MOZAMBIQUE’S ISUTC LAUNCHES OPEN SOURCE LEARNING AND APPRAISAL SYSTEM
LIMEAA (Laboratório Informático de Ensino, Auto-Aprendizagem e Avaliação) is a web-based learning and appraisal system, conceived in 2002 as a way to support ISUTC's rapid expansion without compromising on its distinctive academic approach. The first version of the system went live within ISUTC in April 2006, and has just been launched publicly.
ISUTC places a heavy emphasis on continuous assessment throughout each semester, to encourage students to maintain extra-classroom reading. This is especially important given that many students have come from difficult school conditions or are mature students without a degree, paying to upskill themselves while continuing to work in a full-time job.
A secondary objective was to supplement the university's limited supply of costly printed textbooks with more easily distributable online texts. (Although it may seem paradoxical, a low-end refurbished computer is often easier and cheaper to procure than a newly-printed textbook imported from Brazil or Portugal).
The system offers three core services to students:
- Summaries of specific course topics in PDF format.
- Randomly-generated problem-solving exercises
- Online tests, when activated by a course lecturer, which store results in a database.
The system also allows lecturers to dynamically insert content materials and analyse test results. An in-house team, led by the author, develops the application. From the start, a key project goal was to build up in-house capacity to maintain the system in the long-term, without dependence on proprietary technology or external expertise.
This objective is well on the way to being achieved:
- When development started in May 2004, the team comprised one foreign consultant and four ISUTC undergraduates, all working on a part-time basis, for a total of 1.25 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) personnel. Thus 20% of staffing was external.
-The team comprises one part-time foreign consultant, one full-time Mozambican developer, and 6 part-time student developers, for a total of 4 FTE. The non-Mozambican proportion of person-hours per week is now only 8%, and the majority of day-to-day development activities are both coordinated and carried out by Mozambican staff. It is currently recruiting more students to join the team.
The project involves 8 other staff and students in the production of teaching materials and system testing, especially user experience trials.
The core technologies used to develop and run the system are:
- Operating System: Linux (Mandrake and CentOS, now switching to Ubuntu)
- Database: MySQL
- Programming Language: Java
- Application Server: Tomcat
- Spring and Struts application frameworks
- IDE: Eclipse
- Source Control: CVS
- Issue-tracking: Scarab
The project team uses a process that borrows from Agile methodologies, especially XP and Crystal. Core aspects are:
- Continuous integration, aimed at a bi-weekly release to test servers, with monthly releases of new functionality and fixes to the user base.
- Local environments: Each developer machine entirely simulates the production environment, with all necessary applications installed locally
- Pair programming on complex or innovative tasks
- Heavy testing at all stages of the development cycle, to allow inexperienced programmers the confidence to make mistakes. All developers double as testers for work done by colleagues. We are now also bringing in automated regression testing.
- User interaction. This was a difficult aspect at the start, as ISUTC personnel had little experience of being clients of a software development product. However we have made great strides by keeping formal documentation to a minimum and used as a focus for discussion rather than a crystallised statement of requirements. Programmers now regularly sit down with lecturers to discuss paper prototypes or rough versions of system screens.
ISUTC (Higher Institute of Transport and Communication) – is one of Mozambique's newer private universities. Founded in 1999, it graduated its first batch of engineers in 2005. It offers undergraduate degrees in technical and commercial disciplines, principally engineering (civil, software, telecoms and transport) and financial and project management. It currently has 500 undergraduate students, a figure projected to rise to at least 800 by 2010. It has established partnerships with key national firms in its areas of teaching, including telecoms, airlines, and government. Its student body is very diverse, ranging from young school-leavers fresh out of secondary education, through middle-level professionals being retrained by their employers, to entrepreneurs putting themselves through university with their own resources.