Author: Giovanni Cimolin da Silva

Are you looking into new solutions for your next online learning experience and do you want to offer courses on a customizable and expandable platform? Are you having doubts about which platform you should use to host your next training or class? This article will help you find out whether the Open edX platform is the right choice for you.

Open edX logo

The Open edX platform is a powerful open source learning management system (LMS) used by organizations from all over the world to host Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as well as smaller classes and training modules.

The edX® organization, a nonprofit founded by Harvard and MIT, designed and released the Open edX platform in 2013 with the goal of making it possible for universities and institutions to deliver high-quality courses to learners everywhere and to compete with the proprietary MOOC platform Coursera.

We will start by highlighting the platform’s great features, but also look at how the Open edX platform might not fit your requirements.

Learner-centric approach

The Open edX platform was built with the learner experience in mind, and focuses on delivering course content in the best possible way. The learning environment provides a pleasant and streamlined learning experience with features that help learners stay engaged and keep track of progress. It also encourages a social learning environment in which learners and instructors can use its tools and features to form a genuine learning community.

Courses can make use of multimedia content, such as videos, animations and simulations to provide a rich learning experience. XBlocks and plugins can be used to introduce new ways of interacting with learners.

Course outline page in the LMS
An example content page with video

Learners can take their courses anywhere by seamlessly switching from the Open edX’s platform site to a mobile app where content can be downloaded and then viewed offline. Progress is always kept in sync and the flexible learning platform allows learners to work through lessons during a trip or commute. Team learning is encouraged through a diverse set of collaboration tools like discussion forums and file sharing.

Instructors can use the instructor dashboard to manage learner enrollment, generate grade reports, adjust grades, and send bulk emails.

Open edX platform instructor dashboard

The advanced edX Insights analytics platform can be deployed to collect learner analytics and improve the course experience over time.  EdX Insights provides data about learner activity, background, and performance throughout the course. It can help instructors monitor learner progress, and validate course design choices. Collected data provides an opportunity to improve courses and learner experience.

Image result for edx insights
Image result for edx insights
Some of the available views in edX Insights
(Images taken from open.edx.org)

The Open edX platform is always evolving and new learning experiences are implemented on every release. The product roadmap includes adaptive learning and AR/VR experiences to be incorporated into the platform.

Powerful course authoring experience

The Studio authoring tool is used to create and organize courses is an easy and straightforward way. Instructors and course teams can quickly integrate content ranging from videos and documents to a variety of assessment activities such as multiple choice questions, interactive exercises like drag-and-drop problems, polls, vector-drawing problems, and many others.

Studio also has a draft mode that enables instructors to preview a course unit before publishing it to learners.

Unit creation in Studio – it’s easy!

On the Open edX platform, courses have a well-defined and easy-to-learn structure while Studio has tools to manage course content, schedules and grading. Courses can be edited at any time and new blocks of learning content, from text to XBlocks, can be added.

Course outline view in Studio

The platform uses open XML standards (OLX) for import/export of courses and allows the quick transfer of content across platforms.

Easily expandable and customizable

The Open edX platform has many customization features and was built with expandability in mind, allowing its community to shape learning experiences not originally envisioned by edX itself.

XBlocks are the building blocks of the Open edX platform. They were created to allow completely customized behavior inside the Open edX platform by using an open standard and a well-documented framework to enable providers to develop custom problems and ways to interact. Good examples of the capability of XBlocks are the Drag-and-Drop (see image below) and Problem Builder on which Opencraft has extensively worked on.

Drag and Drop tool

The Open edX platform also has a comprehensive theming engine that allows its users to completely customize the experience, from changing colors and fonts to making custom pages. Service providers like us can create and customize your instance to match your brand, color and make any extra customizations.

Theme for Rue89 MOOC
Theme for Cloudera OnDemand

It’s possible to integrate the platform with other services using the supported REST API’s. Currently, the Open edX platform includes the following APIs: Enrollment API, User API and Data Analytics API. These can be used to integrate the core platform with services like an external marketing website or an analytics dashboard on your management solution.

The Open edX platform also supports SSO providers and has LTI support, allowing integration with other learning solutions.

In addition, the functionality of the entire platform can be expanded with new features implemented through plugins that can be installed on the instance and access the entire codebase, essentially making the entire platform customizable.

Open source

The Open edX platform is completely open source and has a thriving community of contributors, including developers, technology partners, research teams, and users. As an open source source solution, the Open edX platform has many advantages, such as:

  • Transparency that enables anyone to audit what is happening to their data.
  • High quality software due to the adoption of high quality coding and accessibility standards.
  • The power of the crowd leveraging the capacity of the community to develop new features.
  • More security and reliability because the code is thoroughly reviewed and vetted by the community.
  • Better cost effectiveness because the platform is maintained by the entire community, not just a single company, so improvements and bug fixes are often developed and shared with the community.
  • No vendor lock-in so multiple technology providers can host and help improve the platform.

Here at Opencraft, we strongly believe in open source, and we aim to contribute most of our work to the community as open source software. We want to ensure that our work benefits the community, and even humanity as a whole, as much as it benefits our clients.

Accessible for everyone

The Open edX platform was built with the goal of being fully accessible by everyone, so instructors can reach every learner with their content. Many features are present to enable that, and any new features added to the platform have to comply with the AA level of the WCAG accessibility standards.

Some accessibility examples include the support for adding video transcripts and screen reading tools. EdX also provides an extended guide of best practices to produce accessible course content.

Video with transcripts

Ready to grow

The Open edX platform operates on the user’s web browser and provides an easy yet robust experience to learners and instructors alike. It can be used to create courses for a few learners or be scaled for millions of users.

The platform supports AWS and we have worked to add OpenStack support. Other cloud providers have their own custom distribution of the platform and there’s also a Bitnami distribution that works on all cloud providers.

Does it work for you?

The Open edX platform is a great platform to use as is, but as with any software, it also has a few caveats to work around. It might not fit your requirements in some cases, so here are a few additional things you should know:

  • Installation is technical. While the Open edX platform is simple to use, installing it requires setting up multiples services and some technical knowledge, which is an important challenge for many users. It also requires regular maintenance, like version upgrades, and bug/security fixes. Thankfully, you can count on a number of service providers (like us!) to take care of installation, hosting and maintenance for you. Since Open edX is open source, you know that you will always have the choice to move somewhere else.
  • Customizations must be maintained. The Open edX platform’s open source license enables its users to customize the software to answer their specific needs. While this sounds amazing, there are a few things to consider:
    • Customizing the platform requires technical knowledge.
    • Customizations must be maintained and partially rewritten at each version upgrade. Not doing this results in code drift (technical debt) and can eventually prevent you from upgrading to the latest version, leaving you with an unsupported version of the Open edX platform. The best way to customize the platform is by contributing your features to the main version of the platform. This helps the community and reduces the amount of maintenance needed – but it requires technical skills, time and communication with the edX team. This is one of OpenCraft’s specialties, so we can help or handle this.
  • It was designed with asynchronous learning in mind. Simply put, instructors in search of synchronous virtual classroom software should look elsewhere. The Open edX platform is primarily designed to host self-supporting materials and lets learners access course content at their own pace. Integrations with virtual classroom software, using LTI or APIs,  can however be developed if required.

Interested? Try the Open edX platform for free now.

A number of service providers can set up and host the Open edX platform for you. Click this link to see our hosting plans and sign up for a free 30-day trial.

The Open edX platform and many other features that can’t be explored on a single blog post, so follow our blog and head to https://open.edx.org to learn more.

About Opencraft

We are the leading Open edX platform development provider since its release in 2013, besides edx.org. We have made more than a thousand contributions to the platform and its plug-in ecosystem on behalf of our clients. Click here to contact us : )

Cover photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash