Higher ed: Meeting the MOOC challenge

It isn’t all about building a snazzy interface and slick presentation

MOOC in higher ed

Meeting the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) demands will involve improved networks and efficient scaling of resources.

The latest high-tech trend in higher ed is known as Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. The goal with a MOOC is to open up higher ed courses to as many people as possible—thousands or even tens of thousands of students.

There isn’t an official MOOC standard, yet. MOOC concepts are being developed on the fly by various organizations — including for-profit and non-profit educational institutions — as well as individuals. Pioneers in online education have proposed different types of MOOCs to distinguish, for example, creative and social-based learning from more traditional style of learning. Yet, there is still no single standard for MOOCs, nor has a standards body embraced the term.

Regardless of how you model the learning environment, however, behind any great MOOC there needs to be great technology. Simply put, a single Web server won’t cut it if you’re looking at serving thousands, or tens of thousands, of students. This is a large undertaking. This is where you need to bring in the experts on what’s called scalability to help you build your system. You need to hire people who understand scaling for the cloud. But how do you know you’re hiring the right people? By getting a basic understanding of the technology involved. And to help you get there, we’ve put together some concepts and definitions for you.

Your MOOC and the cloud: Made for each other

First, the word “cloud” itself is often ambiguous. Whereas marketers might use it to mean one thing (for example, in TV commercials that advertise places you can store your data), technology experts know that the meaning of “cloud” is actually quite specific.

The term cloud, when used in enterprise IT, refers to multiple servers that work closely together in a network on the Internet. Often, these servers are distributed throughout the planet. Distributing them this way has multiple benefits. For one, people accessing the servers are usually assured to be reasonably close to at least one. For another, if one server goes down, the others are still running and can take over for the downed one.

Often the servers provide duplicate functionality, allowing the high workload to be spread out between them. This in turn allows the services the servers are providing to be able to handle the high number of people throughout the planet needing to use them. And that is ideal for online learning services that need to reach as large an audience as possible.

This is where we get to the term “scalable.” Because the servers are virtually identical, the software running on them is typically an exact duplicate as well. A good example drawn from the consumer technology environment is when you log into your account on Amazon.com: You are actually connecting to any one of a number of identical servers. Regardless of which servers you connect to, your account is the same.

When it comes to MOOCs, the cloud is vital. A single web server and a PHP application won’t cut it. And simply buying space on a second server and running the same software on it won’t work either. Instead, the software on the servers must work in tandem with each other, and in conjunction with what’s called management software that will allocate more servers as the need arises. This concept of allocating additional software has a few different names, including auto-scaling or elasticity. In this manner, the system can adjust itself accordingly as the number of students taking a particular course changes at any given time.

A MOOC requires scalability

To deliver on the MOOC experience, you also need databases that similarly scale, as well as hosting for large files such as video. One common mistake made in higher ed is to put videos on the same servers that are running the software. Doing so congests the network connections to these servers.

Instead, the videos and other streaming content should be placed on what are called content delivery networks. These are, themselves, scalable servers usually owned by commercial companies such as Amazon Web Services and others. These networks have been fine-tuned to allow you to upload videos and other content to their servers, where it is “pushed out” throughout their networks, making the content highly available and fast. The end result is that, when students watch videos associated with a MOOC, the videos will stream quickly to their computers without interruption and without bogging down the other servers running the rest of your software.

By understanding cloud computing, you can be sure your higher education IT staff will be able to implement a solution that can handle the scalability and accessibility demands required to deliver MOOCs in your learning environment.

Jeff Cogswell
Jeff Cogswell has nearly 25 years of experience as a software engineer and a professional writer. In the past decade he has focused his work primarily on Web development, moving on to cloud-based scalable development. He has authored numerous books, including “C++ All-in-One for Dummies.” He writes regular columns on parallel programming and software development.
Jeff Cogswell
Tags: Cloud Computing,Education,Technology