New system to revolutionize online course authoring in education technology

Bryan Ollendyke Credit: Bryan Ollendyke / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — An idea on a white board three years ago has transformed from a project that no one had the time to pursue into an innovative way of streamlining the development of an online course. Headless Authoring Experience (HAX), the open source course-authoring system that is simplifying the way faculty build online courses, was developed in the College of Arts and Architecture by Bryan Ollendyke, instructions system developer in the Office of Digital Learning, in collaboration with Nikki Massaro Kauffman, instructional experience designer for the Offices of Digital Learning in both the College of Arts and Architecture and the Eberly College of Science.

“We needed a way to make it easier and faster to produce high-quality, accessible online courses,” explained Ollendyke. “HAX is a course-authoring solution for faculty and staff that does not require them to know HTML to make pages, removing a barrier to participate and leveraging user experiences, such as those found using Weebly, Wix or SquareSpace.”

Ollendyke will be presenting the new technology on May 21 at the IMS Global Learning Impact Leadership Institute conference in Baltimore. HAX is one of 26 projects competing in the innovative education technology competition, which IBM won last year. The video offers HAX as the future of online course development because it simplifies the technology requirements of users in exchange for quality content and ease of access. At a recent conference in Nashville, Ollendyke and Kaufman used Lego pieces to explain HAX as being like the gridplate of a Lego board that allow for open source modular content to work together to create easy, multimedia integration.

If I just want to teach using the internet, why do I have to go lots of places in order to assemble resources to do that? Why am I judged on the quality of my work based on its construction online? Why can't I focus on the task at hand which is teaching about the topic I'm an expert in? HAX solves these problems through bringing the resources of the internet to you and allowing you to present them using advanced technology without the need to understand advanced technology. Credit: Cody Goddard

In partnership with Michael Potter, programmer/analyst, and Charles Lavera, multimedia specialist/web developer in the Eberly College’s Office of Digital Learning, the team has brought HAX to laptop and desktop systems, in order for faculty to produce open education resources and publish without technical knowledge. As Ollendyke noted, this collaborative initiative also addresses enabling access to education, one of the foundations of Penn State’s strategic plan, by addressing course affordability. Rather than having students pay textbook companies, faculty can create and offer their own textbook or lessons developed in HAX for a better experience and lower cost.

“It just makes sense to leverage a system that makes things easier, cheaper and more accessible for faculty, staff and students — especially one that is built locally and that users actually have control over," said Melissa Hicks, director, instructional designer in the Eberly College's Office of Digital Learning. "It is absurd for faculty or staff to have to go to a vendor’s website to submit a request that needs to garner hundreds of votes just to get a sliver of attention. It’s absurd for them to have to learn or understand code. Building a tool that incorporates feedback from and addresses the needs of students, designers and faculty from the start is unheard of. It’s transformative."

Eventually, HAX will be the default way of producing content in the e-learning management system and will also allow users to create material while addressing accessibility and design. Rather than having co-authors and instructional designers working in Word documents and then trying to translate that content onto an accessible website and training users about accessibility regulations, HAX automatically adjusts color contrast ratios and ensures that content is compliant. The platform also facilitates easier sharing of content with the Commonwealth Campuses.  

“If you make a webpage on Wix or Wordpress, that is basically where it will live forever. We are trying to help users express themselves with HTML through a purely decentralized method of roll out that creates better workflows for faculty and staff to collaborate before the content exists on the internet,” Ollendyke added.

The platform also allows authors to leverage YouTube videos and other online content via plugins. Kauffman, who joined the team several months ago, manages user experience and design and finds best practices for responsibly including and displaying content. She and Ollendyke are optimistic that HAX will revolutionize the ways in which education technology course developers think about online education and empower and welcome others to venture into the world of online education.

“HAX provides a seamless, easy authoring experience. Our learning design team is really excited about the potential to make online courses more interactive, aesthetically pleasing and media-rich, all with accessibility and responsive design built in. Bryan, Nikki, and their collaborators in the open source community are working to solve a real problem with HAX that could really benefit the learning design and ed tech communities at large,” said Kate Miffitt, associate director of the Office of Digital Learning in the College of Arts and Architecture.

For more information about HAX, visit the website:

Last Updated January 06, 2020