Linux Goes to Algebra Class

Learning algebra can be fun using a computer and software from Learning Logic Labs.

I remember a summer day that was as wonderful as a carefree day can be, but it slipped away to produce probably the worst day of my life. For on that day, I received my eighth-grade algebra schedule. How was it possible that I had been placed in Mr. Johnston's class? He, who was capable of striking fear in the hearts of even the boldest of my classmates. Didn't he slam students against the lockers? Didn't he yell at them in class? How was I, a quiet and shy thirteen-year-old, to survive the year? I felt there just had to be some mistake. It wasn't fair that this was happening to me, considering math was usually my favorite class. But no, there wasn't any mistake or any getting out of it. Mr. Johnston's algebra class became a reality for the next nine months of my young life. I discovered he was even more fearsome than I had heard. I decided my goal for the year wasn't to get an “A”, but to survive until June! Even though Mr. Johnston is tough, I soon learned first-hand that he is an excellent teacher who cares deeply about his students. I made this discovery shortly after the third week of school. I finally began to breathe easier, relax a bit in class and enjoy the work.

By the beginning of the second six weeks, I was getting bored. Could it be because I understood how to solve the equation the first time he showed us how? Why couldn't he just let me go ahead and solve the equations once I understood? I didn't need his help after the first time. I was getting frustrated! Does this sound familiar? No doubt some of you have been in the same situation. You've had to endure a class in which the instructor was teaching at a rate geared for the average student rather than your faster rate. Or, perhaps the opposite is more accurate. You feel totally lost, everyone else is catching on quickly, and the teacher is leaving you behind.

Wouldn't it be nice if all learners could move at their own rate, rather than be forced to move at the teacher's pace? Students would have the best of both worlds if material were fully explained on a computer screen, so the classroom teacher would be free to work individually with the student if a problem occurred. Think of the advantages to having all material randomized, so that students on the same screen would be presented a different set of problems. This would mean students couldn't copy answers from each other on homework or tests. Imagine having homework assignments automatically printed with the student's name, and later checked by the computer for immediate feedback.

How about automatically generated tests, presented to cover specific material the student has mastered since the last test? Consider the increased teacher productivity that could result from all students working independently on material specific to their needs, and grades being managed by a gradebook feature. How about the luxury of being able to schedule students assigned to Pre-algebra, Algebra I and Algebra II into one computer lab during the same period of time? What about the advantage for students mastering a section of material before they move on, so as to avoid of misunderstanding showing up in a later course? Consider the convenience of having the program automatically download enhancements and additional courseware as they become available. Imagine all this, along with a mechanism for teachers and students to communicate directly with program developers.

Do these features sound like a math teacher's dream? They're a reality with the development of Learning Logic (L2). A self-paced, computerized algebra program, Learning Logic is currently being used in algebra classrooms in twelve U.S. states and runs on a Red Hat 5.2 Linux platform.

The average Learning Logic Lab consists of a single Linux server. Students work on X terminals running in 1024x768 mode connected to the server via a 10- or 100-base twisted-pair network. A PostScript-capable printer automatically prints student homework and tests. A classroom modem allows the NSCF to connect remotely to the server. A PPP connection to the server can also be set up to assist the NSCF Support Team in diagnosing any possible problems. The programs Maple and Reduce are used as an artificial intelligence engine for evaluating a wide range of possible student answers.

Why Linux? For starters, it's a free operating system! The source is freely available, so if there is a need to fix something, it can be done without external assistance. It's also much easier to debug. Linux has message and error logs to indicate specific problems, and if that doesn't work, one can always read the core files. It comes with networking built in, so there is no need for third-party software. Compilers and development libraries already exist, so there is no need to buy expensive libraries.

Drivers evolve quickly since many people worldwide are working in Linux to develop software. Many commercially available UNIX systems don't have the driver support, due mostly to a limited staff. Often, one has to buy extra driver packs.

With Linux, most drivers are free. In addition, Linux does not install a new package or replace system libraries without letting users know. Window programs often store things in the main system directories when a new program is installed. This can cause a problem if the libraries are different. Linux updates are quick, and mail and network services are usually included in any commercially available release. They usually include the source code.

Linux is particularly well-suited for a school environment for several reasons. Firewalling and other forms of network security are built into the OS, and Linux supports them at the kernel level. As with most types of UNIX, viruses are virtually nonexistent in Linux. There are also a number of drivers available, and Linux does not throw away the obsolete drivers just because someone thinks no one uses them any longer. Schools are generally on limited budgets, so they often have to make do with older hardware. Most importantly, with Linux a standard PC can be used to run an entire classroom of 25-30 workstations.

Why Red Hat? When project development began, Slackware was used before migrating to Red Hat Linux 4.1. Even though it was not free, at the time Red Hat was the easiest to install and had the most professional installation interface. Essentially, it had everything needed right out of the box. RPMs make it easier to install updates and fixes, and it provides a common database to search through to determine which version of a specific package is installed. Learning Logic was created at the National Science Center Foundation (NSCF), a not-for-profit foundation located in Augusta, GA. The NSCF has no salespeople and Learning Logic is spread mainly by word of mouth. Teachers are attracted to Learning Logic's flexibility, its ability to be tailored to meet the needs of the individual student and its variety of teacher management and reporting tools such as the gradebook feature.

Some schools report that students who use Learning Logic Algebra I are faring better than their peers when both groups reach Algebra II. Data indicate that L2 students in these schools maintain a lower Algebra II failure rate. Teachers also report that L2 students tend to make more As and Bs in Algebra II, compared to students who are not exposed to Learning Logic Algebra I. In the fall of 2000, Learning Logic will celebrate its tenth anniversary. At its inception in 1989, a Motorola 88K multiprocessor system was used in Learning Logic classrooms. SunOS, AIX, SCO and OSF/1 have each been used as the operating system at some point. Now, faster PCs and Linux result in improved capabilities and speed as well as a wider range of hardware choices.

At the time Learning Logic was first introduced into schools during its beta test period, UNIX had very few followers in the secondary school arena. However, since Linux has gone to algebra class in the form of Learning Logic, it has become more of a household word in Learning Logic schools.

Gail Fultz was a secondary school mathematics and Spanish teacher for over fifteen years and has worked in the UNIX environment for more than ten years. She is currently Director of Educational Programs for the National Science Center Foundation in Augusta, GA. She welcomes your comments sent to gail@nscf.org.

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