RMIT Online's mission to give students an experience that exceeds on-campus learning

RMIT Online has developed a cloud-based architecture that uses a mix of off-the-shelf and bespoke applications to deliver students an online experience that it claimed as being as good, if not better, than what is offered on-campus.

When Melbourne's RMIT University established RMIT Online, it was to help fulfil two potential problems: A decline in traditional on-campus enrolments and a change in demand for how tertiary students wanted to interact with the university.

Fast forward five years to today and both of those scenarios are now reality.

According to RMIT Online technology and enablement director Will Calvert, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a decline in traditional on-campus enrolments, while students' expectation around customer and user experiences for online education accelerated over the years, particularly in the past 12 months.

"Students, quite rightly, expect that the online education experience should keep up with those other experiences that they have, like the amazing retail experiences that we have online or with Spotify, Netflix, and those social media platforms," he told ZDNet.

"Online education has been a bit mixed over the last decade … it's been very much about putting an LMS (learning management system) in, we'll upload some PowerPoints, lecture recordings, a few forums, lots of content … so that's where we needed to really differentiate."  

For Calvert, this has meant creating an online experience for students that is as good as, if not better, than what is offered on-campus.

"What I mean is the full experience, so searching and working out what course you want to purchase or enrol in, through to the enrolment and onboarding experience, the study experience, which is obviously the big one, but also post-study like alumni communities. Our platforms go across all of that with a view of making that experience better than on-campus," he said.

In delivering its so-called "next-generation digital learning environment", Calvert has developed a "composable" cloud-based architecture that uses a mix of off-the-shelf and bespoke applications.

Off-the-shelf applications include using Canvas as its core learning management system, which runs on Amazon Web Services. The university also leverages AWS for its data and analytics, infrastructure as code, and containerisation capabilities. 

Meanwhile, RMIT Online uses Salesforce for its cloud-based contact centre, student support, recruitment engine, as well as sales and marketing on both the B2C and B2B front.

Alongside this, RMIT Online has developed several bespoke applications that run on a serverless framework implementation on AWS, including a student course builder application and personal learning profile application, which the university uses to help tailor the learning experience for students.

"We, as a business needed to be flexible, not just in our platforms, but also processes and people in order to manage that external volatility. That got tested last year and we were able to stand up and meet that demand. We had a 34% increase in enrolments in our platforms, which was able to manage through that, while also support our students as well," he said.

On Calvert's last count, RMIT Online has 25 platforms, all of which are brought together by a "really strong" middleware layer, which they use MuleSoft for.

"MuleSoft is absolutely the grand central station for us," Calvert said.

Looking ahead, Calvert said there would always be a continued focus on offering students greater flexibility on how they want to learn and what courses they pick and choose. 

"The future is very much about atomised learning content and leveraging a learning content management system to give us the flexibility to reuse content across multiple courses, to allow students to pick and choose and almost build their own course and build their own degree, and get those micro-credentials and stack them up towards more traditional accredited masters or undergrad courses," he said.

Building a learner record is also part of the university's future strategy, Calvert said, noting it will enable students to store their micro-credentials that they "keep for life" on a single platform.

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