Vocareum Delivers Virtual Labs to One Million Learners with the Help of AWS EdStart


Vocareum is an education technology company dedicated to narrowing the growing digital skills gap. According to the Brookings Institution, the share of jobs with high digital content in the United States more than quadrupled, from 4.8 percent to 23 percent, between 2002 and 2016. This reflects both an increase in the digital nature of existing jobs and the addition of new digital jobs.

To address this gap, Vocareum developed a cloud-based virtual learning and lab platform to help educate the next generation of computer science students by meeting them where they are. “When public cloud first emerged, it was exciting to see how it could be used to deliver top-notch instruction from leading educational institutions to anyone, anywhere. We wanted to enable learners to get hands-on with first-rate computing labs as well,” says Sanjay Srivastava, chairman and chief executive officer at Vocareum.

Today, Vocareum provides software labs directly to the web browsers of learners worldwide. The company’s cloud-based lab environment offers instructors a user-friendly and pedagogically effective workbench to set up auto-graded problems in development environments—and in multiple languages. Instructors can provide students with immediate feedback, manually grade student assignments, and provide in-line comments on programming exercises. Vocareum offers virtual labs for a range of technical courses, including computer science, data science, machine learning, Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, and cybersecurity.

To accomplish its goals, Vocareum needed a flexible cloud infrastructure that would enable its university and business customers to administer assignments, perform assessments, and deliver student feedback at scale and in real time. The company also needed an exceptionally reliable and globally available infrastructure that would allow it to scale both geographically and in terms of the number of learners.

Creating a Robust Infrastructure on AWS

Vocareum chose to build on Amazon Web Services (AWS) based on its reputation in the public cloud market. The startup built its infrastructure on AWS using Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) to run its applications and Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) to set up, operate, and scale its relational database.

Vocareum also relies on AWS Organizations to centrally manage billing; control access, compliance, and security; and share resources across its AWS accounts. “We’re managing upwards of a million AWS accounts. This includes automating account creation, the grouping of student accounts by classes, and applying service control policies. Being able to securely and reliably manage it all through AWS Organizations is critical,” says David Lin, vice president of business development at Vocareum.

With a solid IT infrastructure in place, Vocareum leaders turned to the AWS EdStart program for support and guidance in building the business. AWS EdStart helps entrepreneurs quickly build the next generation of online learning, analytics, and campus management solutions in the AWS Cloud. Lin says AWS EdStart was instrumental in introducing Vocareum to the education ecosystem. “We were semiconductor and software people, but we really wanted to make a mark in education,” says Lin. “AWS helped us learn the education market and make critical connections with other educational entrepreneurs through multiple events.”

Srivastava adds, “The technical support and promotional credit provided by AWS EdStart and other groups within AWS were extremely helpful. But in the end, it came down to the network. The networking opportunities AWS EdStart provided were critical to helping us establish credibility in the education market.”

Leveraging Cloud to Remove Educational Barriers

Vocareum deployed its first virtual labs in university pilot projects in 2015. Today, the company provides labs and a rich set of assessment capabilities to major universities and corporations across the globe, including the University of California at San Diego, the University of Southern California, and Penn State University. Vocareum is also a partner in some of the biggest experiments in higher education and corporate training currently underway, including MicroMasters from edX.org and the Online Master of Science in Analytics from Georgia Tech. “Our customers believe that a high-quality, hands-on component needs to be a critical part of any educational journey and we have been fortunate to deliver that to our partners,” says Srivastava.

The flexible infrastructure Vocareum built using AWS allows the company to deploy its labs in various learning contexts including massive open online courses (MOOCs), large residential courses, bootcamps, and instructor-led corporate training. The architecture combines cost-effective elastic computing, a powerful assessment capability, and integration into a range of learning workflows. “Built-in services provided by AWS have meant that we have been very capital-efficient and have successfully bootstrapped our operations to profitability,” says Srivastava. “AWS helped us scale our operations to 700,000 current, simultaneous learners globally on a very tight budget. We have been a key part of removing barriers to high-quality education made possible by the cloud.”

AWS Educate Classrooms and AWS Educate starter accounts recently began using Vocareum to make cloud-computing resources and services more readily available and accessible to higher education institutions, instructors, and students. Going forward, the company plans to deploy Amazon SageMaker for machine learning labs and AWS IoT Greengrass for IoT labs. Vocareum is also considering adding labs in areas outside of IT, including engineering, computational biology, and business, as well as incorporating tools like virtual and augmented reality.

In addition to serving 700,000 current learners, Vocareum recently reached the cumulative one million learner mark and hopes to reach the 10 million mark in the next few years. “When we started the company, we wanted to make an impact at scale. I think the 10 million learner mark will be a meaningful milestone,” says Srivastava. “We are gratified by the impact we have made in helping our customers deliver high-quality learning experiences to learners, anywhere, anytime, on any device.”

Official article on AWS.