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Open edX

open edX

What is Open edX®?

Open edX is an online platform for creating, delivering, and analyzing online courses. It is the open source platform that powers the edx.org initiative, created by founding partners MIT and Harvard University, joined by over a hundred leading global institutions and used by millions of engaged online learners worldwide.
You can find out more about Open edX at https://open.edx.org or experience it first hand by taking one of the great courses available for free at edx.org.

If you are interested in learning more about this technology to deliver your own online courses or MOOCs, this article will provide you with a lot of valuable information to get started.

What pieces make the Open edX platform?

The Open edX platform is far from a monolithic application, it has a number of different applications that are generally referred to under the umbrella name “Open edX”, than can or not be integrated into an online learning initiative.

At the bare minimum, in order to build and run online courses, you’ll need the two basic applications:

  • The Open edX LMS: This is the learning Management System, where learners sign up for the site and log in to enroll and access their courses. Instructors also use the Open edX LMS in order to access some management tools such as course stats, manual enrollments, gradebook management, course reports, certificates configuration, email and more.
  • Open edX Studio: A Content management system or authoring platform for creating and configuring Courses and course libraries. This is the place where you’d go to author your course, add and organize courseware, add and configure activities, upload course files and configure course policies and settings. Studio uses the same authentication as the LMS (same email and password), but only course authors (users with specific permissions for one or more course) need to log in to studio. If a learner accidentally logs in to STUDIO, he’ll reach the STUDIO home page, but nothing more.

As mentioned above, the LMS and STUDIO have the basic functionality to get going, but as the online learning initiative gets more complex, some additional or complementary applications can come into play, notably:

  • Open edX ecommerce: A additional application to add ecommerce capabilities to Open edX in order to sell course seats, or course upgrade paths. Without the ecommerce application, all courses will have to be “Audit”, so they will be accessed freely and no certificate will be granted. Once ecommerce is addes, other course modes can be uses, such as “Verified” and “Professional” which grant access to a certificate for learners that pass the course.
  • Open edX Insights: A data analytics tool designed to provide staff members with valuable information about student activity, enrollment, geography, demographics, Engagement, Grades, and more. This is a high level analytic tool, meant to present data aggregates, instead of identifiable lists of users.
  • Open edX Android or iOS mobile apps: Native Android and iOS apps for mobile devices.

Beyond the main basic functionalities, the Open edX platform has some advanced features that can be toggled on and off, and which rely on specific services that are deployed and configured independently only when needed. We’ll described below the most important ones.

  • Course discovery service: A service that collects and stores metadata about the online courses in order to share it efficiently among all the Open edX applications. The course discovery service plays a key role to enable the offering of programs (Collections of courses for the learner to follow) which can also be purchased at a discounted price).
  • Additional Xblocks: An Xblock is a modular component that extends the Open edX platform. The Xblock architecture was designed mainly to provide a way to incrementally add features, such as problem types, excersises, activities and more to the courses. edX has build and maintains a number of Xblock, that are essential to the courses, so they ship with the basic Open edX platform. However, third parties such as eduNEXT or other active members of the Open edX community may also create valuable Xblocks and release them as open source for everyone to use, but as long as they are not addopted by edX, they are separate components and are managed independently.
  • Discussions Digest: This component allows for learners to receive a daily email with the recent activity of the discussion posts they are following. This helps engage learners with discussions, but it’s not always enabled in order to reduce the complexity of the platform.
  • ACE. Automated communications engine: This is a more comprehensive component gear towards expanding and improving the automated communications by different means, such as email, mobile app notifications and others.
  • edX enterprise: This is an additional application built to add some capabilities to the platform in order to serve an enterprise customer. This is a promissing key part of the ecosystem as it’s being built to enable and enrich alternative business models for online learning initiatives.
  • Xqueue: This is an interface for the LMS to run asynchronous tasks, which allows for example to communicate with external grading services.
  • Video pipeline: A video upload and deliver service to be hosted and managed inside of Open edX. In the most basic configuration of the open edX platform, course videos can be delivered using youtube or a similar third party video delivery provider, in which case the video pipeline component would not be required.
  • edX Proctoring: An additional service used to provide a verification service during the taking of the exams. This feature currently relies on third party services.
    Notifications service.
  • Publisher: This is a service that helps collect and organize the information during the publication of the courses and it’s meant to be used along with a more complex marketing website such as the one used by edx.org.
  • Journals: This application allows to write and publish student journals into the open edX platform.
  • Gradebooks: This is a recent addition, coming into play in 2019, which will allow for a more centralized management of student records and also for transferable learner records, which is a very important feature as many online learning initiatives find their place in the broader education ecosystem.

Finally, there are certain components that create some confusion, because they are used at edx.org, but are not actually part of Open edX, either because they are very specific to the edX.org initiative, are not open sourced or are provided by external commercial partners. These include:

  • The marketing site: This is the main website destination, where the initiative will have web content management capabilities to host its promotional content, any web content needed to explain and promote the initiative and in general, any web content that is not part of the actual online courses. In the case of edx.org, this application is tailored to the edx.org usecase, with separate pages for the different schools and partners, special sections to explain and promote the different kind of program offerings, Bio pages for the instructors of the courses and more. This website is not part of the Open edX platform, but uses services that are, such as the course discovery service and publisher.
  • The ID verification service: This is a service that enables a verification of identity based on the analysis of the learner’s photo and an photo Identification document which are uploaded to the system.
  • The proctoring service for exams: This service is provided to edx.org by a third party.

What is it built with?

The technology stack used in Open edX is somewhat complex. At a high level, the technologies involved in the different layers are:

  • Ubuntu 16.02 for the operating system.
  • Vagrant and alternatively docker for the virtualization and containers layers.
  • MySQL for relational databases which hold the learner records and MongoDB for non relational databases wich hold the course contents and the activity in the forums.
  • Nginx and Gunicorn for the webserver and request interpretation.
  • Django as the application framework and python as the programming language.
  • Javascript, using react and a mix of other technologies for the frontend applications.
  • DjangoCelery for asynchronous processes.

However, other technologies and services are involved in the operation of the platform and its complementary applications.

Experience it yourself

As part of the Discovery of Open edX, eduNEXT provides some tools to get everyone to experience the Open edX platform first hand without any previous knowledge or technical effort required.

OPEN EDX DEMO SITE

The Open edX demo site provided by eduNEXT features most of the basic functionality in Open edX LMS and e-commerce from the learner’s perspective. In includes a few dummy courses built to demonstrate the different features and configurations available.

Go to the Demo Site

OPEN EDX SANDBOX

The Open edX Sandbox environment maintained by eduNEXT is a place to experiment as an author or instructor and play around with lots of powerful features. It’s not meant to hold actual courses and data, at it’s access is open to everyone and its data is wiped clean periodically.

Go to the Sandbox

YOUR OWN PRIVATE SITE

Once you are all familiar with the Open edX platform and need to provision it for your online learning initiative, you can get the help of experts to do it for you better, safer and faster, or you can proceed on your own following the technical documents listed at the end of this article.

GET YOU OWN OPEN EDX SITE

What is the latest version and how do releases work?

Open edX is a fast moving technology and platform. The engineering and product teams at edX and the open source teams at edX and elsewhere are always working towards evolving and improving the existing functionality and to adding new and exciting features to the platform. This means that the codebase and associated documentation can change literally everyday and some time and effort is required to keep track, specially for newcomers to this community.

In order to keep innovating, and still have a common ground to operate, support and collaborate from, there is and a system of releases in place and the work is organized around each of those, which in average come out every 4-6 months. Each new release is named after a tree species and follows the alphabet. There have been nine stable releases so far, which makes Open edX “Ironwood” the latest of them all, and Juniper the next one to come. If you care about the past, you can take a look at the history of the Open edX “forest” here.
Every time a new release comes out, the open source team at edX publishes a release notes document highlighting the most important changes, and a new set of the full platform documentation for course Authors and for system administrators. Further below in the article, you’ll find the links for all those documents related to the current Ironwood release.

Also, a team of senior reviewers at eduNEXT usually spend some time working and learning on each new version and produce an article with the most interesting findings from our perspective.
The latest one, corresponding to the Ironwood release can be found here: Discover Open edX Ironwood

What languages are supported in Open edX?

The Open edX platform and all related documentation are released in English only, but it is always built with high internationalization standards, which allow it to be localized in many other languages. The translations of thousands of strings into each language are done by and reviewed by volunteers from the Open edX community in a collaboration platform called transifex.
The availability, completeness and accuracy of the translation may vary from one language to another. Some long time contributors such as eduNEXT take care of maintaining one or more languages to ensure they are up to date, complete and well translated.
For other languages, translators are always welcome and this is a simple to do and very valuable contribution to the project. To signup to be a translator for a particular language or to download the language packs, visit The open edX project in Transifex.

What is the Open edX community?

Open edX has a growing and active community of entusiasts, developers, learning experts, service providers, translators and more, that contribute in different ways their time and efforts to this open source project.
The community is always active via email groups in google, online platforms such as Jira, Confluence and Github, group messages on slack, and scheduled online video calls.
eduNEXT has been a very proud member of this community since the very beginning and welcome everyone who wants to join this great challenge to help build the best open online education platform. Below you’ll find the links for all the Open edX community platforms and channels.

The Open edX community also meets in regional and international events at least once a year. The Open edX conference is hosted by one of the educational institutions that support this project and gathers developers, contributors, service providers, organizations and individuals from all corners of the world that are interested and engaged with the
open edX project. eduNEXT takes pride in participating in every event as part of our long term commitment with this initiative. Take a walk through all the international gatherings by visiting the open edX event gallery.

Where is the Open edX documentation?

While a lot of efforts are put by edX in maintaining the user and the technical documentation, keeping up with the fast development and evolution of the platform and services is always a challenge, and the wide variety of options and configurations also implies there is a wide variety of documents out there.
The most reliable sources of information are the official documents to be found on https://docs.edx.org/openedx.html. Please note that the docs.edx.org page publishes both the documentation for edX.org and that of Open edX which are slightly different and also maintains a set of working documents from one release to the next called the “latests” documentation. Whenever possible, you should base your explorations in the documentation for the specific release you will be using.
Here are the links to the main documents for each role for the Open edX Ironwood release.

For Course authors and course staff
For learners

In this case, only the “Latest” version is maintained:

How do I get the Open edX platform installed?

This is a key and complex part of the process, so we have a full post with all the details on how to provision the open edX platform for your own initiative.
In fact, at eduNEXT we believe that adopters of this technology need, resources and more along their journey, so we have made it our main commitment to be there a provide a full range of tools, applications and services to simplify and shorten the process. We call it the Journey to online learning with open edX and it involves 4 well defined, although sometimes overlapping stages:

Where can I find more info?

Besides all the information you’ll find in this website, the communication channels and the online platforms mentioned above for the Open edX community, there a few more resources to get more information:

Ready to take your online learning to the next step?

Open edX Software as a service subscriptions

Get started with eduNEXT’s Open edX as a service subscriptions. You can always start small and adapt your platform in several ways as you grow.

Consulting services

Get our team of open edX experts to work on your online learning infrastructure, custom developments, custom theming, mobile apps, or training for your staff.