Friday, July 08, 2011

Real Time Learning Management System

Recently I attended a series of on-line web conferences during the day about e-learning by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework and weekly web conferences with the staff of ACS Education. Both series used the Elluminate Live product.

While described as "Web conferencing", such video conference systems do not actually use a web browser, except to to launch the application, which consists of Java software downloaded via the Internet. It is remarkable that such web conferencing works as well as it does, even on a slow wireless mobile Internet connection (set the software to use no more than 28.8 kbps and one low resolution video frame per second). However, such systems have not advanced much in terms of functionality over video conference systems of ten years ago.

Apart from audio and video, the systems offer a text chat window, a white-board, application sharing and some polling functions. A major limitation with such systems is that native documents cannot be shared. That is when a power-point slide or a word processing document is shown to the group, they do not really get the document, but an image of part of the document.

Another problem is that these applications are separate from the Learning Management System software which students will also be using. Web conference systems offer integration with LMS such as Moodle, but this integration is implied to being able to launch the conference from within the application. The LMS applications do not interact with the web conference in real time.

It does not seem to be widely realized that an LMS can be used in real time by a group. I have used Moodle live in a face-to-face classroom. I could see when a student had completed a task from my Moodle console. It should therefore be possible to expand this to provide remote real time facilities, within Moodle. These need not be closely coupled to audio or video conferencing and could be used with a separate audio or video conference product to provide the audio and video or live in a classroom.

Some of the web conference features are:

  • Participant status: The list of participants and their status is shown (present/absent, happy/sad, asking a question, applause). Moodle already has an "Online Users" block, which could be expanded to add status.
  • Polls: This allows the moderator to survey the participants with multiple choice answers. Moodle has a survey module, but this is designed for formal course evaluation surveys. Moodle also has a "Quiz module", but this is designed for complex assessments. What is needed is a simple way to create "clicker" audience response function, as provided with VotaPedia.
  • Text chat: This allows any participant to send a short text message to the group. Moodle has a "Message" function, but this directs message only to one address. There are forums for groups, but these do not refresh in real time and are designed for longer more complex messages. It should be possible to provide a real time message function module in Moodle.
  • Web tours: Elluminate and some other web conference systems, allow a web address to be sent from the moderator to other participants where the web pages is displayed in their browser. As most LMS are web based, this could be an easy to implement function which would be very useful.
  • Slide show presentations: Presentation of images with a live moving pointer is the main function used in the web conference. Moodle has not "slide" function: Files for Powerpoint and other presentation programs can be provided, but Moodle can't open or control them. Providing this could be complex and use of web tours would be a simpler alternative, with web based slides.
  • Live or Recorded Audio and Video: Audio/and/or video is played and in some cases transmitted live. Moodle has provision for video and audio playback built in. This could be expanded to control an audio/video conference.
  • Meeting Recording: The audio, video, slides, text chat and all other interaction of the session is recorded. This is a useful function.
  • Whiteboard: A drawing window is displayed which the moderation and optionally, all other participants can draw on. There is no draw function in Moodle and this would need to be provided as an extra module.
  • Screen sharing: An application on the moderator's desktop (or one of the participants) is relayed to all participants. There is no such function in Moodle. This would need to be added with an extra module.
Of the listed functions, the easiest to integrate into a LMS such as Moodle, to form a a useful package, would be the status, polls, text chat and web tours. These could be used in a face to face classroom or with a separate audio/video conference system. It should be noted that such a system does not need all functions tightly integrated. Different components can be synchronized with timing, without being delivered via the same system.

What might be interesting is to add time to all relevant parts of the LMS. At present the LMS is static, responding only to user input. But there is no reason it could not be animated.

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