MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXV No. 5
May / June 2013
A Letter to the Class of 2013
City Council Approval of MITIMCo Petition Only Beginning of MIT 2030 Review
The Magic Beyond the MOOCs
Memorial Resolution for Officer Sean Collier
Why I Decided to Transition to Professor Without Tenure, Retired
Stephen Lippard Wins Killian Award
MIT's New Modular Learning Management System: The Evolution from Stellar
Learning From Students
Housing MIT's Graduate Students: Framing the Inquiry and Shaping the Dialogue
How Online Education Might Impact the Future of Mathematics Departments
Steve Hall New Faculty Chair
Support for the Rising Complexity of MIT's International Students
Working Alone at MIT
Mental Illness as a Disease
Applauding Proposed MIT School of Education
MIT Professional Education: Call for 2014 Summer Short Programs
from the 2013 Student Quality of Life Survey (Undergraduates)
from the 2013 Student Quality of Life Survey (Graduate Students)
Printable Version

MIT's New Modular Learning Management System:
The Evolution from Stellar

Daniel Hastings and Christine Ortiz

An effective Learning Management System (LMS) enables faculty to organize and manage the many aspects of teaching a class, for example:

  • sharing and updating class materials and assignments
  • managing class membership
  • tracking student performance
  • facilitating course-based collaboration and information exchange.

An effective LMS is also scalable and adaptable and evolves to support the diverse and advancing pedagogical models used by the faculty.

Stellar, launched by Information Services and Technology (IS&T) in 2001, has been the primary LMS for the MIT residential curriculum. During the spring 2013 term, Stellar supported 972 classes, 1,244 faculty users and 8,864 student users across all five Schools. Since the launch, IS&T evolved Stellar to address new and changing requirements. However, as the system aged, constraints in the architecture began to limit extensibility. Key features, such as more collaboration capabilities, support for flexible learning groups and more flexible document and data management, could not be added.

From 2008-2009, as IS&T worked with Stellar users and stakeholders to validate requirements for a next-generation LMS, it became clear that Stellar could no longer be sustained as an effective LMS platform at MIT.

From fall 2009 to spring 2011, the Faculty Committee on Learning Management Systems (a subcommittee of the MIT Council on Educational Technology chaired by Prof. Eric Klopfer) worked with IS&T to gather community input and evaluate options for a more robust and flexible system. Based on this process, the Committee sponsored an experiment with the Blackboard LMS to assess whether this commercial solution would satisfy MIT’s needs. The experiment clearly indicated Blackboard was both technically and functionally deficient. The Committee determined that a more appropriate solution would be to update MIT’s LMS environment using a service-based framework that met three key requirements:

  • modular functionality
  • integration with popular third-party services
  • a consistent user experience with the current LMS
incremental cost over budget
Basic Modular Service Framework Diagram
(click on image to enlarge)

The resulting solution, named the Modular Service Framework, is currently in development. It is the foundation of MIT’s new modular LMS. In this model, discrete elements of LMS functionality, such as course calendar or materials management, are implemented as individual Web service modules that can be utilized either as standalone modules or as part of an integrated, end-to-end LMS solution. This architecture allows modules to be used in conjunction with the MITx platform.




The modular MIT LMS offers:

  • A customizable environment in which faculty tailor the system to include only the modules they require
  • User-focused, intuitive workflow via an easy-to-use, seamless interface
  • Role-based personalization
  • Accessible Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that allow faculty to leverage module functionality from other platforms, such as MITx and Moodle
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A clear evolution path from Stellar

Since this effort began in summer 2011, IS&T has made significant progress in developing, testing, and deploying core LMS modules. Initial priority has been given to the development and deployment of common core LMS functionality currently represented in Stellar. This includes materials management, course calendar, course gradebook, and membership rosters, with an emphasis on the provision of open accessibility and integration standards not currently enabled by Stellar.

The evolution process is a thoughtful one. New modules undergo extensive dual-phase beta testing by faculty and other users over two semesters, providing ample time for feedback to be incorporated before launch. At launch, the new module does not immediately replace existing Stellar functionality. Instead, users choose when they are ready to move. Once a module has been released and successfully in production for an academic year, the redundant Stellar functionality is phased out. Throughout the evolution from Stellar to the new MIT LMS, core workflow logic is maintained in order to minimize user dissonance.

Development of core LMS modules


  • Gradebook Module – Released in fall 2012, the new Gradebook provides advanced grade management of course assignments and exams. It also includes recitation/section support, integrated student photos, and mobile device compatibility. The legacy Stellar Gradebook will be phased out in summer 2013.

In beta:

  • Course Membership Module – provides a critical function to all other modules: consistent student membership lists and role-based instructor and TA functionality. Membership lists are centralized and disseminated to all other modules activated for any given class. The target release date for this component is fall 2013.
  • Early Warning System Module – enables faculty and advisors to recognize students who may be struggling academically. By using data from the Gradebook Module and instructor-set criteria, the system monitors student performance and automatically notifies faculty and advisors when students may need help. The target release date for this service is fall 2013.

Other modules in development with a target release of 2014 include:

  • Calendar Module - manages the class timeline and includes integration with popular calendars, such as Google Calendar.
  • Forum Module – facilitates class-based discussions.
  • Materials Module –enables management of class-based materials and documents.

In moving ahead on this plan, IS&T is implementing LMS functionality as modular services that source course membership information in a centralized and consistent manner. Individual modules share the same course metadata, and offer users a consistent, contextual and integrated workflow that builds on the functionality offered via each module.

Putting the flexible LMS to use

As faculty begin to utilize the new LMS modules, the possibilities and impact of a more flexible and customizable system become increasingly evident.

  • This semester, several classes using the MITx platform, including 18.05, CC.802, 8.011 and 5.11, are employing the API interface between MITx and the Gradebook Module to manage online assignment grades.
  • Urban Studies and Planning classes 11.125 and 11.127 are currently using the Course Membership Module in beta to manage student membership lists in their Moodle course Websites.
  • The Early Warning System has been activated in beta for 10 departments, including 2.002, 6.00 and 14.01.

We encourage you to leverage the new LMS modules to support and enable your unique approach to organizing, managing, and teaching your classes. The modules are part of the toolset that facilitates educational innovation at MIT.

If you have questions or want to get involved in a current or future beta, you can contact the Learning Management Application & Services (LMAS) team at For released modules, the LMAS team provides both online support documentation and training. Currently, documentation is available for the Gradebook Module.

The Education Systems Roadmap

The MIT LMS is one of many projects defined as part of the Education Systems Roadmap. The Roadmap is the foundation for modernizing MIT’s Student Information System (SIS). Guided by the Roadmap, DUE and ODGE partner with IS&T to evolve key applications and processes central to the educational priorities of the Institute. Faculty involvement is critical to the success of many Roadmap projects. Through the SIS Faculty Working Group and established relationships with faculty and departments, the SIS team gathers requirements, garners feedback, and gains departmental participation in project pilots. Through this collaborative effort, we hope to deliver the kind of experiences that keep students engaged and on track for success, and support you in your roles as teachers and advisors.

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