Linux Revisits Algebra Class

by David Steele

Editor's Note: This article is a follow-up to "Linux Goes to Algebra Class", which appeared in the March 2000 issue.

Wouldn't it be nice if all learners could move at their own rates rather than be forced to move at the teacher's pace? Students would have the best of both worlds if material were explained fully on a computer screen, so the classroom teacher would be free to work individually with the students in need. 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 one another 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, with grades being managed by a built-in gradebook. 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 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 currently is being used in algebra classrooms in ten US states, and it runs on a Red Hat Linux platform.

The efficacy of Learning Logic has been proven repeatedly in numerous evaluations and surveys and in various modes of testing and data collection. At Winder-Barrow High School in Winder, Georgia, pass/fail rates dropped from 30-50% to 10-20%. Of those students given extended time in the summer to complete Algebra I, all passed.

A comparison by Collinwood High School in Cleveland, Ohio, showed that following the installation of Learning Logic, the number of students dropping math courses declined, the Algebra failure rate was lower, grades were higher, the homework completion rate was higher and reading levels improved.

A comparison of PSAT scores by juniors at Creekside High School in Fairburn, Georgia, showed that students who had Learning Logic Algebra as freshmen out-performed traditionally taught students. In the same year, juniors had their best showing on the mathematics portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Test since its inception.

Learning Logic was created at the National Science Center Foundation (NSCF), a not-for-profit foundation located in Augusta, GA. 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.

The average Learning Logic lab consists of a single server running Red Hat Linux and a number of student stations. Students use PCs running Windows, PCs booting Linux off CD or dedicated X terminals. Stations typically connect to the server over 10- or 100-megabit Ethernet. A classroom may have a single type of student station or a combination, with typically up to 30 student stations in one classroom. With modern hardware, a single server easily can handle two classrooms. The server requires a modem and dedicated phone line or a connection to the Internet. The NSCF contacts each server nightly to retrieve problem reports and error logs and to transmit updated courseware as it becomes available. A PostScript-compatible printer is used to print homework assignments for the students and reports for the teacher.

Why Linux? Learning Logic originally was developed on an Intel 80386 running Interactive Systems UNIX System V, beginning in 1989. At that time UNIX was the only networked development environment of sufficient maturity. In the intervening years Learning Logic has been ported to Motorola SystemV/88K, SunOS, AIX, SCO UNIX and OSF/1. As Linux matured and PC-class hardware became more capable, Linux became a natural target.

Today Linux provides a rich development environment combined with familiar support tools, which include system logs and, in the worst case, core files. Because of the open source nature of Linux, it is relatively easy to adapt to new requirements. For example, when a school replaces a failed network card, the NSCF can update their system with a new driver, if necessary. In addition, it often is possible to obtain Linux drivers for older hardware that couldn't be used with commercial operating systems.

Linux is particularly well-suited for a school environment. Because the distribution is freely available, the NSCF can set up a school's system without buying and charging them for a copy of the operating system. Linux has good support for firewall functions. Because of its mature multi-user environment, viruses and worms that attack Linux systems are relatively rare.

Why Red Hat? The first Linux port of Learning Logic used Slackware. When the National Science Center Foundation was ready to begin production use of Linux, the Red Hat distribution was the easiest to use and had the most professional installation interface. In addition, RPM made it easier to install updates and fixes and to determine which version of a package is installed.

In the fall of 2000 Learning Logic celebrated its tenth anniversary. The first installations in 1990 used Motorola 88100 multiprocessor RISC systems running UNIX System V/88. Since then the software has used SunOS on a SPARC, AIX on an IBM RISC system, SCO UNIX on Intel hardware, OSF/1 on the DEC Alpha and DG/UX on a Data General AViiON, which is another Motorola 88K RISC system. Today faster PCs with Linux offer improved capabilities and performance with a wider range of hardware choices at lower cost.

At the time Learning Logic was first introduced into schools during its beta test period, UNIX had few followers in the secondary school arena. However, since Linux has gone to an algebra class in the form of Learning Logic, it has become more of a household word in Learning Logic schools. The National Science Center Foundation, Inc. and Logical Learning Systems, Inc. are providers of Learning Logic Algebra.

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