AWS Public Sector Blog

Higher education institutions broaden learning opportunities with AWS Professional Services

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The University of North Carolina (UNC) System is expanding education opportunities for adult learners in the state of North Carolina. With a nationwide decrease in the number of students ages 18-22 enrolling in postsecondary education—known as the enrollment cliff—expected as early as 2025, the UNC System is addressing an increasing need for learning opportunities that enable students who cannot or do not wish to take classes in a traditional on-campus environment. These efforts are part of an ambitious statewide goal to close the educational attainment gap in North Carolina, ensuring that 2 million North Carolinians have a high-quality credential or postsecondary degree by 2030.

Comprehensive data integration drives improvements in the deployment of both traditional and non-traditional learning experiences by surfacing insights about what works best for adult learners. But delivering a great online learning experience for students, faculty, and administrators requires higher education institutions to manage a legion of education technology (EdTech) services.

In 2021, the state of North Carolina decided to reduce the burden of technology service management for the UNC System so that universities could focus on their goal of broadening affordable learning opportunities for adults. The UNC System launched Project Kitty Hawk as a nonprofit EdTech startup to meet that goal.

This post highlights how Project Kitty Hawk partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) Professional Services to build an extensible integration platform for EdTech systems that unites service and data integration across its entire network of EdTech and operational systems. Comprehensive security, multi-tenant management, and modern data capabilities enable Project Kitty Hawk and its customers to explore, analyze, and visualize insights with remarkable detail across the entire student journey.

Converting a vision to requirements and capabilities

When it comes to delivering online programs, the student portal and learning management system (LMS) are perhaps the most visible systems for users. But there are also marketing systems needed for attracting applicants, admissions systems for managing the admissions process, enrollment, scheduling, portals, and more. And those are just a few of the user-facing systems. There are also back-office systems needed to manage resiliency, scalability, analytics, and the security and privacy of student data.

Project Kitty Hawk hired AWS Professional Services to build this exciting suite of capabilities from the ground up. The AWS team started by understanding the unique needs of each of the four user groups: students, faculty, administrators, and the EdTech business of Project Kitty Hawk.

The needs of adult learners and faculty are similar, prioritizing flexible scheduling, information accessibility, and a mobile-first experience. Administrators, on the other hand, prefer ease of administration, data privacy and data integration. Project Kitty Hawk prioritizes the security and compliance of customer data, integration flexibility to meet its customers where they are, and delivering a best-in-class online learning experience at a low price point that is scalable and sustainable.

The AWS Professional Services team worked with industry domain experts from Project Kitty Hawk, AWS, and across partners, including current and former faculty and administrators. This team defined the capabilities needed to fulfill every feature from each customer’s point of view. Once the team established what was needed based on user experience and business requirements, it used Amazon’s process of Working Backwards. Starting with its customers and working backwards, the team mapped all the requirements to the software design. 

Managing integrations, multi-tenancy, security and more

Each of the third-party EdTech software as a service (SaaS) integrations require hundreds of hours for development. That includes product evaluation, infrastructure design, integration build, service configuration, and security architecture, in addition to ongoing service management. To maximize reusability, the integration architecture created for Project Kitty Hawk isolates the service-dependent logic layer from the service-independent layers. This provides flexibility and agility for the business to move from one vendor to another without major changes to core functionality. Further, all of the configured SaaS services can be delivered to the end customer over a single, managed service integration via the customer’s Student Information System (SIS).

In order to connect the many services and sources of data to all customers, the team needed a multi-tenancy model. Project Kitty Hawk prioritized robust privacy and accessibility of each customer’s data. Working backwards from the needs of the business, ease of configuration, maintenance, and cost were also factors. For some EdTech vendor SaaS providers who already support multi-tenancy, the integration is straightforward. For SaaS providers who don’t support multi-tenancy, a tenant context management scheme must be devised to work with the vendor’s service.

Figure 1 is an architectural diagram of Project Kitty Hawk’s integration architecture using a third-party applicant portal integration as an example. The figure shows the isolation of vendor-specific logic at the left edge of the architecture and the reusable, service-independent integration layers in the middle.

Figure 1. Architectural diagram of Project Kitty Hawk’s integration architecture using the applicant portal service as an example.

Realizing the data value chain

Comprehensive service and data integration with a multi-tenant, loosely coupled service bus architecture allows Project Kitty Hawk to follow the data from the source through processing, finally converting it into information through analysis and visualization. The data value chain is actually an iterative and circular system, akin to a flywheel pattern for continuous improvement of customer experience: self-perpetuating and reinforcing.

Figure 2 is the data value chain. The figure shows a flywheel relationship starting with user services as data sources through data ingestion, sharing, and analysis, and finally data decisions that result in customer experience improvements to the user services as data sources.

Figure 2. The data value chain used for Project Kitty Hawk.

Raising the bar for EdTech integrations and higher education journey insights

Project Kitty Hawk has successfully taken flight within one year of starting the build work, an extraordinary achievement and testament to its close collaboration with AWS. It has eight academic programs in the market with the first two customer institutions of the UNC System, North Carolina Central University and East Carolina University.

The architecture, techniques, partnerships, and results that AWS has realized with Project Kitty Hawk have raised the bar for EdTech and higher education data management. These innovations can be used by other organizations seeking similar outcomes. Reducing the burden of service management and uniting service integration and data collection offers meaningful improvements in access, experience, and outcomes for learners, faculty, and administrators.

Learn more

Find out more about how Project Kitty Hawk provides just-in-time student support by accessing our virtual forum, takeaways report, and case study.

AWS Professional Services provides builders and advisors that help you envision and scale business solutions using AWS Cloud. Our expertise in higher education helps guide you from concept to market, and our people enable deeper technical competencies within your teams.

Reach out to the AWS Professional Services Team today.

Martin McGreal

Martin McGreal

Martin is a senior consultant with Amazon Web Services (AWS) Worldwide Public Sector Professional Services. He served as the interim lead technologist for Project Kitty Hawk during its initial development and continues as an advisor. He enjoys building things that last and many cups of coffee.

Avinash Kaul

Avinash Kaul

Avinash is a senior cloud consultant with Amazon Web Services (AWS) Worldwide Public Sector Professional Services. He is based out of Seattle and enjoys crafting impactful and innovative solutions for AWS customers. Outside of work, he likes to spend time with family, hiking, working on DIY projects, and experimenting with new technologies.

Dhiman Roy

Dhiman Roy

Dhiman is a senior engagement manager with Amazon Web Services (AWS) Worldwide Public Sector Professional Services. He enjoys working with customers to solve complex problems and helping them meet their business outcomes. Outside of work, he has a passion for reading and spending time with friends and family.

Rahul Mazumdar

Rahul Mazumdar

Rahul is a senior advisor with Amazon Web Services (AWS) Worldwide Public Sector Professional Services. He helps customers modernize, innovate and design solutions using AWS Cloud services. Rahul has helped a number of public sector customers establish their cloud strategy and transformation roadmap. Outside of work, he enjoys spending time with his family and traveling.