An Insider Look at the Inkling Platform

When asked about Inkling, I naturally begin with our iPad app and the content we offer. After all, it’s the easiest way to show the innovation around learning content and how people collaborate within the platform. But for those who are more technical, I enjoy talking about the innovation that’s taking place behind the scenes, seen only implicitly through the ever-increasing availability of content, the ease with which you interact with others, and through the stability of the application. There is, as any engineer can appreciate, more to Inkling than what you see on your iPad.

I work on the Inkling platform team, which assembles and maintains a diverse ecosystem of services that support the Inkling learning experience. The word “platform” is a well-worn marketing term these days, but I think of it often and fondly to understand my role in making Inkling great: a platform is the foundation for the things we most appreciate. In fact, when a platform is at its best, we take it for granted. (You’re probably not thinking about the operating system underneath whatever you’re using to read this post, and that means that whichever it is, it’s working.)

When we work with publishers, we are working with massive amounts of highly curated content that they have already polished into textbooks, web resources, and the like. We take this content and transform it into our own format for enhanced learning content, S9ML. This initial phase prepares the basic textbook to be enhanced with our various Blueprints and also massages its metadata into a form that is easily manipulable by humans or by our software.

At this point our content editors go to work, adding multimedia Blueprints, and formatting the content to flow smoothly into Inkling. All along, they are using tools we create to check their work and preview their results. The platform team builds powerful content creation tools, automated publishing processes, and content distribution mechanisms about as quickly as the design team invents new ways of building the content itself. It’s a sneaky catch 22: what comes first, the content, or the tools used to make the content? We have to work closely with people in a lot of domains, from biologists, to computer scientists, to designers, in order to make it all work together seamlessly.

For example, when our designers conceived of the Slideline Blueprint, there was no tool for our interaction designers to preview their work, nor was there example content with which to test the publishing pipeline. We need to interleave the updates to our Python-based publishing pipeline with the release of S9ML specifications, and the content tools let designers and Cocoa programmers experiment. If that sounds simple, then think of the details of coordinating versions of S9ML, multiple aspects of the platform, and the iPad app to make sure that to any team, every other team’s work appears to be in sync. For an added layer of complexity, the platform is distributed over redundant servers and multiple testing and deployment environments, all managed via automated build and deployment processes so iterations take only minutes and teams can share their work as fast as they can create it.

Of course, the platform supports not only my teammates, but our users, too. When you make a note in Inkling, it is automatically synced to the cloud and, if you choose, shared with your friends. Because the Inkling platform is there, sharing your learning experience with a friend is as reliable as taking a practice quiz or following along with an annotated symphony.

Every day, we solve a ton of interesting challenges on the Inkling platform team, from database scaling, to our very high standards for response times, to the many interesting challenges of working with content teams distributed around the world. As a lifelong learner, I enjoy solving tough technical problems that have a meaningful impact on education. As always, we’re hiring, so if you’re looking for a challenge, there may be a place for you here.

And if you’re just an interested user… well, I hope you haven’t noticed the platform lately. ;-) Happy learning.