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.

Finally

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.

Instant, simple video conferencing for free

appear.inThe following is a quick, simple “How to… ” guide for setting up instant, free, “no frills”, easy to use, multi-way video conferencing and chat in Moodle for up to 8 people at a time. It also works on any web page as you see in the embedded room at the bottom of this article.

How to embed appear.in in Moodle

  1. Go to https://appear.in/,
  2. create a video/chat room,
  3. copy the URL link,
  4. in Moodle, create a page (Page resource module),
  5. in the Moodle HTML editor, click on the show source code button <>,
  6. copy (Ctrl + c) and paste (Ctrl + v) the following code: https://appear.in/room
  7. replace [room] with the name of the room you created in step 2,
  8. and save the Moodle page.

There are also options to claim a room as your own and lock it so that only users with the correct password can access it. If you lock a room with password protection, you can simply put the password at the top of the Moodle page where you’ve embedded the appear.in room.

If you want to record conferencing sessions, you can use one of the many screen recording applications that are available. A good free and open source one for Linux systems is Record My Desktop. Here’s a list of screen recording software for other operating systems.

What is appear.in?

According to their terms of service:

“Appear.in is a web based video conversation service that allows you to have video conversations with others in the browser simply by having individual participants typing in the same URL in the browser window. Typing in the same URL will make the participants appear in the same room where you can talk to each other with voice and text chat and see each other with transmitted video. You do not have to install any software or plugins to use appear.in. You also do not have to register or log in to use the service.

Video and sound communicated in appear.in, is only seen by the people who are present in a room at the time the content is communicated. It is not disclosed to anyone who are not present in a room. You should be aware that by default a room is open, so anyone who knows the url can enter the room simply by typing the URL in the browser. If anyone enters a room you are present in, you can see them in the room. You can prevent others from entering a room by locking the room. When a room is locked, only room owners can enter a room.

Chat messages communicated in a room can be seen by people who are present in the room when the message is sent and by people who enter the room during the same chat session. A session ends when there are no people in a room any more. At this time, all messages sent in the chat session will be deleted and can no longer be viewed by anyone.

You can claim a room as your own room. This will give you control over the room, and give you the ability to customize it for your own communication needs. When you claim a room, you enter your email address. You will then get an email containing a link that provides access to the owner privileges for the room. Room owners can customize a room e.g. by setting the background image in the room and by using other customisation options that is or may be provided in the service in the future. Only room owners can set the lock for rooms that have been claimed and the lock will be retained when everyone has left the room so you need the room code to enter back into the room. A crown symbol will be shown on the video feed of a room owner to make it apparent who is the owner.

You can follow a room by clicking the “follow” symbol. Following a room implies that you will be notified whenever someone enters a room you are following, even though you are not currently in the room yourself. You can click the notification to enter the room and have a conversation with those that entered the room.

We retain the right to create limits on use and storage at our sole discretion at any time without prior notice to you.”

Source: appear.in – Terms of Service

Example video conferencing room @ appear.in/matbury.com

https://appear.in/matbury.com

Disclaimer

I have no affiliation with appear.in or anyone associated with them. I have written this article based on my own use of the service with learners and it should not be considered as an endorsement. I am not responsible for anyone under any circumstances who decides to use the appear.in service.

Free and low-cost Moodle hosting options

MoodleEvery year, web hosting and installing web apps becomes less technically demanding, quicker, and simpler and it’s getting to the point nowadays where it’s a consumer level endeavour. Here’s a few of the easiest low-cost options for hosting Moodle that I’ve seen so far.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of the hosting providers mentioned in this article, neither am I endorsing any of their services. I’m citing them, without prejudice, as examples of types of Moodle hosting and they are by no means the best or only options that are available.

Why not use a regular web hosting service?

By “regular” I mean website hosting providers like GoDaddy, BlueHost, HostGator, etc. that are aimed at individuals and small businesses who only want to set up and blog or website to offer information, contact details, product and service catalogues, shopping carts, news, small downloads, etc.

Moodle 2.x is a large, powerful, and resource hungry piece of software. It’s a content management system, contacts and messaging management system, course management system, and can deploy multiple instances of discussion forums, wikis, blogs, presentations, documentation, multimedia resources, etc.. In other words, it requires a web hosting service that is more powerful than what most websites do. Using a regular web hosting service for Moodle is like using a car when you need a truck. The price gap between a website that runs WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal (a shared hosting service from about $5 per month) to a website that can handle Moodle (dedicated servers from about $80 per month) is a large jump and prohibitive to people who just want to try it out or run small, experimental, and/or exploratory projects (e.g. for research).

Are there cheaper ways to host or use Moodle?

Yes, there are. Here’s a few examples:

MoodleCloud[update 2015-07-05] MoodleCloud

Moodle Pty., the people who develop Moodle are now offering free Moodle accounts on their cloud hosting platform. It works in the same way as MDL2.com (see below) but has the following restrictions:

  • 50 users maximum
  • 200Mb disk space
  • Core themes and plugins only
  • Requires a mobile phone number to verify your identity

However, it does also include use of BigBlueButton, the free and open source video web conferencing and virtual classroom system for up to 6 users at a time.

Linkhttps://moodle.com/cloud/

FreeMoodle.org FreeMoodle.org

If you’re a complete beginner and just want to try out Moodle as a teacher and course content developer, and/or curriculum developer, you can get started for free with FreeMoodle.org. This service has been running consistently and, as far as I know, under the same terms of service for as long as I’ve been using Moodle (Since 2006).

Pricing: Free for your own course(s) but very limited admin controls or privileges and on your courses only.

Link: http://www.freemoodle.org/

If you don’t need an online Moodle and only want it for personal use, you can install it on your personal computer, on Windows, OS X, or Linux. Please see this article: Update: Do you want to get started with Moodle?

In the past few months, I’ve come across a couple of new Moodle hosting service providers that I think offer good value for money. They are:

MDLSpot.com

This is a shared hosting service which runs one installation of the Moodle software but creates multiple instances of Moodle so that everyone can set up their very own Moodle and have admin access and control over the entire instance (WordPress.com operates in a similar way). AFAIK, you can’t install any 3rd party plugins or extensions yourself, so you’re limited to what standard Moodle can do “out of the box” plus a few “pre-approved” plugins and extensions.

Pricing: They don’t publish their pricing but they informed me that they charge something similar to Amazon Web Services usage rates (you pay per hour for what resources you use) which starts at around $200 USD per year. I suggest contacting them to confirm exactly how much your Moodle hosting would cost and what plugins and extensions they make available.

Link: http://www.mdlspot.com/

MDL2.comMDL2.com

This is an advertising supported service, i.e. free if you allow advertising in your courses (which may or may not be appropriate). Again, you get your own “out of the box” Moodle and have admin access to it.

Pricing: Advertising supported

Link: http://www.mdl2.com/

Here’s a list of free and ad supported Moodle hosting services.

Bitnami.comBitnami.com

Bitnami.com are more than just a Moodle hosting service. They’re a full cloud hosting service provider, mostly aimed at web developers, that have also developed a number of consumer level, user friendly website installation systems and services. If you create a Moodle instance with them, you get a virtual private server (VPS) which allows you sysadmin level access. This gives you almost complete freedom to install and add whatever features to Moodle and also install other software alongside it, meaning you can do some very advanced things with Bitnami that most low-cost web hosting services don’t allow.

BTW, Moodle is designed to be run on a “LAMP stack” (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) so Windows hosting options are not advisable.

Pricing: https://bitnami.com/cloud/pricing (See the FAQs at the bottom of the page; They offer very favourable terms and conditions). A “micro instance” with Moodle installed starts at around $200 USD per year.

AWS pricing: http://aws.amazon.com/pricing/ If you’ve ever bought anything from Amazon, e.g. books, movies, electronics, or whatever, you already have an Amazon account. All you have to do is activate an Amazon Web Services account.

Link: https://bitnami.com/stack/moodle

Finally

These are just a few examples of the options available and there are many more. If you know of any others or are a service provider that offers low-cost hosting services capable of supporting Moodle (2.5 and later), please let me know.

Discussion

You can follow and participate in the Moodle.org community’s response to this article here.

Ratings systems on social platforms can have unexpected effects

Plane in downward spiralThis is a quick post to share a recently published paper, How Community Feedback Shapes User Behavior, that examines the effects of ratings systems and up/down voting on social networking platforms and services. I go on to discuss some questions it raises for online social learning.

Abstract

Here’s the abstract to How Community Feedback Shapes User Behavior:

“Social media systems rely on user feedback and rating mechanisms for personalization, ranking, and content filtering. However, when users evaluate content contributed by fellow users (e.g., by liking a post or voting on a comment), these evaluations create complex social feedback effects. This paper investigates how ratings on a piece of content affect its author’s future behavior. By studying four large comment-based news communities, we find that negative feedback leads to significant behavioral changes that are detrimental to the community. Not only do authors of negatively-evaluated content contribute more, but also their future posts are of lower quality, and are perceived by the community as such. Moreover, these authors are more likely to subsequently evaluate their fellow users negatively, percolating these effects through the community. In contrast, positive feedback does not carry similar effects, and neither encourages rewarded authors to write more, nor improves the quality of their posts. Interestingly, the authors that receive no feedback are most likely to leave a community. Furthermore, a structural analysis of the voter network reveals that evaluations polarize the community the most when positive and negative votes are equally split.”

Summary of findings

  • The findings of the study appear to contradict the Skinnerian behaviourist model of operant conditioning (i.e. punishments and rewards or “sticks and carrots”).
  • Up/Down-votes and commenting provide a means for social interaction and “this can create social feedback loops that affect the behavior of the author whose content was evaluated, as well as the entire community.”
  • Authors of down-voted comments/posts tend to post more frequently and their comments/posts tend to be of lower quality.
  • Down-voted authors are also more likely to subsequently down-vote others’ comments/posts.
  • Down-voting tends to percolate throughout online communities having an overall negative effect.
  • Up-voting doesn’t appear to influence authors’ subsequent comments/posts in any significant way.
  • If comment/post authors receive no feedback, they are more likely to disengage with the community, i.e. fewer comments/posts and less up/down-voting.

The article concludes that ignoring/tolerating negative behaviour in online communities, i.e. giving no feedback whatsoever, is a more effective approach at discouraging it than addressing it directly, e.g. down-voting.

How does this relate to online social learning?

Firstly, we should be cautious about drawing any conclusions about online discussions and learning activities in online social learning. Firstly, the researchers report that, “…we have mostly ignored the content of the discussion, as well as the context in which the post appears… “, which can have significant and far reaching effects on the behaviour and interactions between participants.

Secondly, the social dynamics of social constructivist oriented online courses can be very different: The study focused on massive groups of self-selected users participating in communities based around popular media and entertainment websites, whereas in elearning, we’re typically dealing with smaller cohorts of learners who, at least in an ideal world, establish an atmosphere of mutual support, shared responsibility, and explicitly shared common purpose that is effectively moderated by skilled, experienced mediators/facilitators, e.g. teachers, teaching assistants, and/or moderators.

Rethinking the design of ratings systems

In my opinion, this paper raises more questions for elearning practitioners than it answers, which is a good thing:

  • How do learners use ratings systems and how does this affect their future behaviour in online learning communities? Is it significantly different to the users’ behaviour on social media sites?
  • Is it possible to design ratings/feedback systems that have more positive effects or at least avoid the potential negative effects reported in the paper?
  • How would the range of ratings options available to users affect the way they rate and comment, e.g. if you only include positive options in ratings?
  • How would providing ratings options that are more specific to the learning objectives of the particular learning activity affect the quality and quantity of comments and quantity of ratings?
  • What factors/influences affect learners’ behaviour in online learning communities more significantly with regard to ratings and comments? e.g. Does the degree of familiarity, mutual respect, and trust affect how learners respond to negative and critical ratings and comments?

Some example suggestions

In an earlier article, Implementing star-ratings in Moodle, I described how teachers and curriculum developers can create custom ratings in Moodle. As well as simple star-ratings, I listed some possible options which included Likert scales, prompts, showing interest, and expressing personal alignment, e.g. “This is(n’t) like me” statements. Most of these omit negative or neutral ratings, my reasoning being that, in order to give negative or critical feedback, learners and/or teachers have to take the time and effort to write sensitively phrased, personalised, specific, reasonable, constructive criticism, ideally with some kind of “what to do next”, so that it’s not just negative or critical but that it’s also helpful and purposeful in some way.

One strategy that springs to mind is to use ratings systems that, rather than ratings that suggest learners are being graded, i.e. “good vs. bad” comments, provide a set of prompts and/or questions and therefore are a convenient and helpful tool to encourage further participation. If learners have little experience of social learning and/or maybe need some initial support and guidance, having a convenient list of prompts/questions at hand could be helpful. For example:

Self-reliance questions

  • How do you determine this to be true?
  • Why don’t you consider a different route to the problem?
  • Why does that answer make sense to you?
  • What if I say that’s not true?

Reasoning questions

  • Why do you think this works? Does it always, why?
  • How do you think this is true?
  • Show how you might prove that.
  • Why assume this?
  • How might you argue against this?

Clarifying questions

  • Can you explain that in another way?
  • How does this relate to [discussion topic]?
  • Can you be more specific?
  • Can you give us an example?
  • Please tell us more about this.

Finally

It’s worth mentioning that a strong characteristic of these questions and prompts is that they are intended to stimulate analytical and critical thinking, which we usually expect to hear from teachers and mentors rather than from our peers. Learners don’t automatically assume that such questions and prompts are welcome or appropriate from their peers. In order for them to be positive and productive, participants should already be inducted into a familiar, trusting, mutually respectful and supportive group of peers, who all explicitly share a common purpose, i.e. learning objectives and/or “big/essential questions,” in a collaborative climate.

Discussion

I’ve started a discussion thread for this article on the Moodle.org community forums: https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=261124 Joining the Moodle community is quick, easy, and free.

Image credit Wikimedia Commons

Are teacher-led and learner-led approaches compatible?

tug of warAs learner-led/learner-centred learning and teaching oriented methods and principles gain attention and popularity, teachers, curriculum developers, and instructional designers are incorporating them into learning activities and courses. Many report mixed results and issues when they do so. The following article examines one possible contributing factor to such results and issues.

Defining terms

Firstly, I’m not arguing that teacher-led and learner-led views of learning and teaching practice are absolutes or binary states. I view them as being on the same scale from extremely prescribed and controlled by the teacher, e.g. the stereotypical Victorian school master, through to entirely self-organised, defined, controlled, and sustained learning by autonomous learners themselves, e.g. special interest groups and communities of practice, and I believe that most online curricula and learning and teaching practices are situated somewhere in between.

Teacher-led <————————————————-> Learner-led

Teacher vs. learner-led scale

When tensions arise

With the best of intentions and carefully and skilfully constructed learning activities, teachers, curriculum developers, and IDs can inadvertently create relational and motivational tensions between teachers and learners, and among cohorts of learners by the way they mix teacher-led and learner-led activities. Here’s a typical case scenario:

An experienced, well-informed teacher has developed an online course that is predominantly teacher-led. The course uses online presentations, readings, webinars, and forum discussions which are intensively monitored led by the teacher. The teacher conscientiously provides guidance, instructional scaffolding, and links to further resources at every turn. The teacher then decides to introduce some learner-led projects, problems, or tasks to the course (Perhaps as a way to make the course less labour intensive for the teacher?).

However, only a small minority of the learners participate as much as expected and/or required, and the majority go “off track”, waste time, and/or complain about aspects of the activity or the whole activity. The learning outcomes are mediocre at best or even poor, and it’s difficult to regain the previous “learning momentum” of the course.

Why did this happen? Is there something wrong with the activity? Is there some way to make it more productive? I suspect that in most cases, the activity is adequately designed and not the main contributor to the issue.

What contributes to these tensions?

If a course is predominantly teacher-led to start with, it creates an atmosphere and learning experiences that set up learners’ expectations that are aligned with being led and having critical learning decisions being made for them, or the feeling that any decisions they make need to be validated or approved by an authority figure; the teacher.

Additionally, some of the prerequisite conditions necessary for learner-led learning to occur, e.g. social presence and building autonomous, mutually respectful, and productive relationships between teachers and learners, and among the learners themselves, may not be in place and may have gone unnoticed since they aren’t critical to the success of teacher-led approaches. When suddenly faced with the responsibility of thinking autonomously, analytically, and critically, and having to work closely with peers, who they may or may not have got to know very well, and without the supervision, guidance, and approval of their authority figure (the teacher), the majority of learners’ expectations are not met; they feel lost, unsupported, and confused.

In my experience, the majority of learners are perfectly capable of being autonomous, thinking analytically and critically, and taking responsibility for their learning; most people do so from an early age in their public and private lives outside of education. However, because of most people’s previous experiences of education and strongly held cultural beliefs about it, we need to be explicit when asking learners to do so in situations and environments labelled “educational” and cultivate the atmosphere, and provide the environment, support, and resources that are necessary. Learners need to get to know each other and learn about what each of their peers on a course has to offer with regards to the subject matter and learning objectives. They need to build interpersonal relationships and cultivate trust so that they have the confidence to explore, experiment, and take risks and feel that they have the interest, approval, and support of their peers as well as their teacher.

In conclusion

I’m not arguing here that teacher-led and learner-led methods and activities are inherently incompatible, just that from what I’ve seen in practice in the majority of instances, both in face-to-face and online contexts, tensions and issues can and do arise when certain conditions and factors aren’t taken into consideration. When we break with educational traditions and orthodoxies, and/or atmospheres of learning that have been cultivated within organisations, we need to be explicit about what we’re doing and why, and ensure that the prerequisite conditions are in place for learner-directed learning experiences to be purposeful, successful, and productive.