Enabling web conferencing in Ubuntu Linux

Ubuntu logoUbuntu Linux and other distributions like Edubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, and Xubuntu have come in leaps and bounds in recent years and are becoming more fully featured and easier to use. I think they are now getting to the stage where they are potential replacements for Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s OS X for elearning. Well, almost…

Web conferencing usually requires Flash

Elearning increasingly includes live multi-way video web conferencing, which on Ubuntu Linux can be problematic. Most web conferencing platforms and systems require either Adobe Flash Player or Java Runtime Environment (JRE) to be installed. If you use the standard Firefox web browser, you need to install Flash Player as an extra, since it isn’t free and open source software (FOSS) and cannot be included in FOSS distributions. Luckily, it’s easy enough to do via Ubuntu’s software centre. It’s a similar process to installing apps on a smartphone or tablet but faster and easier.

More uses of Flash in Ubuntu Linux

There are other areas where Flash Player can be useful. For example, Ubuntu Linux doesn’t have support for the H.264 video CODEC. H.264 is used all over the web, including Youtube*, Vimeo, and Google Hangouts. Adobe Flash Player is an easy workaround to allow you to access and view those services. Also, the SWF Activity Module, Online Audio Recording, Soundcloud, WizIQ, LiveStreaming, and many more plugins for Moodle, as well as Moodle’s default media player, all use Flash.

* Youtube will play video without Flash or H.264 as HTML5 but only low-resolution versions intended for some mobile phones and not all videos are available in this format.

How to install Flash Player in Chrome, Chromium, and Opera

However, installing Adobe Flash Player doesn’t make it available to all web browsers on your operating system (Even on Windows, you need to install one Flash player for Internet Explorer and then one for other browsers). If you want to install Flash Player for other web browsers in Ubuntu, e.g. Google Chrome, Google Chromium (the FOSS version of Google Chrome) or in Opera, it’s a bit more complicated. This means using the Terminal (Ubuntu’s command line; press “Ctrl + Alt + t” to open it) and carefully typing in the following commands. After the first command, Ubuntu will prompt you for your admin password, which is usually the same password you use to log in with (if you’re the computer owner):

sudo apt-get install pepperflashplugin-nonfree
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get autoremove

How to install Java Runtime Environment

Some video web conferencing services and systems require Java Runtime Environment (JRE) to run on your computer. Most notably, Blackboard Collaborate, formerly known as Elluminate Live, requires JRE but even with it and the Iced-Tea browser plugin installed, it can have issues with connecting the audio. This is a frustrating issue that I haven’t found a workaround for yet. Please let me know if you know of one!

You can install JRE and the browser plugin from the Ubuntu Software centre. Look for the OpenJDK Java 7 Runtime and the Icedtea Java Browser plugin and install them both. If you’re feeling more confident with using the Ubuntu Terminal (Ctrl + Alt + t), it’s quicker and easier to install them like this and it will make sure that your computer uses the latest installed version of JRE by default:

sudo apt-get install openjdk-7-jre
sudo apt-get install icedtea-plugin
sudo update-alternatives --config java
sudo apt-get update

More uses of Java Runtime Environment

There are a number of web resources and projects for elearning that require JRE. These include Tufts University’s Virtual Understanding Environment (VUE), a feature rich concept mapping tool, as well as the NanoGong audio recording, Scratch learning games, Java Molecular Editor, Easy Java Simulations (and Open Source Physics), Jmol 3D molecular chemical structure, GroupDocs Viewer plugins for Moodle all require JRE.


So it looks like Ubuntu Linux is almost there… but not quite yet. Support for multi-way video web conferencing is there and is possible but not complete, especially in the case of Blackboard Collaborate. It’s also sometimes necessary to install additional software in ways that most “normal” users may find confusing and/or discouraging to do themselves on their own computers. Additionally, many learners and teachers may not know why their web conferencing platform doesn’t work or know that it can be fixed by installing the correct software. Let’s hope things improve further in the coming months or years.

Update: Do you want to get started with Moodle?

BitNami MoodleBack in 2012 I wrote the article, Do you want to get started with Moodle? which turned out to be one of the most read and most cited articles on this blog. A lot has happened with software and web tools in the following two years so I’ve decided to write an update to it. I’ll be featuring a free and open source localhost server and web app installers from BitNami. For the record, I have no affiliation with BitNami or anyone from BitNami and have had no contact with them about writing this article.

Why run Moodle on your computer?

There are many benefits to having your own version of Moodle on your personal computer. Here are a few examples:

  • An easy way to try out and learn to use Moodle for free without making any commitments, renting servers, etc.
  • A safe sandbox where you can try things out before putting them out on the world wide web.
  • An offline environment where you can create, develop and test learning activities, resources, and courses in private before uploading them onto a public server.
  • Moodle pages will load faster, shortening the time it takes to develop activities, resources, and courses.
  • Install, test, and make sure that 3rd party Moodle plugins and services work as expected and meet your specific needs on your computer rather than on a public server.

Why write this update?

Since I wrote the original article, I’ve run into some technical difficulties with more recent versions of the localhost server (Wampserver) software I originally recommended, especially for running more recent versions of Moodle, e.g. 2.5 and 2.6. In my search for solutions I came across a number of other developers and Moodle users that were having similar issues. The solutions were far from simple or easy to resolve and so I thought it would be a good idea to find something simpler, easier, and less problematic to run Moodle on your local computer.

Why BitNami?

BitNami provides free and open source localhost installers that anyone can install and get working with the minimum of technical knowledge and, as you’ll see later in this article, the process is about as simple as it can be. There are two main options to get started with BitNami and Moodle. Let’s get started…

Option 1: Install Moodle only

The first and simplest is the all-in-one Moodle installer (-AMP stack + Moodle), which is available on Linux, Windows, and Mac. Download the appropriate one for your operating system, run it, and follow the onscreen instructions.

Important! When you have completed the installation process and you have your Moodle installation up and running and you are logged in, edit your user profile, change your user name and password, and write them down. If you don’t, you can end up getting locked out of your Moodle when you log out and have to uninstall and go through the installation process again.

Option 2: Install Moodle + other web apps

Using the previous installation method makes it difficult to install other web apps alongside Moodle, e.g. WordPress, Joomla, or ownCloud. Luckily, BitNami provides a basic “-AMP stack” installer (AMP = Apache + MySQL + PHP) which allows you to install any number of web apps along side each other. This provides a base localhost server that you can install Moodle and other web apps onto:

Important! The BitNami -AMP stack installer will ask you to provide a database password. Write your database password down and keep it in a safe place. You’ll need it to install Moodle and other web apps. Now you’re ready to install Moodle. Here are the modules to download and run that install Moodle on your -AMP stack:

Important! Again, as with the stand-alone Moodle installer, when you have completed the installation process and you have your Moodle installation up and running, and you’re logged in, edit your user profile, change your user name and password, and write them down.

Moodle logoWhat’s next?

If you’re new to learning management systems in general and/or Moodle, please be aware that they are large, complicated, but powerful and flexible software and so it takes time and effort to learn to use them. Be patient with yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whatever your interest or area of expertise, there are many books, tutorials, and courses available to help get you started. I also recommend:

Using chat to facilitate more interactive classes

chatHere’s how you can make your face to face lessons more inclusive and interactive quickly and simply by using a chat session during class, and open up a range of benefits that aren’t immediately apparent.

How does it work?

Before a face to face lesson or lecture begins, the tutor/teacher/TA opens or schedules a chat room in the course on the school’s, organisation’s, college’s, university’s, or institution’s Moodle*. All the class participants login and join the chat session. They can use their laptops, netbooks, or mobile devices. Now everyone can submit questions, requests, and comments and everyone can see each others’ during the lesson or lecture.

*Or any chat client on an elearning platform that has appropriate user management, privacy, and oversight facilities (e.g. most commercial chat services such as Facebook, Google+ don’t allow right of audit, which is necessary addressing ethical and behavioural issues), and that admins, teachers, TAs, and learners can access transcripts of previous sessions for learning and professional development (PD) purposes.

How does this affect the classroom dynamic?

  • All learners, even in a relatively large class, have the opportunity to participate in significant and meaningful ways.
  • Learners don’t have to raise their hands to interrupt the flow of the class just to have their question, request, or comment expressed and considered.
  • Less gregarious learners don’t have to compete for attention/get noticed and can therefore contribute their questions, requests, or comments more easily; everyone has an equal voice.
  • Learners can see their peers’ questions, requests, or comments whether they are addressed/focused on or not in the lesson.
  • Teachers/tutors can choose which questions, requests, and comments, in what order, and when to address/focus on.
  • Points raised by learners can be dealt with appropriately and in a timely manner and never “get lost in the moment.”
  • The transcript of the chat session is an invaluable record of what actually happened and when during the class, making it an excellent resource for critical reflection.
  • Teachers/tutors can review the transcript to see where the lesson could be improved and/or consider alternatives.
  • Teachers/tutors can see who’s participating more or less than they should be and find out why.
  • Teachers/tutors can assess learners based on their participation both quantitively and qualitatively even if it didn’t get addressed/focused on in class.
  • There’s a record of questions, requests, and comments that it may not have been appropriate to address/focus on during the lesson but could provide productive avenues of inquiry in subsequent classes.

Could it also get learners off of Facebook during class?

New readability analysis filter for Moodle

Moodle Readability filter pluginThis is a quick announcement to let you know that I’ve just started a new plugin project for Moodle. It’s a filter module that analyses text on Moodle pages and rates their readability according to the six most popular readability formulas:

 When installed and activated, it will automatically analyse texts using one of the chosen readability formulas and print a small, discreet box at the top right of the analysed text, displaying the results. Moodle’s text filters apply to all text areas and so learning content and user generated texts will have their readability level/index displayed, for example in Pages, Books, Forums, Wikis, Glossaries, Assignments, Databases, Lessons, and Labels.

I’m interested in hearing any comments and suggestions you might have for possible uses, advantages, and/or limitations of this plugin. I’d also like to keep the discussion as widely accessible as possible to all members of the Moodle community. To that end, rather than post comments here (comments are now disabled on this blog) please participate the Moodle.org discussion thread for this plugin: https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=243715. It’s free and easy to join, it’s well moderated, and you’ll be in contact with thousands of other Moodlers.

The beta version of the plugin (still under development) is here. At the moment, I don’t recommend it for production sites as it hasn’t been extensively tested.

Readability of this article

  • Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease     47.6 / 100
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level     11
  • Gunning-Fog Score     12.2
  • Coleman-Liau Index     13.8
  • SMOG Index     9.7
  • Automated Readability Index     11.1
  • Average Grade Level     11.6

Update to SWF Activity Module for Moodle 1.9

SWF Activity Module logoThis is a quick update anouncement for the SWF Activity Module for Moodle 1.9. It fixes some issues that some users were experiencing with sending grades to Moodle’s grade book and some other functions. You can find the latest version released today on the project downloads page at Google Code.

What was the bug?

PHP 5.3 and above are becoming more widely used on servers that are hosting Moodle. Some of the old legacy core Moodle code contains functions that are deprecated in PHP 5.3 (some 400 or so instances of code) and are unlikely to be fixed. These deprecated functions trigger PHP to generate deprecation warnings, which in Moodle sometimes returns unexpected results that were interfering with the SWF Activity Module AMFPHP service classes. The result was that sometimes, grades weren’t being sent to Moodle’s grade book, and snapshot images from the Avatar camera and Concept Map MILAs weren’t being saved. It was an intermittent bug and difficult to track down but now, hopefully, everything should work for everyone all the time.

You can see some demos of the SWF Activity Module used to deploy Multimedia Interactive Learning Applications (MILAs) on the MILAs demo course on my R&D Moodle. You can login as a guest so no Moodle account is required.

SWF Activity Module for Moodle 2.5+

On a related topic, I’m nearing completion of a beta testing version of the SWF Activity Module for Moodle 2.5+. Please stay tuned for updates in the near future. You can subscribe to posts from this blog by clicking on the Follow tab on the bottom right of this page.

Dr. Rod Ellis: TESOL Written Corrective Feedback

Professor Rod Ellis, gave a presentation which is available on YouTube.com. In it, he focuses on written corrective feedback. I’ve written a basic summary below. Get a drink, a snack, your notebook, make yourself comfortable and enjoy an allusive, informative explanation of the current state of affairs regarding written corrective feedback; the types and strategies, what we know, what we don’t know and what we should do.

[jwplayer file=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wn35iHCljC8″]

Running time: 1:09:08

Why do we give written corrective feedback?

  1. To enable learners to revise their own writing, i.e. produce a better second draft
  2. To assist learner to acquire correct English

A Typology of corrective feedback types

  1. Strategies for providing corrective feedback
  2. How learners respond to the feedback

Written corrective feedback strategies

1. Direct written corrective feedback

Teachers provide correct form, i.e. crossing out an unnecessary word, phrase or morpheme, inserting a missing word, phrase or morpheme, inserting a missing word or morpheme, and writing the correct form above or near to the erroneous form (Ferris 2006)

  • Advantage – Provides learners with explicit guidance about how to correct their errors. Ferris and Roberts (2001) suggest direct written corrective feedback is probably better than indirect written corrective feedback with writers of low levels of language proficiency.
  • Disadvantage – It requires minimal processing on the part of the learner and thus, although it might help them to produce the correct form when they revise their writing, it may not contribute to long-term learning.

However, a recent study by Sheen (2007)* suggests that direct written corrective feedback can be effective in promoting acquisition of specific grammatical features (Low intermediate level learners).

* The effect of focused written corrective feedback and language aptitude on ESL learners.

2. Indirect written corrective feedback

Involves indicating that the learner has made an error but without actually correcting it. This can be done by underlining the errors or using cursors to show omissions in the learners’ text or by placing a cross in the margin next to the line containing the error. In effect, this involves deciding whether or not to show the precise location of the error, i.e. just indicate which line of text the error is on.


  • Caters to ‘guided learning and problem solving’ (Lalande 1982) and encourages learners to reflect on linguistic forms
  • Considered more likely to lead to long-term learning (Ferris and Roberts 2002)


  • Learners cannot correct if they do not know the correct form
  • Learners may be able to correct but will not be certain that they are correct

The results of studies that have investigated direct vs. indirect written corrective feedback are very mixed (cf. Lalande 1982 and Ferris and Robert’s 2002). No study to date (2012) has compared the effects on accuracy in new pieces of writing.

3. Metalinguistic written corrective feedback

Provides learners with some form of explicit comment about the nature of the errors they have made.

  • Use of error codes, i.e. abbreviated labels for different kinds of errors placed over the location of the error in the text or in the margin. e.g. art = article, prep = preposition, sp = spelling, ww = wrong word, t = tense, etc.
  • Metalinguistic explanations of their errors, e.g. numbering errors and providing metalinguistic comments at the end of the text.

Informal poll: learners were in favour of metalinguistic explanations but teachers were not. Rod Ellis suggested that it had something to do with hard work on the teachers’ part.

Studies on use of metalinguistic error codes

  • Lalande (1982) – A group of learners of L2 German that received correction using error codes improved in accuracy in subsequent writing whereas a group receiving direct correction made more errors. However, the difference between them was not statistically significant.
  • Robb at al (1986) – The use of error codes no more effective that three other types of written corrective feedback they investigated, i.e. direct feedback and two kinds of indirect feedback.
  • Ferris (2006) – Error codes helped learners to improve their accuracy over time in only two of the four categories of error she investigated, i.e. in total errors and verb errors but not in noun errors, article errors, lexical errors or sentence errors (e.g. word order errors).
  • Ferris and Roberts (2001) – Error codes helped learners to self-edit their writing but no more so than indirect feedback.

Overall then, there is very limited evidence to show that error codes help writers to achieve greater accuracy over time and it would also seem that they are no more effective than other types of written corrective feedback in assisting self-editing.

Studies on use of metalinguistic error explanations

This is less common than error codes. It’s time-consuming and calls for the teacher to be able to write clear and accurate explanations for a variety of errors.

Sheen (2007) compared direct and indirect metalinguistic written corrective feedback. Both were effective in increasing accuracy in the learners’ use of articles in subsequent writing completed immediately after the written corrective feedback treatment but the metalinguistic written corrective feedback proved more effective that the direct written corrective feedback in the long term, i.e. in a new piece of writing completed two weeks after the treatment.

Rod Ellis speculated that metalinguistic written corrective feedback forces learners to formulate some kind of rule about the particular grammatical feature and then they use this rule but it takes time for them to be able to use this rule effectively. Direct feedback might have an immediate effect but learners soon forget the correction, whereas if they’ve learned the rule, maybe it’s going to have a longer term effect on learners’ ability to avoid the errors.

4. Focus of the feedback

Focused vs. unfocused written corrective feedback

1. Focused written corrective feedback advantages, i.e. correcting just one type of error

  • provides multiple corrections of the same error
  • is more likely to be attended to by learners
  • is more likely to help learners to develop understanding of the nature of the error

2. Unfocused written corrective feedback advantage, i.e. correcting all or most of the errors

  • addresses a range of errors, so while it might not be as effective in assisting learners to acquire specific features as focused written corrective feedback in the short term, it may prove superior in the long term.

The distinction of focused and unfocused written corrective feedback applies to all of the previously discussed options. The bulk of written corrective feedback studies completed to date have investigated unfocused written corrective feedback. Sheen (2007) – Focused written corrective feedback, i.e. errors in the use of articles for the first and second mention, proved effective in promoting more accurate language use of this feature. However, to date (2012), there have been no studies comparing the relative effects of focused and unfocused written corrective feedback.

5. Electronic written corrective feedback

Extensive corpora of written English can be exploited to provide learners with assistance in their writing. Electronic resources provide learners with the means where they can appropriate the usage of more experienced writers.

An example of electronic written corrective feedback

“Mark My Words” (Milton 2006)

  1. An electronic store of approximately 100 recurrent lexico-grammatical and style errors that he found occurred frequently in the writing of Chinese learners
  2. A brief comment on each error an with links to resources showing the correct form
  3. Teachers use the electronic store to insert brief metalinguistic comments into learners’ text
  4. Learners consult the electronic resources to compare their usage with that illustrated in the samples of language made available. This assists learners to self-correct.
  5. An error log for each piece of writing, drawing learners’ attention to recurrent linguistic problems is generated

There has been no research to investigate whether this is effective or to investigate whether it has any actual effect on language acquisition, as measured in new pieces of writing.


  • Removes the need for the teacher to be the arbiter of what constitutes a correct form. Teachers’ intuitions about grammatical correctness are often fallible; arguably a usage-based approach is more reliable
  • Allows learners to locate the corrections that are most appropriate for their own textual intentions and encourages learner independence

6. Reformulation written corrective feedback

This involves native-speakers rewriting learners’ texts in such a way as ‘to preserve as many of the writers’ ideas as possible, while expressing them in their own words so as to make the pieces sound native-like’ (Cohen 1989: 4) The writers then revise their writing by deciding which of the native-speakers’ reconstructions to accept. In essence then, reformulation involves two options ‘direct correction’ + ‘revision’ but it differs from how these options are typically executed in the whole of the learners’ texts are reformulated thus laying the burden on learners to identify the specific changes that have been made.

Sachs and Polio’s (2007) study

  • This study compared reformulation and direct correction.
  • Learners were shown their reformulated/corrected stories and asked to study them for 20 minutes and take notes if they wanted.
  • One day later, they were given a clean sheet of paper and asked to revise their stories but without access to either the reformulated/corrected texts or the notes they had taken.
  • Both the reformulation and direct correction groups outperformed a control group. However, the correction group produced more accurate revisions than the reformulation group.
  • It should be noted, however, that reformulation serves also to draw learners’ attention to higher order stylistic and organisational errors.

Types of learner response

  1. Revision required
  2. No revisions required
    • Learners asked to study corrections
    • Learners just given back corrected text

Rod Ellis notes that learners may only look at their grade and nothing more if they aren’t required to study their corrected texts.

Ferris (2006) study

Ferris (2006) identified a number of revision categories in the re-drafts of 146 ESL learners’ essays. Out of the corrected errors:

  • 80.4% were eliminated in the redrafted compositions either by correcting the error or by deleting the text containing the error or by making a correct substitution.
  • 9.9% of the errors were incorrectly revised
  • 9.9% no change was made

Overall, research shows that written corrective feedback assists revision. Ferris’ descriptors were as follows:

Label Description
Error corrected Error corrected per teacher’s marking.
Incorrect change Change was made but incorrect.
No change No response to the correction was apparent.
Deleted text Student deleted marked text rather than attempting correction.
Substitution, correct Student invented a correction that was not suggested by the teacher’s marking.
Substitution, incorrect Student incorrectly made a change that was not suggested by the teacher’s marking.
Teacher-induced error Incomplete or misleading teacher marking caused by student error.
Averted erroneous teacher marking Student corrected error despite incomplete or erroneous teacher marking.

An important theoretical issue

Theories of language learning differ in the importance they attach to:

  • Noticing the feedback in input
  • Revising the correct linguistic forms in output

But no research has addressed this issue.

Chandlers’ (2002) study

This compared indirect written corrective feedback plus the opportunity to revise with indirect written corrective feedback with no opportunity to revise. Results:

  • Accuracy improved from the first to the fifth piece of writing significantly more in the group that was required to correct their errors than in the group that just received indication of their errors
  • This increase in accuracy was not accompanied by any decrease in fluency

However, this study cannot be used to claim that written corrective feedback with revision contributes to L2 learning as there was no control group, i.e. a group that received no written corrective feedback. Rod Ellis notes that a great weakness of studies that have investigated written corrective feedback is that the studies have had no control groups and this makes it very difficult to say whether the written corrective feedback is actually having any effect on learning.


The situated nature of written corrective feedback

Hyland and Hyland (2006) commented, ‘it may be … that what is effective feedback for one student in one setting is less so in another’ (p.88).
A sociocultural perspective on written corrective feedback would emphasise the need to adjust the type of written corrective feedback offered to learners to suit their stage of development (Aljaafreh and Lantolf 1994) although how this can be achieved practically remains unclear in the case of written corrective feedback.

By teachers

Teachers need to consider the various options and formulate an explicit policy for correcting errors in learners’ written work. They also need to subject their policy to evaluation by evaluating the effects of their error correction, e.g. through action research.

By researchers

There is an obvious need for carefully designed studies to further investigate the effects of written corrective feedback in general and of different types of written corrective feedback. Guenette (2007) observed that is is important that studies are conducted in a way that make them comparable but sadly that has not typically been the case. A typology of written corrective feedback provides a classification of one of the key variables in written corrective feedback studies – the type of written corrective feedback – which can serve as a basis for research.