Creating tailored learning solutions that grow with the university

Originally developed at Penn State, the ELMS Learning Network is an open source educational technology platform for building and sustaining innovation in online course technologies. Based on Drupal, ELMS has grown into an organic collaboration between many institutions and community facilitators. ELMS courses and systems have been demonstrated at national and international conferences and aspects of ELMS have won two Campus Technology Innovator awards.

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The founder and project lead of the ELMS platform is Bryan Ollendyke, an instructional technology specialist at Penn State who is responsible for developing tailored online and in-residence solutions to support students in the university’s College of Arts and Architecture. “To support double-digit growth in online courses, we’re focused on creating solutions that not only provide students with a better learning environment, but can scale without requiring a significant increase in technology resources,” says Ollendyke.

Scalability—and availability—are both top requirements of the online learning solutions for which Ollendyke is responsible. When a server goes down or a course is running slowly, it’s a major problem. That’s what happened with one particular ELMS application. “The server running the application went offline, which can happen occasionally,” says Ollendyke. “But then it happened again the next day. I knew that something was wrong, but all the error logs kept pointing me to minor issues that turned out not to be the root cause.” Ollendyke knew he needed a tool that would help him quickly uncover what was causing the server crashes.

“We ended up tracing and resolving a lot of issues with the learning platform that we didn’t even know existed.”

Bryan Ollendyke Instructional Technology Specialist, Pennsylvania State University

Improving performance of Drupal-based applications

Ollendyke turned to New Relic® for help. The software analytics from New Relic provided a way for Ollendyke to easily drill down into the transactions and trace them across the various systems that the online course communicated with. “New Relic helped me pinpoint the root cause of the performance issue: a faulty analytics application,” says Ollendyke. “On student test days, an extremely high volume of calls to the analytics application was causing the server to crash.”

While monitoring the online learning application, Ollendyke identified other areas of performance problems impacting not only the ELMS learning platform, but other Drupal-based projects as well. “We ended up tracing and resolving a lot of issues with the learning platform that we didn’t even know existed,” says Ollendyke. “Those fixes also helped us improve many other projects in Drupal outside of ELMS where people had been misidentifying the cause of the problems.”

Changing the world with better learning tools

With performance under control, Ollendyke is using New Relic to gain insight into application behavior and resource requirements for newly developed online courseware and capabilities. “When a member of the faculty has a pedagogical need, we translate that into the online environment,” says Ollendyke. “It’s critical that any solution we create can scale, so I can use New Relic to help me optimize the code and understand how we need to plan for capacity as we roll it out to additional classes.”

Especially important for developers like Ollendyke, New Relic lets them drill down to the server level to gain insight into performance without requiring the skill set of a system administrator. “In the education field, we don’t have many system administrators,” says Ollendyke. “New Relic gives us the analysis we need at the server level without developers like me having to learn server administration.”

Using open source technology for ELMS and the applications that use the ELMS platform lets Ollendyke and the rest of the Instructional Technology team think big when it comes to ideas for innovative new ways to help students learn online. “I work here at Penn State because we have the opportunity to change the world,” says Ollendyke. “Tools like New Relic help me do that far more easily and effectively.”