Back-end changes coming to Stellar

Alternatives to Stellar’s software architecture being investigated

The software architecture behind Stellar, MIT’s course management system, is likely to change within the next year, while user interface will mostly stay the same. Pilot changes to the system may be implemented over the summer, said Eric Klopfer, Chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee on Learning Management Systems, which is tasked with developing the next version of Stellar, called Stellar Next Generation.

While there are no plans to replace Stellar in the immediate future, it is likely that the underlying system will be fully replaced within the next few years.

“The existing Stellar is reaching some limits in terms of capacity, pedagogical models, and use cases. As a home grown system, it has become resource intensive to scale, change, support and maintain, so in the long run it will likely be replaced,” said Klopfer.

The planned changes would not radically affect the users of Stellar. Most changes would be under-the-hood modifications involving Stellar’s software architecture. According to Klopfer, the new Stellar could maintain its old appearance, but run on a third-party platform, such as the proprietary Blackboard or open-source Moodle. IS&T would maintain and perform custom work on the third-party code to suit Stellar’s needs.

The LMS Committee has not yet decided which of these platforms would be used, but hopes to have a decision by the end of the academic year.

If the summer pilot were to be implemented with the new platform, it would likely just be an internal pilot with sample courses used exclusively for testing. A pilot program involving actual courses is not likely for some time, Klopfer said.

In the meantime, the current generation of Stellar will continue to be maintained and used.

Ethan A. Solomon ’12, the undergraduate representative on the LMS Committee (also an opinion editor for The Tech), said that the Committee is focusing on integrating various MIT resources into Stellar; for example, making lectures from OpenCourseWare directly accessible from within Stellar.

People working on the project said that the changes would not require end users to adapt to an unfamiliar new system. “It’s not our intention to have something that will make the learning curve incredibly steep,” said Joanna Proulx of IS&T.

IS&T began investigating the viability of the current version of Stellar in winter 2008. Following surveys issued to faculty and students regarding functionality they wanted to see in Stellar Next Generation, IS&T evaluated six candidate platforms for replacing Stellar: Moodle 1.9, MoodleRooms, Drupal 6, Sakai 2, Sakai 3 and BlackBoard 9.

The platforms were evaluated on their ease of implementation and for satisfactory functionality. Of the six, Sakai 3, Drupal 6, and BlackBoard 9 were selected as potential replacements.

The LMS Committee, composed of faculty, administrative staff, and one undergraduate, was formed in collaboration with IS&T last fall to examine Stellar from the perspective of users, rather than developers. “We’re thinking about how people actually teach and learn and what we can do to support that. Then we work our way back to see what platform or strategy will support that goal, rather than focusing on the operational side of the platform first,” said Proulx.