White Paper

WHITE PAPER

06/2016

Connected Education Reference Architecture

By Eranga Perera
Senior Technical Lead, WSO2

1. Introduction

The education space has evolved over the years with signs of increasing reliance on technology to ensure efficiency and speed. It's happening already. Information systems and technology are being used to share knowledge and enable students, educators, and researchers to access information. A connected education framework exhibits unique requirements. To optimally support research projects, curriculum advancement, and effective learning environments, IT teams rely on a connected education reference architecture that streamlines provisioning, delivers self-service access, federates security, and fosters creativity.

Today, more powerful tools have been created and are available to solve real-world problems as part of a learning experience. Thus, there’s incredible opportunity to bridge private industries with students and academia to leverage potential benefits. Most lessons are effectively learnt via actions rather than learning through a textbook, which gives you simple problems to solve. Therefore, creating learning experiences that’s more projectbased and that are more outcome-focused and engaging would bring peers and experts closer. A connected education ecosystem helps in many ways; it prepares citizens to thrive in a global economy, helps to build and inspire constructive thinkers and thought leaders, and instills personal ownership, responsibility, and passion.

Students have the opportunity today to improve their education experiences by making use of the digital resources available today. The unlimited amount of information the internet holds has transformed education in itself. Although Google is reliable most of the time providing us with the information we need, it also has its inaccuracies in information. Thus could we find a solution that provides students with information that is factually accurate.

2. Challenges to Building a Connected Education Ecosystem

However, there are a multitude of challenges that inhibit the ability to build connected educational experiences.

Edge cost - The digital whiteboard, for instance, is very expensive to place in every single classroom and it may not have the appropriate content to place on them. Moreover, when providing these whiteboards it does not serve its purpose if a chapter from a textbook is just photocopied onto the screen.

Incomplete content digitization - By digitizing content, exams, quizzes, lessons, and plans, turning them into this interactive emerging experience would reach the goal of connecting peers and experts into enhanced collaboration.

Limited broadband access - To achieve this we also need to increase access to broadband interconnections. This is a challenge given limited broadband access.

Focus on money rather than innovation - As important as it is to attain dollars and tap into revenue streams to provide enough capital, it should fundamentally be supported through an innovative digital education strategy. For example, if we spend millions of dollars on laptops or network a school without implementing a proper strategy, the goal of creating a collaborative and compelling experience for students would not be met.

Global sharing and collaboration impediments - There are impediments in global sharing and collaboration. For instance, research around lesson plans and exams are most often locked within a file cabinet or on a library shelf and shared with students only in a particular university network instead of broadly sharing information across definite educational segments in the private industry.

Challenges with digital transformation - Any existing entity in the education sector consists of individuals, and processes that follow conventional educational methods. Often the transformation process require careful planning and a gradual migration which should be iterative. Each iteration should be planned such that benefits upon completing each step is immediate to all stakeholders and adaption presents a smooth learning curve.

3. Addressing Requirements and Building a Roadmap

Connected education as a concept refers to providing access to and managing of resources in a collaborative manner where information technology will aim to connect disparate systems, devices, and stakeholders. This will bring together the different entities to create a connected education ecosystem, enabling speed and efficiency among different users (i.e. enablers as well as students). For this to happen, the real challenge is the need to seamlessly integrate and provide accurate information based on connected data that’s obtained in a very efficient manner. There should also not be any latency issues between these sources either with no delays in aggregated information. The faster and more transparent the process, the better the service provided.

From a business architecture perspective, there needs to be a seamlessly connected platform that will offer a valuable service to the different stakeholders, thus enabling them to fully leverage the benefits of such a system. From a technical perspective, to get the above business architecture in place several technical entities will need to come together. These segregations on the operational aspects on bringing these entities together would form the building blocks of a connected education ecosystem.

4. Connected Education Reference Architecture

There are several components that need to be integrated and considered when building a connected education reference architecture. Figure 1 depicts a typical architecture and the following explains the function and capabilities of each of these areas.

connected-education-figure-01

Figure 01

Data Bus

An important aspect when creating a connected education system is digitizing the content and having them available as services. Having data exposed as services makes it more reusable and allows systems to easily connect with them. Sometimes contents are available in a digital format, such as grading information, course information, and other contents that reside in content repositories and various documents stored in digital storages. Hence, these contents should be virtualized and made readily available as services through a data bus. Extract, transform, load (ETL) is also a major aspect of having a data bus. It’s a known fact that content is in disparate formats and the important parts need to be extracted, transformed and loaded into the correct content repositories.

WSO2 offers two products to cover these requirements - WSO2 Data Services Server (DSS) and WSO2 Enterprise Service Bus (ESB); these two products can combine to offer a solution that will expose data as services (or as query-able OData endpoints) and perform ETL.

Service Hosting and Frameworks

Another key element is to have a solid hosting platform combined with an efficient framework and a set of tools that allow rapid creation of services. To this end, adopting a microservice approach will allow people to cut down the time taken in creating services and deploying them. Since the scope of service is much granular in a microservice architecture compared to a monolithic service, it allows independent teams to create services and enables a more agile approach to building solutions. Moreover, given that services are not tightly coupled, it also offers the ability to perform greater modifications and improvements without impacting other services.

WSO2 offers a robust application server for hosting applications and services (both JAXWS and JAX-RS services) and a framework - WSO2 Microservice Framework for Java (or MSF4J), which can be used to create microservices that are lightweight and efficient. The MSF4J allows developers to create and bundle services as self-contained jar files that are a few MBs in size and can be started in less than 300ms.

Education Service Bus

The enterprise service bus pattern is now widely used to decouple integration complexities from the business service layer. As these complexities, such as supporting a wide range of protocols, message formats, and message exchange patterns are addressed with integration middleware, application and service developers can concentrate on their core requirements that's specific to the business domain. This decoupling allows them to expedite service and application creation by allowing them to adopt shorter iterative cycles. Apart from bridging the gaps and meeting the impedance mismatches in different systems, an enterprise service bus offers value built on top of it; it enables an enterprise to expose new services that aggregate and orchestrate more granular services in a coordinated and transacted manner.

WSO2 Enterprise Service Bus (WSO2 ESB) can help to connect various systems within the education space; it will implement various integration patterns to combine a set of heterogeneous systems into a cohesive system where data entered into one system would seamlessly traverse to another. The ultimate goal is to ensure a greater level of automation among the systems. WSO2 ESB also comes with connectors that provide a framework to connect with third-party SaaS software. The extensible architecture and open standards it relies on means there’s no vendor lock-ins and little restrictions on what it can do for you. For instance, if a new transport needs to be added then it can be easily hooked up to ESB transports handlers and be able to communicate over the new message channels.

Messaging

In a connected education system, we also need to support message channels that allow people, systems, and devices to communicate asynchronously. Given that users connecting from remote areas will have challenges with Internet connectivity, it is important to provide a guaranteed delivery of messages while the architecture should have support for message exchange patterns like pub/sub and message queues. Moreover, with the emergence of mobile and Internet of things devices, the middleware should be able to support lightweight protocols, such as MQTT.

WSO2 Message Broker (provides support for all of the messaging needs discussed above; it also offers scalability with distributed queues.

Security Gateway

Within an education system, there are a large number of users that need to be provisioned within a shorter time span and their privileges and roles would need to be revised throughout their academic career. These accounts will be created as guest accounts and then elevated to more permanent accounts. The users should have the ability to use the same account across all systems or do single sign-on. They should also have the ability to perform multi-factor authentication and link their social accounts to their profile as well.

WSO2 Identity Server acts as an identity bus connecting systems operating with disparate security protocols to provide and consume identity services. It can be connected with LDAP/AD or even connect to users in a JDBC user store. Moreover, as users could be stored in a distributed setup, it can be federated with other identity providers as well.

In a complex system where user privileges and roles change, the architecture should allow other services and applications to connect with a centralized policy engine to validate user entitlements. Such a centrally managed policy engine will help to eliminate the need to maintain very dynamic and complex policies within applications and the complete system will be consistent and coherent when authorizing user actions.

Education API Gateway

The education API gateway provides managed and secure access to the APIs in the connected education system. By allowing potential application developers to search, browse, and locate APIs that meet functionality, they would explore ways to improve reuse. The portals that provide API publishers an interface driven by wizards greatly reduce the time taken to provision an API for community and application developers. It should also provide them feedback on API usage and any comments or remarks the API consumers might have.

WSO2 API Manager consists of a cleanly separated set of components that integrate seamlessly to provide all API management needs. Its gateway component is based on a lightweight robust architecture that is highly scalable and has very low latencies.

Education APP Gateway

Applications specially developed or acquired to provide various services to students also need to be administered so they are effectively utilized. These applications can either be web applications, mobile applications, or even desktop applications that should be categorized and organized so each group would be able to easily find relevant applications. Users should also be able to do single sign-on on these applications, which they would subscribe to; on the other hand, administrators should have the ability to restrict and control visibility and use of applications, be able to monitor application usage, and have the ability to manage the application’s lifecycle.

WSO2 App Manager provides an infrastructure that enables educators to register and make applications available to users. It also offers the ability to manage application lifecycles and govern them. With separate portals dedicated for application developers and application consumers their experiences can be optimized. The productivity of each user group too will improve with intuitive UIs that reduce the learning curve.

Device Management

The affordability of technology has prompted students to increasingly use mobile devices today. These devices range from smart mobiles, tablet PCs to laptops, which are being used as their gateway to the web as well as their source of information and for social activities. These devices also provide a means of managing offline content particularly giving students the option to download content when they have network connectivity and then access them when required.

Connecting, configuring, and managing these devices is a challenging task. WSO2 Enterprise Mobility Manager allows devices that fall under both categories of corporate-owned, personally-enabled and bring your own device to be managed and allows centrally administered policies to be applied on the devices. It also has the ability to push configuration and software updates.

Event Processing and Analytics

Big data analytics and real-time event processing capabilities add another dimension to modern education systems, thus providing insight into valuable data; it helps to streamline contents being delivered to make them more relevant and personalized, e.g. gain insights into the most viewed content, areas that need improvement, etc.

The WSO2 Analytics platform comprises the building blocks of an analytics framework required by modern education systems. Its batch processing capabilities are built on top of Apache Spark, the open source cluster computing framework for large-scale data processing. It can be scaled to handle the large volume of data produced by a connected education system. The realtime event processing is powered by WSO2 Siddhi CEP engine that adds streaming regression and pattern recognition capabilities; this can be used to identify trends and patterns that will enable educators to be more proactive when engaging with students.

connected-education-figure-02

Figure 02

As discussed above and further illustrated in Figure 2, WSO2 provides a complete product stack that fits well into this reference model into the different areas of the connected reference architecture. It is a very powerful platform that can be used to build a connected education ecosystem.

5. Customer Use Cases

Use Case 1

New York University (NYU), a private American research university based in New York City, was looking to move away from a NY data centric model and more importantly to do this in an agile manner. Among their major hurdles were having a defined process for introducing new technologies, ensuring all stakeholders understand the value, and addressing misconceptions early. The meet their requirements, NYU was looking to adopt a modular integration solution, using an enterprise service bus as an agility accelerator. To learn more about NYU’s journey into design and implementation of middleware services using the WSO2 platform, read this blog that explains how NYU used WSO2 to become a more agile organization or view presentation by Dr. Peter Morales, global lead for educational technology innovation at NYU.

Use Case 2

The TACC Agave API platform provides a set of restful, multitenant services for interacting with the supercomputing resources over http including submitting jobs, managing data, and much more. Agave has been leveraging WSO2 API Manager in production for over a year now. In partnership with Yenlo and WSO2, TACC is developing an SSO solution based on integrating WSO2 Identity Server with Agave’s current API Manager deployments. For more details, view presentation by Dr. Joe Stubbs, a software developer and research scientist at TACC, where he reviews their experiences with WSO2 API Manager and introduces their SSO solution.

6. Conclusion

Technology has completely transformed the way education works today. Both students as well as educators are now increasingly looking for faster, more efficient, and effective ways to offering as well as accessing information. Thus, the creation of a connected education ecosystem has become an important way forward for players in the education space. From a business architecture perspective, there needs to be a seamlessly connected platform that will offer a valuable service to the different stakeholders, thus enabling them to fully leverage the benefits of such a system. From a technical perspective, to get the above business architecture in place, several technical entities will need to come together. These segregations on the operational aspects on bringing these entities together would form the building blocks of a connected education architecture. To further support this requirement on the technical needs, WSO2 provides a complete product stack that fits well into this reference model into the different areas of the connected reference architecture.

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