Distance learning is more popular than ever, and the reasons are many: Students can work full time while taking classes that fit their schedules; educators are no longer constrained by the economics of the physical classroom -- one professor can teach thousands of students simultaneously, or alternatively teach exotic, “long tail” subjects that wouldn’t be sustainable at a single university's campus; and holding classes virtually is significantly less expensive.

Though distance learning has made significant strides over the years, there's still room for improvement -- and that's where open source platform-as-a-service (PaaS) can help.

Cloud Computing in Online Courses

Cloud computing takes distance learning even further. One of the first examples of cloud computing’s educational potential was Khan Academy's use of YouTube videos to teach math, science and other subjects. Using YouTube as software as a service (SaaS), Khan Academy didn't have to worry about designing, buying, hosting or maintaining video servers -- it was freed to focus more of its attention on creating educational content. And by not having to pay for the infrastructure and people to maintain the video servers, the school could easily offer tutorials for free, furthering its mission of making educational materials accessible to everyone.

The next evolution in distance learning was massive open online courses (MOOCs), which advanced the Khan Academy model from quick-hit tutorial videos to an interwoven series of college-level video courses -- courses for which students could receive certificates of completion. In most cases, MOOCs have zero cost for tuition, textbooks or materials.

No cost means students win. They can live anywhere and learn from instructors at universities like MIT and Stanford. They can discover if these universities are a good fit, and they can gain skills – making them more attractive to employers or potential employers.

No cost means that universities win too. They can position themselves as thought leaders, attract highly motivated students and contribute to society by offering educational opportunities to the less fortunate.

Evolution of MOOCs

So what's the next evolution? Most MOOCs today provide the classes and educational materials at no cost. For computer science classes, however, students must acquire, install and maintain the hardware and software to do course homework and lab work.

Database programming classes, for instance, often require students to install the database software themselves. This means they need to install the software on an operating system, which also needs to be installed somewhere. Hence, the student must have a computer or virtual machine to do the work. In all, for a student to complete his or her first database programming assignment, he or she needs to spend hours figuring out how to install an operating system on a physical system or virtual machine, get it networked, patch and secure it, and then install and configure the database software.

For someone who simply wants to be a database programmer, this model also forces him or her to be a system administrator and possibly a virtualization administrator and database administrator. But what if a student could simply go to a website and, in seconds, have a database ready for doing homework? That's where open source PaaS can help.

PaaS allows students to easily and securely create databases in seconds, without needing to know how to install and maintain database software or operating systems, network virtual machines, etc. In the same way Khan Academy used the cloud to spend less time maintaining systems and more time on education, students can use PaaS to spend less time setting up their homework environments and more time learning.

What if a student makes a mistake? Instead of needing to reinstall an operating system and all his or her database software, he or she can re-create a PaaS database in a matter of seconds. By being able to recover from mistakes faster, he or she learns faster. And he or she becomes more willing to experiment -- which is the hallmark of the academic process.

One open source PaaS that can solve this problem today is OpenShift. In the same way Khan Academy used YouTube SaaS for free, students can develop applications on OpenShift's hosted website for free. And if universities wish to host OpenShift in their data centers, they can use the commercially supported on-premise version.

Unlike alternative proprietary PaaS technologies (which only work with one PaaS provider), OpenShift uses 100 percent open source technology, so code developed and skills learned on the platform are portable to any other environment. For instance, students who learn MongoDB using OpenShift can confidently claim that they know MongoDB, whether their prospective employer uses OpenShift, proprietary operating systems or proprietary virtualization. MongoDB is MongoDB, no matter where it's deployed.

Not only is open source PaaS applicable to distance learning and MOOCs, but the same model works in the physical classroom too. Traditional students don't need to go to a computer lab or install virtual machines on their laptops if they can simply create a PaaS database in seconds and immediately get to work.

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