Dissecting a Network-Based Education System

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The methodsused to design theAlabama LearningExchange can bereplicated to createyour own efficient,cost-effective,network-basededucation systems.

The Alabama Learning Exchange(ALEX; www.alex.state.al.us) is anetwork-based education systemdesigned and implemented to helpimprove education in Alabama. It d'es thisby providing a single location for the state’sK-12 educators to find information thatwill help improve their classroom effectiveness.

The ALEX system includescourses of study, content standards, lessonplans,Web resources, listservs, a bulletinboard, and other educational resources.ALEX was patterned after the GeorgiaLearning Connections education Webportal (www.glc.k12.ga.us) and inputreceived at a SouthEast Initiatives RegionalTechnology in Education Consortium(SEIR*TEC) Academy. At the time, therewas a significant need for a Web site thatcould provide teachers with a way to accessteaching guidelines, search them, and findlesson plans that could assist in theteaching of those guidelines. ALEXprovides this central location for educatorsto find teaching resources and collaboratewith statewide counterparts. Beforethe deployment of ALEX, most teachersalso had to share one book of content standardsfor each course of study. But becauseof this new education portal, accessing thecontent standards is now more convenientfor teachers.

System Configuration

From a development standpoint, ALEX isdivided into seven sections (see Figure 1): Teacher-Created Lesson Plans,Personal Workspace, Courses of StudyContent Standards, Web Resources,Teacher-to-Teacher, Teacher Zone, andMarcoPolo Lesson Plans. Additionalsections, including search, help, suggestionbox, and site map sections, have beenadded to make the site easy to use.

ALEX System Architecture

The system, as illustrated in Figure 2, consists of two Linux servers:one is the Web server and the other is thedatabase server. Thee Web server has Red HatLinux 7.2 installed with kernel version2.4.7-10, runs Apache 1.3.22, and has one600MHz processor with about 20GB of diskspace and 256MB of RAM. The scriptinglanguages used in the development werePHP and PERL, which both reside on theWeb server. The database server has Red HatLinux 7.3 installed with kernel version2.4.18-19.7.xsmp, runs MySQL 3.23.56,and has two 2.2GHz processors with about758GB of disk space and 1GB of RAM.

ALEX System Server Configuration

Courses of Study. Alabama has contentstandards (guidelines) for each course ofstudy and subject. The tblStandards databasetable was created to hold content standardsfor all subjects. It was designed toensure data could be displayed in a mannersimilar to the way it was in the course-of-studycontent-standard books that aredistributed by the Alabama Department ofEducation to K-12 teachers each year. Thesecontent standards can be browsed andsearched by subject and grade; a keywordcan be specified in a search. Results are thenpresented in two formats: One is very similarto the way standards appear in a book, whilethe second format is a printer-friendlyversion. Both versions include the course(subject), year, grade(s), topic (within thesubject area), links to related Web resources,and lesson plans for each content standard.

Personal Workspace. ALEX grants apersonal workspace to users who register tocreate an account. An online form isprovided for registering,which asks users toenter their name,a user name,and an e-mailaddress. When the user clicks submit, thisinformation is stored in the user databasetable. To complete the registration process,users must respond to a system-generatede-mail message that contains a link the usermust visit. This link includes hash ande-mail parameters which are comparedwith corresponding values that were storedin the user database table when the onlineregistration form was submitted. Onceconfirmed,the user is asked to enter his affiliationinformation before he is allowed touse his personal workspace. Most of ALEX’susers are affiliated with schools or othereducational organizations.

Teacher-Created Lesson Plans. Teacherswho register can use their personal workspaceto create lesson plans. The “CreateLesson Plan” link appears on the personalworkspace for all users. A lesson plan interfaceis composed of three forms: The firstform is where the user fills in descriptiveinformation about the lesson plan, such astitle, materials needed, and duration of thelesson. Most of this information isrequired, and JavaScript is used to verifythat the user populates the required fields.From this initial interface, users have twooptions: They can associate this lesson planwith content standards or create steps. Thelesson plan cannot be submitted forapproval until it has been associated withcontent standards. To associate or align alesson plan with content standards, usersare presented with a search screen wherethey must select the course of study andgrade that correspond with the given lessonplan. Users are then presented with contentstandards matching their search criteria.

MarcoPolo Lesson Plans. The MarcoPoloEducation Foundation (www.marcopol'education.org) has seven partners thatprovide lesson plans. These partners are theJohn F. Kennedy Center for the PerformingArts, the National Council on EconomicEducation, the National Endowment for theHumanities, the National Council ofTeachers of Mathematics, the InternationalReading Association, the National Council ofTeachers of English, the AmericanAssociation for the Advancement of Science,and the National Geographic Society. TheseMarcoPolo lesson plans have been incorporatedinto the ALEX network-based educationsystem.

Web Resources. Registered users cansearch for Web resources that have beencorrelated to Alabama content standards,and view pre-selected Web resources thathave been categorized by audience andtype. They can also submit Web resources,which are correlated to content standards,to be included in this list of categorizedresources. To submit a Web resource,usersmust provide the URL, title, targeted audience,and a brief description of the Website. Users must also align the Web resourceby selecting the content standards itaddresses. This is done the same way thatteacher-created and MarcoPolo lessonplans are aligned to content standards.

Teacher Zone. The Teacher Zone sectionof ALEX is designed to provide announcements,grant opportunities,and other informationthat teachers can use to increase theirknowledge and improve classroom instruction.A professional development calendar isincluded in this section which allows users tocreate and view professional developmentopportunities across the state of Alabama.To submit an event for inclusion in thiscalendar, the user must include informationsuch as event title and description, the sponsoringorganization, the location, the date,the cost to attend (if any), and seating availability.JavaScript is used to verify that allrequired information is included before it issubmitted. Once submitted, users areallowed to re-use this information to submitevents for additional dates; they can modifyany of the original information.

Teacher-to-Teacher. The Teacher-to-Teacher section of ALEX offers listservsand forums. Currently, more than 30 listservshave been created for each type ofteacher and administrator, includingelementary physical education teachers,foreign language teachers, elementaryschool principals, elementary schoolcounselors, middle school math teachers,high school music teachers, etc. Mailman(www.gnu.org/software/mailman) is thefree listserv software that is used to provideseveral user interfaces, including subscribing/unsubscribing, and viewing andediting subscription information. Anadministrative interface is also availablefor modifying list configuration information.In addition, the site currently has 10forums that are available for discussionamong ALEX users.

Reporting Tools

Users designated as administrators haveaccess to reporting tools. In some cases,additional users are granted access, as well.There are four types of reporting tools: Website usage, registered user information,teacher-created lesson plan statistics, andMarcoPolo lesson plan information.

Web site usage tools are available courtesyof The Webalizer (www.mrunix.net/webalizer), free software that generatescharts and graphs from Web server log files.The Webalizer provides tables and chartsthat include statistics on the number of hits,files, pages, visits, and kilobytes processedper hour/per day. It also provides IPaddresses or DNS names of hosts that visitthe Web site, and a list of countries fromwhich visitors access the Web site.

Information on registered users isavailable to administrators. A PHP scriptqueries the user and school tables toprovide last name, first name, user name,school system name, and school name ofeach user. This tool also incorporates asearch feature so administrators can lookfor users by name or user name.

Teacher-created lesson plan informationis provided for administrators and designatedschool system contacts. The first interfaceallows administrators to search forapproved lesson plans by title, the lessonplan’s author, or the author’s school orschool system. The results list the school,school system, name, and user name for eachapproved lesson plan. A second interface isdesigned for school system contacts. In additionto approved lesson plans, submittedlesson plans are included in this report.

MarcoPolo reports are available to userswith administrative privileges. From thisscreen, administrators can view alignmentinformation. They can search by user nameor enter a date range, and get results thatinclude lesson plans that were aligned by thegiven user or during the given date range.

Future Work

It’s the mission of network-based educationsystems like ALEX to exploit modern-daytechnology and encourage resource sharingamong educational institutions. Specifically,the ALEX system is an effort to encourageAlabama’s K-12 education community toimprove education by pooling its resources.The ALEX system also continues to grow aslesson plans from NASAexplores (www.NASAexplores.com) will soon be aligned tocourses of study content standards.Expansion has been built into the ALEXsystem, so as long as teachers continue to findthe education system helpful, they willcontinue to contribute teacher-createdlesson plans, variations to teacher-createdlesson plans, and Web resources. The moreresources available on the system, the morevaluable the system will become to theAlabama K-12 education community.

Other future work entails adding differenttypes of valuable lesson plans andresources that are similar to the ones fromMarcoPolo and NASAexplores. Anongoing duty of maintaining the ALEXsystem is implementing suggestedimprovements from users to make theeducation system easier to use. One suggestionis to improve the response time of thesystem so that users get faster search results;however, as more and more people use thesystem, the servers experience increasingworkloads. Another suggestion is toredesign the built-in error-checkingJavaScript features on the main searchpage. Initially included to increase theprobability that useful search results wouldbe returned, users feel these features slowthe search process down. Future researchwill involve the evaluation of morenetwork-based education systems for ideason how the ALEX system can be improvedin other ways.

Tiffany Davis is a computer engineer forComputer Sciences Corp. in Montgomery, AL.She works with the Alabama SupercomputerAuthority to provide technical solutions to thestate’s education community. Seong-Moo Yoois an associate professor and Wendi (David)Pan is an assistant professor in the Electricaland Computer Engineering Department ofthe University of Alabama in Huntsville.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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