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Stanford launches Class2Go, an open-source platform for online classes

Image of Stanford Undergraduate Kelvin Do - taken by Steve Castillo

September 12, 2012

The newest member of the family of platforms hosting online university courses was formally presented in society last week. Its name is Class2Go, and its proud parents are a team of eight engineers at Stanford's Computer Science Department.

Class2Go stands out for a variety of reasons. It is open-source, it is nonprofit, it is portable and it is designed not only for teaching but also for research, so Stanford professors will be able to learn about learning as they teach.

Two of the 16 free online classes offered by Stanford this fall will be available on the Class2Go platform: "An Introduction to Computer Networks," taught by Nick McKeown, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and Philip Levis, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering, and "Solar Cells, Fuel Cells and Batteries," taught by Bruce Clemens a professor in the Materials Science and Engineering. Several more online classes will be offered on Class2Go in winter and spring; early likely candidates include nanotechnology and a class at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Class2Go also is being used for portions of courses taught on-campus to Stanford students.

Class2Go was conceived in spring. Stanford already had a course-hosting platform called Courseware, which was developed by a team under the direction of John Mitchell, recently appointed to be Stanford's first vice provost for online learning. The plan was to develop a mobile add-on to Courseware (hence the Class2Go name). So some of the engineers worked on improving Courseware, while others worked on the new product. But by June, the engineers realized they had a problem: The client-side mobile add-on would meet some immediate needs but would not be a strong base to build on. They decided that it would be more productive to start from scratch and rebuild the whole thing.

According to Engineering Manager Sef Kloninger, three decisions were made at the start: They would get rid of Courseware, the new platform would have a back end (meaning professors could collect data and keep track of student use) and they would incorporate several existing tools into the new platform. These include Khan Academy's exercise framework, YouTube's video service and a discussion forum tool created by a local company called Piazza.

Space to experiment

"We are huge supporters of free, public online classes and we're eager to learn from our first experience," McKeown said. He and Levis said they opted to go with Class2Go rather than with, say, Coursera – which they both praised highly for doing so much for online learning in such a short time – because they liked the idea of a variety of platforms, some open and some closed.

Engineering manager Sef Kloninger, right, explains the status of the platform to John Mitchell, vice provost for online learning.

"While we're all learning about all the different features and capabilities we need," said Levis, "this allows us space to experiment and explore. We do think that, in the long term, it's important that universities have the choice of free and open platforms in addition to commercial ones."

McKeown, a well-known entrepreneur in addition to being a professor, recently sold his networking startup, Nicira. He also recently received the Lifetime Contribution Award from the international Association of Computer Machinery.

The non-proprietary format of Class2Go means that course assets – videos, reading assignments, slides, tests, etc. – belong to the professor, not to the platform. In other words, professors will not be tied to Class2Go.

"We wanted to make it as non-sticky as possible," Kloninger said. "If you want to leave, that's OK. In that way, we're unique. That's big. So using Khan Academy is our attempt to make it movable. And we advocate that others do this as well. That's our pledge to our customers."

That, too, appealed to McKeown and Levis. "Ideally," said Levis, "we'd like a practical, low-effort way to make our class material available on any platform." Their computer networks class starts on Oct. 8.

Open-source and nonprofit

So that's the portable part. The open-source part is equally important. It means the code is available for view as it is being developed and can be used by anyone capable of knowing what to do with it. It's a way of spreading knowledge and of attracting the best engineering talent. If a brilliant programmer is sitting at home watching Kloninger's team build Class2Go, she might want to join. She might even fix a bug. Of course, the competition might be doing that as well, but that's the price of living up to one's principles.

"I'm motivated by the technology, and because we have a great team," Kloninger said. "But I wouldn't be as excited if it were closed. This is a platform supporting education, so it shouldn't be about making a profit."

And then there's the back end, or the ability for professors to track student use. Class2Go exists to serve Stanford faculty. The data is theirs; they don't have to ask for it. Many professors venturing out into uncharted online waters might want to know, for example, if their tens of thousands of students are watching the videos in real time or speeded up, if they prefer email to forum postings, at what point they drop the course (if they do) and if they respond better to videos or to slides.

Dan McFarland, an associate professor of education who is teaching "Organizational Analysis," a massive open online course, or MOOC, cross-listed in Education and Sociology, is keenly interested in educational research. Class2Go was not available in early summer when he began preparing his course (which will be offered on Coursera in fall), but he said the possibility of conducting research as he taught was a strong incentive to use Class2Go in the future.

"It's really hard to get good conditions for educational research," McFarland said, "and the online class offers great conditions, really exciting potential for generating knowledge."

The long summer

As the summer weeks passed, Class2Go slowly came together. The team included three Stanford staff engineers, three graduate students and two undergraduates who received research funds for the summer. Each week (in software engineering parlance each cycle is called a sprint) brought new challenges as old bugs were fixed and new ones appeared.

How to guide users from one page to the next? How to ease email communication between professor and students? How to register for classes? How to integrate videos and discussion forums? How to indicate that an assignment is ready for students? How to make it look like what it is? How to do more than one thing at a time?

By Aug. 30, there was light at the end of the tunnel. The past sprint had been very productive, Kloninger reported. The landing pages were coming together, the authentication and registration flow had been straightened out, email had been worked out. A method for extracting frames from videos to help professors and students find their way through the videos had been devised, a nifty trick invented by one of the two undergraduates, Kelvin Do. In his honor it was called the Kelvinator.

Around 70 nasty bugs had been squashed, but – bugs being bugs – more had appeared. Everyone present at the weekly demonstration meeting – team members or not – should go after them, Kloninger said. "It's open season, so go in there, mess with it, and if you see something, let us know."

Labor Day weekend was no holiday for the engineers. The honor code was one of the remaining tasks; just a couple of weeks earlier it emerged that students had plagiarized assignments in Coursera classes, so Coursera and everyone else was rushing to include a page on which students pledge to play by the rules.

The long weekend also was a time for the professors to make sure their classes were ready for fall quarter. Clemens – one of whose TAs was a regular attendee at the team's weekly meetings to make sure the platform met Clemens' needs – explained why he had decided to go with Class2Go rather than with other options for his online class.

"We chose Class2Go because of the strong in-house assistance and expertise," said Clemens. He has taught "Solar Cells, Fuel Cells and Batteries" for several years to students ranging from sophomores to advanced graduate students, he said, and he realized that that variety necessitated a more flexible approach.

"The opportunity to offer the course in a flipped classroom," i.e., with students watching the lectures on video and spending their time in class on more interactive, creative activities, "gives the chance for different students to pace themselves differently." Also, he noted, Class2Go affords him the opportunity to broadcast the course to interested students around the world. His online class also starts Oct. 8.

"This is a Stanford course," he said, "and it seems right to offer it on the Stanford platform."

Go no go

On Sept. 5, it was do or die. A tired but excited group of engineers gathered in the open meeting space in the Gates Computer Science Building to take stock of what they had. Should they launch the next day as planned?

Jane Manning, production manager for Stanford Online and a participant in the platform's development, gave the thumbs up. The day before, she reported, she had worked closely with university lawyers to get the website's terms of service worked out.

Yes, there were still some issues. Perhaps there might be a load problem at first, "but nothing we couldn't throw some more hardware at," Kloninger said. It didn't feel fast enough to some of the engineers – "it's not as snappy as we'd like" Manning said – but others said that, really, the longest wait was just a few seconds. There were little glitches here and there with browser compatibility, but nothing one couldn't work around.

Manning had written a user manual for professors; it meant going through every screen of the administrative interface, which was tedious, but it was an opportunity to double check and triple check everything. By meeting time, Kloninger said, there were just three urgent bugs remaining, and they could be dealt with in the coming hours.

Class2Go was ready, they agreed. It was a go.

Categories: Stanford Online, Class2Go