Saturday, July 02, 2011

Web Conferencing for Education

Every week for the last four weeks I have been taking part in vocational education seminars using the Elluminate Live! is a web conferencing program (similar products include DimDim). This provided audio to about 24 people, along with slides, a text chat window and some instant surveys. The system worked well from my ANU office, which has a very high speed Internet connection, but did not work well when I tried it from home using Virgin 3G wireless broadband. The slides and received audio worked well. But when I tired to talk, no audio was transmitted and I lost received audio for a few seconds. The Virgin "broadband" works much of the time at only about 48 kbps. But even that should be enough for audio conferences.

It would be interesting to see if any HTML5 web conference systems are developed. Describing Elluminate and DimDim as "web conference" systems is misleading as they actually use Java programs to provide their services, not web pages. With the extra functionality and standardization of HTML5 it may be possible to have a truly web based conference system.

Also it may be possible to reduce the networking requirements by building in more specific education functions to the packages. These systems allow for audio and video to be sent from all participants to all others. However, in practice, there will be one person talking and everyone else listing to them. The packages provide a "push to talk" function to cut off extraneous audio, but this requires a level of discipline amongst participants.

It is very easy to leave a microphone open without having intended to and difficult to work out who to pass the microphone to next. If these functions were explicitly built in they would make the bandwidth use more efficient and also make the meeting flow better. One way might be to have a system where participants could register their wish to speak and the system would indicate where they are in the queue. By default speakers could be queued in order in which they requested. When their turn came they could be promoted to speak and optionally be given a count down clock to show how much time they had to speak for.

Another function which would help the on-line meeting would be an agenda. It is common to display an agenda in a window of the web conference. However, the agenda is just an image and is not a live document. Instead the agenda could be a live web page with links to materials for that agenda item and a time for the item set. By default the system would move through the agenda automatically, using the time allocated for each item. A countdown clock would start with each item to indicate time remaining. Time could be allocated to the su-components of the item. Where there was time allcoated for discussion, this would be automatically divided amongst the people who indicated they wanted to speak.

Creating agendas and allocating time for people to speak sounds very rigid and complex. However, the conventional wisdom for business is that these are useful to preventing wasting time in meetings. In the case of e-learning it should be feasible to integrate the web conference with the materials provided via the Learning Management System (LMS). At present while web conference systems are offered integrated with LMS, about all you can do is launch the web conference from the LMS. The resources of the LMS are not available within the web conference. If you want to display a resource from the LMS in the web conferecne, you have to manually do this after starting the web conferecne. It should be feasible to prepare the agenda in the LMS and then have that and all the needed resources linked in the web conference automatically. Rather than have a different instant chat facility in the web conference it should be feasible to use the same one as in the LMS. In effect the web conference would be a live real time mode of the LMS.

With a web conferecne function in the LMS, the participants would see the same LMS screen they normally do, but with some extra windows for controlling audio, video and other live functions.


One issue may be the latency of the wireless link. Here is a PING test. This is using a Huawei E169 3G wireless modem to the Virgin (Optus) network:
  1. Using a Huawei D100 3G Router : dark blue light: 10 packets transmitted, 10 received, 0% packet loss, time 9008ms
    rtt min/avg/max/mdev = 381.034/461.056/827.322/125.449 ms
    Light blue light: 10 packets transmitted, 10 received, 0% packet loss, time 9001ms
    rtt min/avg/max/mdev = 179.573/223.091/238.168/16.470 ms

  2. Without router: dark blue light: 10 packets transmitted, 10 received, 0% packet loss, time 9009ms
    rtt min/avg/max/mdev = 134.128/167.720/213.010/36.132 ms
This seems to show that the use of the router makes little difference.

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