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Packback: Bolstering classroom collaboration with a digital communication platform

About Packback

Packback is an EdTech company that offers teachers and students a digital platform for course discussions, supporting real-time feedback and collaboration to improve learning outcomes.

Industries: Education
Location: United States

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Packback uses Google Kubernetes Engine to power its education platform and drive innovation with faster deployments and streamlined IT management.

Google Cloud results

  • Supports two-fold annual growth of users with lean engineering team
  • Reduces infrastructure maintenance time, allowing engineers to focus on innovation
  • Creates foundation for advanced analytics to facilitate data-driven learning
  • Streamlines debugging and platform improvement through enhanced monitoring

Reduces deployment times from weeks to hours

Collaboration is essential in today’s classrooms. As digital technologies become the standard in schools, teachers and students have an increasingly wide range of tools available to engage with courses and work together.

Packback, an EdTech company, launched with the initial goal of making expensive textbooks more affordable and accessible to students with daily digital rentals. As more students began using the service, the company saw an opportunity to build a community around the text and stimulate conversations in a digital environment.

"We saw an opportunity to encourage students' curiosity and engage deeper with course materials while giving professors more visibility into student collaboration," says Eric Tendian. Principal Engineer at Packback. "We also sought to enable real-time feedback to help students become better writers while working through course discussion assignments on Packback."

Packback is especially useful for larger classes with hundreds of students in which learners are unable to ask questions or discuss coursework during the lecture. By creating a digital environment where discussion is possible, Packback also teaches and enables better communication skills.

Given the value Packback adds to classes of all sizes, it quickly experienced significant growth, doubling its user base each academic year over five years. Packback chose to work with Google Cloud to scale its business and better serve a rapidly growing base of educators and students.

Autoscaling to meet Sunday night homework traffic

Although Packback saw its number of users double each semester, it was growing its internal team by adding one engineer at a time and relying on skilled problem solving to manage the platform at scale.

"Especially when it comes to deployment, we needed an IT framework to manage scale more efficiently compared to the manual IT provisioning we previously used," says Davo Hynds, Director of Engineering at Packback. "With a small team and the complex scaling demands our service requires, Google Cloud was the right fit."

Traffic to Packback services surges at certain times, such as Sunday nights when more students are completing their discussion assignments—and at other times of the week such as overnight or between common deadlines, demand for services drops a lot. This spikey traffic led to over-provisioning servers and other IT infrastructure to avoid outages or disruptions that would prevent students from completing assignments.

By migrating to Google Cloud, Packback was able to leverage autoscaling solutions to support traffic surges and scale down infrastructure at quieter times. Now, the company does not need to conduct testing drills ahead of surge periods, such as before a four-hour period on Sunday nights when roughly half of its total users are signing on. Likewise, the team does not need to spend time manually scaling the infrastructure back down on weekdays.

"Automatic scaling in Google Cloud saves us money and frees up our engineering staff to focus on deployment, feature development, and support instead of infrastructure maintenance," says Davo.

"Autoscaling in Google Cloud saves us money and frees up our engineering staff to focus on deployment, feature development, and support instead of infrastructure maintenance."

Davo Hynds, Director of Engineering, Packback

Hybrid monolithic and microservices architecture to stimulate innovation

Packback migrated much of its platform to Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE). In addition, Cloud SQL and Google Cloud Storage provide integrated database capabilities to further remove strain on the engineering team through a managed approach to IT.

GKE allows Packback to roll out new versions of its platform regularly by supporting a fully automated CI/CD pipeline, while Cloud Monitoring streamlines debugging efforts to further smooth out the process.

"We previously spent up to an entire day every two weeks to release a new version of the platform," says Davo. "With GKE, we can deploy our platform four or five times every day without needing manual engineering work."

GKE also gives Packback the flexibility to combine both monolithic and microservices approaches to IT depending on its needs. For example, the company found that its core business logic functioned better as a monolith after its early days of microservices. Now, it can add microservices on top of its monolithic infrastructure through simple APIs for a specific need, such as plagiarism detection.

Packback uses a combination of Google Cloud and in-house developed APIs to continuously improve its platform and differentiate it from competitors. This further improves the CI/CD pipeline that Packback had optimized in the years before it migrated to Google Cloud.

"Switching to GKE forced us to focus on best practices that drive success with CI/CD such as having reproducible builds, while removing the strain of managing all these moving parts across our infrastructure," says Eric.

At the same time, Packback uses BigQuery to minimize demand on its production databases and give teams outside of engineering more dynamic, easier access to user insights. Packback uses BigQuery as a single point of truth and has built tools on top of the data warehouse to allow non-technical staff to gather information they need in real-time.

"BigQuery works well for all of our needs," says Eric. "We can conduct in-depth queries without worrying about database disruptions. The flexibility to run queries on Google Cloud quickly gives our teams important insights."

By saving time and streamlining processes, Packback engineers and other staff are now better positioned to focus on platform innovations that enhance value for students and teachers.

"We previously spent up to an entire day every two weeks to release a new version of the platform. With GKE, we can deploy our platform four or five times every day without needing manual engineering work."

Davo Hynds, Director of Engineering, Packback

New strategies to improve student performance

Packback has used some of the time and cost savings from Google Cloud to launch an internal incubation team to develop and release new features. The team is working to optimize its Q&A and real-time feedback tools that connect teachers and students directly within the platform. Additionally, Packback is working to incorporate lessons learned from its core course discussion platform to strengthen students' writing performance.

"We give students everything they need to be immediately productive, and teachers all the controls to set up assignments, grade work, and give feedback, all within our platform," says Eric. "At a time when universities are challenged to demonstrate the value of their education with decreasing resources, Packback offers an affordable and functional option to enrich student experiences and drive better learning outcomes."

Packback has worked to build how its platform improves communication skills to not just improve grades and experiences in a particular course, but also furthers learners' overall collaboration skills. Today, Packback continues to evolve with a constant focus on enhancing writing skills and student outcomes, in which improvements can be continually refined and measured using data.

"We’re uniquely positioned to give educators and students tremendous value that’s very affordable. Google Cloud helps us to scale that value to even more people," says Eric. "We have a lot of opportunities to drive adoption of education technology, and we are excited to work with Google Cloud to do just that."

"We have a lot of opportunities to drive adoption of education technology, and we are excited to work with Google Cloud to do just that."

Eric Tendian. Principal Engineer, Packback

Tell us your challenge. We're here to help.

Contact us

About Packback

Packback is an EdTech company that offers teachers and students a digital platform for course discussions, supporting real-time feedback and collaboration to improve learning outcomes.

Industries: Education
Location: United States