Why We're Excited About Open edX Hawthorn - Appsembler

Why We’re Excited About Open edX Hawthorn

The next major Open edX release, Hawthorn, is finally out – and it’s got a ton of exciting new features! 

We tested Hawthorn out ourselves and are thrilled about what’s in store for learners, authors, and instructors. Updates range from improved learner progress tracking and video optimization, to easier formatting and GDPR compliance features.

In this post, we’ll discuss the Hawthorn features that we’re most excited about. The first half of this post highlights updates to the learner experience, while the second half highlights improvements for course authors and instructors. Without further ado, let’s dive in!

Improved learner experience

Learner progress tracking and Completion API

One of the first challenges that Hawthorn tackles is learner progress tracking.

Just because a learner viewed a unit in a course does not necessarily mean they’ve completed it. Yes, you can issue a certificate to definitively indicate that a learner has completed the entire course. But how can you track the learner’s completion of exercises while they’re progressing through a course?

With the introduction of the Completion API in Hawthorn, it’s now possible to get more granularity on how the learner is progressing, without having to rely on graded assignments as a proxy for learner completion.

The course pages now include visible progress indicators (as described in the March 2018 product update). These green completion checkmarks appear in the navigation bar when a learner completes a unit. This provides encouragement to learners as they work through each subsection. A unit is marked as “complete” when the learner has viewed all video and HTML content, and has submitted answers to all problems. You can set how much time a video must be watched in order to be considered “complete” in these settings.

Progress indicators in Open edX Hawthorn.
Progress indicators in the learner’s navigation bar.

These green completion checkmarks also appear on the course outline view:

Progress indicators in the outline view of Open edX Hawthorn
Progress indicators in the course outline view.

Before you see these progress indicators appear in the LMS, you’ll need to enable a feature flag in the Django admin. Go to this URL: http://<your-lms-url>/admin and log in as a staff user. Then, navigate to the Waffle switches screen and add a new switch:

Enabling the Completion API in Open edX Hawthorn
Enabling completion tracking.

Now, you’ll see the green completion checkmarks appear as learners complete the course material.

Another nice bonus is the updated Resume Course button. Often, learners love to jump ahead and get a sneak peek at upcoming course content, but they might have trouble finding their way back to where they were working. With Hawthorn, the Resume Course button on the Course page now returns the learner to the last unit they completed, instead of the last unit they visited.

Optimized video quality with adaptive video streaming

One reason that Open edX uses Youtube by default as its video player is that Youtube provides streaming capabilities free of charge. But, if you don’t want to put your video content on Youtube, an alternative option is Amazon S3.

While you were able to deliver video content via S3, you were stuck delivering them at only one resolution quality. You would have to decide whether to optimize for high quality (720p, 1080p) if your users are predominantly on high-speed internet connections, or low quality (360p, 216p) if your users are on low-speed internet connections. With Hawthorn, you now have the ability to offer both video streaming options with adaptive video streaming.

As we discussed previously in our post about the Video XBlock, streaming video content provides a much better user experience than downloading videos. With adaptive streaming in Hawthorn, video quality can now adapt to the speed of the learner’s internet connection. This is especially advantageous for learners accessing content from their mobile phones, where they can now effectively stream content on lower-speed internet connections.  

This results in a more seamless video viewing experience for the learner, as the video player negotiates to stream the highest quality video available based on the learner’s Internet bandwidth at any given time.

Video streaming automatically adapts to learner’s connection speed.

At the time of this writing, we weren’t able to test this feature.

How do you slice up your videos to be compatible with HLS? You can use ffmpeg, which is free to use to set up the HLS stream. For your video components, use a .m3u8 file in the Default Video URL field when you’re adding the video in the Studio interface.

VEDA – video encoding and delivery platform by edX

VEDA (Video encode automation for Open edX) is open source software from edX that provides transcoding, thumbnail generation and transcripts integration — but without all the copyright issues that you face with Youtube. The edX video pipeline can be configured to upload videos to Microsoft Azure.

Once VEDA is enabled, you can upload videos directly within Studio and they will be transcoded automatically. If you use 3Play Media or cielo24 for transcripts, the transcripts are added to Studio automatically.

VEDA does not come installed by default. To install, check out the edx-video-pipeline README and study the Ansible playbook video-pipeline-integration.yml and the playbooks that are prefixed with “veda”.

You’ll also need to set some settings in the LMS settings file to configure how video images and transcripts are handled.

Responsive mobile design and streamlined mobile apps

Many new updates in Hawthorn are focused on delivering a better mobile learning experience.

In his talk at the Open edX 2018 conference, Marco Morales (edX Product Manager) says, “Today, over half of our learners find us via mobile devices. In Hawthorn, we simplified the way we do our front-end styling to enable us to make our web experience responsive.”

Watch this video for an overview of the mobile experience changes:

With Hawthorn, the Open edX team overhauled the native mobile apps and streamlined basic actions such as finding new courses and bulk downloading videos all at once, to improve how learners can learn on the go. Additionally, they’ve built tools to add more languages to the mobile apps.

Streamlined mobile functionality in Hawthorn.
Download video content in bulk via the mobile app.

Improved course authoring experience

Easier formatting and image insertion

With Open edX Hawthorn, course authoring got a whole lot easier.

The HTML components have been updated to give course authors more easy formatting options. Now, you can align your text the way you want: left or right, centered, or fully justified.

Updated formatting options.
Improved formatting and alignment options in Studio.

One of our favorite new features which solves a long-time pain point for course authors is that images to HTML components can now be added right with the HTML component itself — without having to upload files beforehand.

Images can be added directly within the HTML component!

This feature is not enabled out-of-the-box in Hawthorn, but can be enabled in Studio by adding a feature flag. Go to http://<your-studio-url>/admin and navigate to Waffle->Flags and add a new flag: studio.enable_in_context_image_selection

Enabling in-context image insertion.

One of the cool things about this feature and the improved Files and Uploads page (see below) is that these are both taking advantage of the new React-based Studio frontend. Looking forward to many more Studio improvements now that this project is underway!

Improved Files and Uploads page

As mentioned in the May 2018 product update, the Files & Uploads page has been updated in Hawthorn to significantly simplify the experience of adding all types of files to a course. More specifically:

  1. Course authors can now drag-n-drop files from their computer to upload them into Studio.
  2. There’s also a search feature so you can quickly find a previously uploaded file (this will avoid re-uploading the same file),
  3. There is a “filter by file type” feature to limit the listing to only show audio, code, document, image or other file types.
  4. There is a “Hide file preview” checkbox that will make the preview column disappear.

See the image below and the annotated numbers that correspond with these bullet points.

The streamlined Files & Uploads page for course authors.

Override learner scores for individual problems

Course teams now have the ability to override learner scores for individual problems. This can be done through a setting on both the Instructor Dashboard and the Staff Debug viewer.

Override learner scores via the Instructor dashboard
Override learner scores via the Staff Debug view

Improved Open Response Assessment (ORA)

The ORA problem editor is updated in Hawthorn. A new interface offers the same formatting options for the prompts that are available for HTML components. Now, you no longer have to create a separate HTML component above the ORA assignment.

Open Response Assessment (ORA) interface.

The instructor will be able to see all of the open response assessments that have been submitted along with what stage each ORA is in.

Weekly highlights email

As was described in the April 2018 product update, weekly course highlight messages can encourage learners to remain engaged in self-paced courses. Specify a few highlights for each section, and Open edX will send out a weekly email message listing these highlights. Courses on edx.org that enabled weekly highlights had higher verification rates than ones without.

The weekly highlights email from Hawthorn
Weekly highlights email drives higher engagement.

Here’s the the documentation for this weekly highlights email feature.

This feature is not enabled by default (at the time of this writing), so a few extra steps are required to enable this feature.

You’ll need to go into the LMS Django admin (http://<your-lms-url>/admin) and log in as a staff user, and navigate to Waffle->Switches, and then add a new switch as follows:

You also need to go into Studio Django admin (http://<your-studio-url>/admin) and log in as a staff user, and navigate to Self_Paced->Self-paced configurations and add a new self-paced configuration. Make sure to check the “Enabled” button and click Save.

Read more about how to set up the highlights email in the official platform documentation. To actually set up the schedule to send the emails, there is additional configuration that needs to be done, as described in the documentation. Make sure to read all about “nudge emails” and other types of automated emails that Open edX can send.

Student data privacy and GDPR features

Given many changes to privacy laws around the world (most notably, the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)), the Hawthorn release also includes privacy-related updates such as a user retirement feature that removes data in response to user requests for deletion.

If you want to enable this feature, you can configure the retirement settings for your site.

Here at Appsembler we spent a considerable amount of time to prepare for GDPR laws going into effect, and you can read more about our GDPR compliance on our site.

Improved learning profiles

The Learner Profile page now shows the date the learner joined the platform and any course credentials they’ve received. It also includes links to their social media accounts if they’ve opted to share those.

The updated learner profile page.

Improved discussion forum features

Inline discussions now expand by default. This change has resulted in a 3x increase in participation in the discussion forums on edX.org!

The first time a learner’s post receives a comment, they will receive an email message which contains the comment and a link back to the course discussion post.

Before this feature will work, you must first enable forum notifications in Django admin (see screenshot below).

Enabling forum notifications.

Other notable features in Hawthorn

  • Course Reviews can now be viewed and added by learners from within the course experience. Open edX system administrators can configure a reviews provider such as CourseTalk to allow learners to leave reviews for a particular course.
  • Learners now have the ability to purchase all the courses in a program in just one transaction, optionally with a discount. This avoids the hassle of having to enter payment information multiple times.
  • Group purchases are one of the ways to expose commerce functionality to groups, businesses or enterprises. You can buy a number of the seats all at once and distribute those enrollment codes to learners.
  • Proctored exams have been improved, enabling course teams to add specific exam instructions in the Studio proctored exam settings.
  • Flexible content gating
  • Automatic certificate delivery
  • Transferable student records
  • Translated learner certificates
  • Program about pages – programs (also known as learning paths or course bundles are an in-demand feature, so we will dedicate an entire future blog post to them – stay tuned!)
  • Expanded SSO support
  • Data via Email, SFTP, API
  • New: Support Enterprise Learners (we will explore this in depth in a future blog post, but if you’re curious now, watch Marco describe it in his talk)

What’s Ahead

The future is looking bright as Hawthorn packs a punch with many new features and updates.

If you’re an Appsembler customer, look forward to an email from us outlining when we’ll upgrade your site to Hawthorn. If not, keep in mind that one of the benefits of being an Appsembler customer is that we’ll automatically upgrade your site for you 😉

Have questions about Hawthorn or Open edX in general? Feel free to get in touch!