPA. It seeks to gloss over the complicated interface and integrate more advanced levels of coursework to help the faculty who may be struggling to understand the system.

With time and diligence, Kortemeyer predicts Michigan State to be textbook-free and help to save millions of dollars for the campus and its students.

Young would like to see more development collaborations between Purdue students and staff to create an in-house technology system similar to LON-CAPA. Slowly weaning off of external developers and publishers may mean a textbook-less campus at Purdue as well.

Editor's Note: The Exponent erroneously tweeted cutting open-source software would save Purdue $1 million. Expanding use of open-source software would reduce student textbook fees. The Exponent regrets this error.

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