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What Tech St...

What Tech Stack To Use To Build a Custom e-Learning Platform?

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Defining which tech stack to choose is one of the most important steps to take during an e-learning platform development. Aside from great UI and well-thought-out UX, the tech stack is what defines how well your product will be able to embody your business model, scale, and become a go-to solution for your audience, in general.

Making a decision about which technologies to use for your project is all about business needs, pricing strategy, marketing, and sales. That's why it's important for business owners to have at least a basic understanding of the tools, utilities, and applications that will be used for the creation of their product architecture.

In this post, we'll show you technology stacks used by elearning platforms like Coursera and Udemy, and give some recommendations regarding the choice of tech stack for custom e-learning development. Please, also note that the process of putting technologies together shouldn't be blindly copied — especially not from the competition in particular. So make sure to always put the structure of your future project first when picking a technical stack to build an elearning platform.

Technology Stack Used By the Most Popular Elearning Platforms

Even though there are dozens of different e-learning platforms on the market, many of them have lots of similarities in their architecture. That's why we've decided to focus on five of the most popular ones for this blog. We’ll begin with a review of these platforms and see what technologies they use.

Coursera

A massive open online course (MOOC) provider of global proportions that partners with world renowned educational institutions to provide students access to different e-learning programs and degrees. The platform partners with 200+ universities and has an audience of over 82 million people worldwide. Coursera offers 1600 courses for free; students can also pay to get a certificate upon completion. Plus,more than 3000 paid certificate programs under their Coursera Plus monthly plan.

Over the years, Coursera's backend has experienced several transitions. At the very beginning, the platform's code was written on PHP, and their developers later moved to Python and Go. Presently, Coursera utilizes the Scala and Play framework. MySQL is used by platform developers to manage relational databases. For web-server and cloud storage, the platform uses NGINX and Amazon S3 respectively.

For the frontend, the company utilizes JavaScript, ReactJS, and Bootstrap. In total, the platform is currently using more than 50 tools and applications, including GraphQL, Kafka, Cassandra, Underscore, and others.

Udemy

Udemy is a MOOC platform that offers more than 180,000 courses to over 40 million students around the world. Some 57,000 instructors provide courses for the platform in 65 languages. The total length of educational video content posted on Udemy has already exceeded 33 million hours. The platform offers both free and paid courses, and also has a dedicated collection of 6000+ courses offered under their Udemy For Business program.

As to the tech stack, initially, Udemy was built using PHP, however, the company moved to Python for its better performance and scalability possibilities. For the frontend (client-side) the platform developers used JavaScript, AngularJS, CSS3 and HTML5. In total, Udemy utilizes 97 technologies for their platform, including Node.js, React, MySQL, Django, and more.

Skillshare

This e-learning platform gives access to more than 35,000+ courses and has an audience of 5 million users. All courses are broken down into seven main categories: Animation, Design, Illustration, Lifestyle, Photo/Film, Business, Writing. Also, the platform has a dedicated section called 'Groups' that allows learners to connect with creators, share their work, discuss courses, etc. Skillshare has a free trial and several paid package plans for individual/team use.

The platform uses PHP, React, Node.js and Backbone.js as its main programming technologies. For its server needs, Udemy uses AWS. The platform uses 54 technology products in total, also including NGINX, Cloudflare, Underscore, and D3.js.

edX

Started by MIT and Harvard University as a non-profit MOOC platform, edX quickly got attention, and, as of now, hosts 3,500+ courses. All programs are sourced from more than 140 higher educational institutions, and, aside from certificates, offer students the possibility to get a full (online) graduate degree or even master's credentials. EdX is technically free; however, if a student wants to get a verified certificate — upon course completion, — they will need to pay a fee that ranges from $50 to $100.

Most of the server-side code is implemented in Python and Django. For the frontend, edX uses JavaScript, Backbone.js, Sass, and Bourbon framework. All the platform courses are stored in MongoDB, while YouTube and Amazon S3 are used for sourcing the video content. MySQL is used for student data storage. The platform currently utilizes 56 tech products that include HTML5, Google Analytics, jQuery, NGINX, Cloudflare, and others, in addition to those listed previously.

Udacity

Udacity is known for being the 3-rd most popular e-learning platform in the world with (more than 11 million users.) It currently offers access to more than 200 online programs. What makes Udacity different from other vendors is that this platform is more focused on job training and providing learners with practical knowledge in the IT field. Here, learners can also get a Nanodegree — a micro- credential for the program/profession of their choice.

The platform is built on Python and uses Angular and Bootstrap for the client libraries. As to other front-end technologies, Udacity uses React, Redux.js, Webpack, GraphQL, etc. For the cloud infrastructure, AWS is used. Apart from the technologies that are critical for the platform operation, Udacity utilizes more than 40 software products that are used for marketing, sales, HR: Facebook ads, OptinMonster, Amplitude, Andela, etc.

Tech Stack Needed to Build a Custom Elearning Application

Generally speaking, the basic principles for selecting a tech stack for custom elearning solutions are the same as for any other type of software or digital product. Normally, the structure of the tech stack would consist of four main parts: frontend, backend, middleware, and third-party integrations.

Frontend

The frontend is the client-side or product interface through which users interact with the platform. Most commonly, frontend combines HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

  • HTML is the backbone of every webpage. It is responsible for the way data and content are organized and structured on the page.
  • CSS defines the style and appearance of the content — fonts, colors, background, etc.
  • JavaScript adds advanced functionality to the page and makes it interactive. This can be done with the help of JavaScript libraries like React.js and jQuery via frameworks Angular and Backbone.

Backend

The backend is the server-side or the heart of every digital product. It is responsible for the correct functioning of all the software's components and features. The business logic, hosting, and all the deployments occur on the server-side as well. Every backend consists of the server itself, server frameworks, programming languages, databases, and APIs.

Some products are still deployed using PHP; however, the big industry names try to rely more on Python. As to other popular frameworks used for the backend, these are Ruby, Django, Spring, and .NET.

As to the mobile apps, these are commonly developed with the help of Swift or Xcode (for iOS platforms) and Java or Kotlin (for Android platforms). However, recently more and more mobile projects are switching to Flutter — an open-source framework that allows the creation of native-like apps for both Android and iOS. This technology is used by our team as well.

Middleware

This software serves as a connector between the client and server and is responsible for data parsing, management, and all connection activities that take place amidst the frontend and backend. It may consist of web servers, app servers, CMSs, and other utilities that help to facilitate software development processes.

The middleware shouldn't be considered a developer tool, but rather a middle layer that allows connecting different parts of the product. Java and C# are the technologies normally used for this kind of software.

Third-party integrations

To this category fall all applications, software, and business tools that are used by companies to test, advance their products, support current business models, and daily operations across departments. This might be the largest segment of software since there are literally thousands of products offered by the market today: Optimizely, Google Analytics, Slack, Jira, AWS products (Elastic Load Balancing, AWS chatbot, Autoscaling, CloudWatch, etc), and more.

Our Experience

As an outsourcing development team with 5+ years of experience creating edtech projects for e-learning startups and established educational institutions, we at WTT Solutions offer transparency about the production practices we follow and the technologies we use.

Take a look at one of our recent projects — the PLH app. Preparing for Lifelong Health platform was developed to help parents establish healthy relationships with their teens. Through a simple and intuitive interface, the platform educates parents and caregivers on effective parenting tactics and strategies that may help to prevent the development of adolescent behavioral problems, and reduce the risk of domestic violence.

During the interface creation, our goal was to use highly flexible and configurable technologies that would allow us to generate in-app components in certain ways to come up with a unique visual design. For this project, we used Ionic and Angular, and it took 990 hours of staff bandwidth to complete all the stages.

Summing Up

There is no definite answer to the question 'Which technology stack for building e-learning platforms' due to the fact that it all depends on your product and the requirements that you put before it.

As for a general recommendation for newly established startups and existing businesses, when choosing a technology stack for developing an e-learning platform try to always think in advance to understand how your tools of choice will affect the platform in the long-term perspective.Do you or your team have a sufficient level of expertise to support the product in the future with the chosen tech set, etc?. Asking yourself such leading questions will help to illustrate the vision regarding the architecture of the future product.

In case you want to choose the right technologies for your elearning site and are looking for additional help, you can always count on our team. We have a proven track record in developing elearning platforms and can help with any task you may have in the programming field, regardless of its complexity. To get in touch, click the button in the top right corner of this page, and fill out and submit the form. One of our representatives will promptly contact you.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

We don't know which tech stack to choose. What should we do?

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In order to choose the tech stack for your project, identify which programming languages and tools would 1) fit your type of product, 2) are relevant to the requirements you set, and 3) be able to effectively respond to challenges your product may come across in the future. If you are new to software development, the best option would be to look for professional assistance, from an experienced software development partner.

How do we know that it's time for us to update our tech stack?

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There may be a few red flags telling you that it's time to update. Consider switching your technology base when you struggle to tap into new markets, when your existing code can't support new features and when you start to witness performance issues and scalability limitations.

We're thinking of updating our tech stack but are not sure our team will be able to carry it out. What would be your advice in that regard?

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Switching to a newer tech stack can be problematic for those teams whose expertise is limited to a few particular frameworks or languages, however, sticking to the outdated technologies can bring even more troubles. We'd recommend looking for ways to bring your product's architecture up to date with the latest technologies and market trends. You can always contact us for information on how our team can assist you with updating your tech stack.

What are the possible risks of choosing the wrong technology stack?

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The consequences of adopting the wrong tech stack may not become obvious on day one, however, they will undoubtedly unfold in the short-term perspective. Difficulties aligning your product/platform with your business strategy, inability to further adapt the product to market needs, and functionality limitations are a short list of challenges that come with the wrong technology decisions.
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