Dictations made easy!

Dictations are a very difficult activity to get right. Traditional computer based dictations are usually a quite awkward, unhelpful and ultimately frustrating experience to say the least. The idea of this learning application is for it to be more of an enjoyable exploratory, learning activity than a listening test. So far it has been my most popular activity among learner test groups.

Listen First

Learners first listen to the entire audio recording. The recording in reality is a collection of recordings of individual sentences that the Flash learning application plays in sequence. The learning application is dynamic, which means it automatically loads all the text and audio that it needs and creates the learning interaction. No programming is necessary. If you change the text and audio, or if you want to display it in a larger or smaller area, the learning application adjusts automatically.

Learners listen to the entire recording once as a preamble. Then he/she can listen to each sentence of the recording individually by clicking on the blue play buttons at the start of each sentence and type in the words.

Individual sentences and time-stretched audio

Next to the play buttons are “time-stretched” buttons. These play alternative recordings which have been time-stretched. Time-stretching is a sophisticated process by which a sound is lengthened or slowed down without altering the pitch. It makes rapid speech slower and therefore easier to understand. It’s a natural way for learners to get used to hearing and understanding connected speech.

Interactive text input

As learners type, the letters are immediately colour coded red, amber and green, giving intuitive feedback and encouragement to keep trying. As words are successfully completed, they are ‘locked down’ so that the learner is unable to accidentally change the completed words to incorrect ones.

You can try out the Flash interactive dictation activity by logging in to my Learning Management System . Select “Login as a guest”. Please feel free to post a comment or ask a question below.

What the research says

SCORM: The Pros and Cons


With e-learning becoming more widely adopted by schools, universities, governments and private companies for their educational and training needs, SCORM has become the de facto format. But should we really be adopting it?

What is SCORM?

SCORM, or the Sharable Content Object Reference Model, is a widely used web standard for e-learning interactions. It promises cross-platform compatibility and a homogenised approach to deploying e-learning resources but at what cost?

What are the advantages of SCORM?

  • A wide range of 3rd party support
  • You can buy ready made e-learning interactions
  • Supported by most Learning Management Systems or Virtual Learning Environments
  • Learning interactions can, in theory at least, be transferred from one LMS/VLE to another

Since SCORM was adopted by the US military in 2004, a number of agencies, consultancies and organisations have sprung up to offer SCORM resources and support, including software packages for authoring and packaging learning interactions.  Additionally, most Learning Management Systems or Virtual Learning Environments can deploy SCORM compliant learning interaction packages and if, at some point in the future, you decide to change to another Learning Management System, you can transfer them… well, in theory (see disadvantages).

What are the disadvantages of SCORM?

  • Limited selection of types of activities
  • Inherently insecure
  • Difficult to edit and correct ‘typos’
  • Very complicated format
  • ‘Compliance’ doesn’t guarantee that learning interactions will function correctly on your LMS/VLE
  • Learning interactions use a lot of Internet bandwidth and server storage space
  • Learning interactions take a long time to download

Firstly, I consider the main drawback to SCORM being it’s limited selection of types of activities. They are true or false, multiple choice, fill in the gap and multiple matching and a few variations of these types. As a teacher, I don’t expect my students to learn a great deal from such activities and I don’t think that they’re a very effective way of testing learners’ abilities or knowledge either.

Secondly, SCORM is inherently insecure. It requires the learner’s computer to store all the data related to a particular learning interaction, including the answers, usually in the web browser cache. It’s pretty easy to go and find the directory where those files are stored and look at them. On a Windows 2000 or Windows XP operating system, using Internet Explorer, you can change Tools… > Folder Options > View > Hidden files and folders > Show hidden files and folders and you’ll find the browser cache at C:Documents and SettingsusernameLocal SettingsTemporary Internet Files, and  Firefox provides a direct link to its browser cache.

Another security concern is that Adobe Flash abandoned support for SCORM after Flash MX 2004, also known as Flash (version) 6. It’s possible to author SCORM compliant e-learning applications in subsequent versions of Flash but they must be published in the MX 2004 legacy format. Likewise, the majority of software packages for authoring Flash e-learning applications for SCORM publish them in older, pre-Flash 9, formats. In the last few years, a number of high-level security threats have been identified in pre-Flash 9 files, allowing attackers to inject malicious software into users’ computers among other things. Read this article at Adobe.com for more details.

Another thing is, we’re all human beings and we all make mistakes. It’s frustrating when you think you’ve finished authoring a learning interaction and deploy it on a Learning Management System or Virtual Learning Environment and test it only to find that you’ve misspelled a few words, made a few typos or something similar (or your proofreaders have missed something). Most web-authoring tools allow you to easily go back and correct those inevitable mistakes by simply typing in the correct spelling, punctuation, etc. This isn’t so with SCORM. You’re required to re-author the learning interaction package and re-deploy it.

It also isn’t possible for SCORM packages, despite the word ‘sharable’ in the name (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) , to share resources. If you have images, audio recordings or videos that are used by all or several learning interactions, SCORM requires you to deploy copies of those media files in each and every package. This can result in a Learning Management System or Virtual Learning Environment using up many times more Internet bandwidth and server storage space than is necessary and also make updating those resources and long and tedious process. Basically, someone has to re-author every single learning interaction package. Perhaps that would be a job reserved for the “new employee” in the department?

In terms of how cost effective SCORM can be, I conducted an informal survey with administrators and teachers who use SCORM and I discovered that it was quite normal to deploy learning interaction packages of around 80MB – 100MB, the smallest being 15MB,  giving download times of anywhere up to 4 minutes before the learner can start the learning interaction (The average YouTube.com video is around 10MB and, of course, runs on Google’s impressive global data infrastructure – Watch the progress bar to see how long it takes to download). Additionally, Internet bandwidth and storage space on servers are expensive and should be kept as low as possible. If you multiply 80MB by the number packages on a course and by the number of students downloading them, you can see that bandwidth usage, in particular, can get pretty high. Such large file sizes and high bandwidth usage are, in my opinion, unnecessary and wasteful.

Finally, SCORM is incredibly complicated and difficult to understand. Here’s an extract from a user’s post on Moodle SCORM support forums:

“Right now I’m trying to figure out how to do basic SCORM compliancy (e.g. I have an authorware file with pictures of my cats and their names, buttons are there, one even has a quiz question)  How do I go from there to saying “Haha!  This is SCORM Compliant!  These are the steps to follow to ensure our product complies and we get paid!”  I’ve downloaded the tools off of adlnet, and I’m driving myself crazy at this point.”

And the reply:

“I feel your pain. I spent the last two years hoping for such a solution, and the bottom line is that the solution only exists by pouring over the documentation on the ADLnet.org site. Here’s the nutshell, but if you do a project for the navy with only this information, you will run into trouble. The best I can do for you is point you to ADLs “SCORM 2004 Conformance Requirements” pdf file and offer my consulting services. I lived on the ADL product downloads page while I was learning to develop for the SCORM.”

I think that with the amount of time and resources an organisation could spend on adopting SCORM and providing IT support, it might in some cases, be more cost effective to develop proprietry frameworks for authoring and deploying e-learning interactions. It would certainly be less time-consuming to use one of the many alternatives available.

To sum up…

So initially, SCORM seems to offer a great deal in terms of interoperability and support but there are less than obvious drawbacks that can increase costs in terms of bandwidth and IT support. Furthermore it can present serious security risks to your Internet/Intranet servers and users’ computers.

There are better technologies available which are more secure, cheaper to install and maintain and more efficient. For example, it’s possible to deploy all the activities specified by SCORM with Moodle’s native Quiz module which is database driven, which means it’s relatively easy to edit and update,  and relatively efficient. There are also faster, smarter, more efficient technologies on the horizon with Flash, the Flex Framework and Adobe AIR (all version 9 or above) being the platforms of choice for the e-learning applications of the future.


New SWF Activity Module under development

Relates to: Moodle, Flash, SWFObject, AMFPHP

The most widely used and accepted platform for e-learning today is Adobe Flash. It brings the full power of multimedia (images, audio, video, text and animation) and dynamic interactivity to your computer. The most widely used open source platform for hosting and deploying e-learning resources is Moodle. Respectively, both platforms offer all the functionality you would expect for e-learning but there’s one major obstacle: they’re not very easy to combine.

What’s the new project?

I’ve started development on a new SWF Activity Module, a plugin for Moodle, that I hope will provide a comprehensive solution for Flash developers who want to create e-learning applications for Moodle and teachers and course content developers who want to create e-learning interactions that make full use of the possibilities offered by Flash.

Why develop this plugin?

In my opinion, this is something that has been long overdue and there have been previous attempts, most notably Jamie Pratt’s Flash Activity Module. Unfortunately, it was developed for Flash MX 2004 or Version 6.0, while we’re currently at Version 10, and is not forwardly compatible. So while e-learning and Flash speed ahead with ever more useful and powerful functions, anyone using this module gets left behind. The other solution currently available is an e-learning standard format developed by the US military called SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model). While there is a lot of support available for this standard, it is very complicated and difficult to implement and it requires a high degree of specialist knowledge. Ask any IT support employee or e-learning developer about it!

How far has the project got?

So far, I have a working beta version that can deploy Flash e-learning applications of any version relatively simply and easily. A teacher or course content developer can now create e-learning interactions by combining Flash e-learning applications with media resource files. This is traditionally done with XML but the SWF Activity Module also supports a technology called Flash Remoting or AMF (Action Message Format) which is a very fast, efficient and versatile way for Flash e-learning applications to communicate with Moodle and other server-side applications. Learning applications will be able to retrieve all the data they need, i.e. images, audio, video, text and animations, to present sophisticated learning interactions and also pass back data about what learners do and how well they do it.

The SWF Activity Module learning interactions default database is organised so that one set of learning interaction data and media files, for example elementary vocabulary related to everyday objects, can be used by different Flash e-learning applications to dynamically create different learning interactions so that learners can practise and recycle the vocabulary in several different ways, i.e. matching images and recordings, dictations, questions and answers, word searches, etc. thereby consolidating their knowledge and skills.

What’s next?

There are two more main stages to the SWF Activity Module’s development. Firstly, to integrate the module with Moodle’s gradebook so that users’ grades can be recorded there along with other activities. I’ll most probably include a more comprehensive grading and results system specifically for Flash e-learning applications. And secondly, to provide a user-friendly interface for teachers and course content creators to create learning interactions by uploading the media files and entering data into Moodle’s database, or more simply put, putting images, audio, video, texts, questions and answers together so that Flash e-learning interactions can present lessons to learners.

Can I try it out?

You can see documentation for the SWF Activity Module here. There are some example learning interactions and video tutorial demonstrations available on a demo course my Moodle. Select “Login as a guest”. There is no need to create a user account. If you would like to see the editing controls in action and create a simple word search learning interaction for yourself, please contact me.

New FLV Player Module for Moodle

Relates to: Moodle, SWFObject, JW FLV Player

I’ve spent quite some time experimenting with video in Moodle. I’ve been looking for a reliable way to deploy video as an e-learning resource that will work across all platforms: Windows XP, Windows Vista, Mac OSX and Linux. So far, the most widely accepted video format has been Flash Video, otherwise known as FLV. FLV is used by most of the major media companies with a presence on the Internet, including YoutubeGoogle, Yahoo!, CNN and the BBC to mention but a few.

I’ve found that Moodle, as it stands (versions 1.8 and 1.9), is not the easiest possible way to deploy FLV video. Furthermore, if you want to add captioning, subtitles, links, etc. it becomes so difficult that you need to call in a developer or somebody who’s pretty well informed about IT, web design and server-side scripting. Even something as simple as displaying an image before the video starts. It’s certainly not for the average teacher or course content developer!

Well, I’ve decided that there has to be an easier way. I’ve developed a new plugin module that deploys FLV video in as user-friendly a way as I can. I used the JW FLV Player because it’s the most powerful and versatile Internet based FLV Player at the moment and only required a small one-off licence fee of €30 to use it on a website. It has too many features to mention in this article but you can get a good idea of what it’s capable of in the FLV Player Activity Module documentation.

I have a demonstration of the Moodle FLV Player Activity Module installed on my learning management system. The demo course allows guest access so there’s no need to create an account. If you would like editing privileges so that you can see how easy it is to use, please contact me. Alternatively, if you are already a Moodle user with administrator privileges, you can download and install the module for yourself.

I’ve released the FLV Player Activity Module under the GPL open source licence, which means that it’s free and you can change it or add to it in any way you like. If you make any changes to it, please let me know what you’ve done and why. Equally, if there are any changes or adaptations that you’d like to see made, let me know. If it’s something that would benefit the whole community, I’ll most probably include it in the next release.

The FLV Player project is hosted on Google Code with tutorials and sample downloads. It’s entirely free and you can download and install it in your Moodle in a couple of minutes. Click here.

I have a demo course on my Moodle where you can view some examples of the FLV Player module in action and also view a tutorial video demonstration on how to use it. Click here and select “Login as a guest”. There is no need to create a user account.

Flash Remoting

Flash Remoting has been getting a lot of attention from developers in recent months. But what is it and why should we care?

In a nutshell, Flash Remoting is a way to let Flash applications on your computer ( i.e. in a browser such as Internet Explorer and Firefox or an AIR desktop application) communicate directly with a website. It’s fast and powerful and opens up new worlds of possibilities for RIAs (rich internet applications). This means that web developers can now create complex, interactive applications that you access on the Internet but look, feel and have all the sophistication and functions that you would expect from a desktop program like Microsoft Word.

OK, that’s not really a nutshell. Show me what you mean!

A simple example of an RIA is the Google Maps API for Flash. They provide an SDK (software development kit) for Flash which simplifies the process of retrieving map information from the Google Maps API (application programming interface). Now, Flash developers can write customised Flash applications that communicate directly with Google Maps and get map data stored on their databases. I created a simple demo which I posted on this blog earlier: Google Maps API.

Another example is eBay who have already published a desktop RIA of their auction website which communicates directly with eBay’s API (application programming interface) to provide a much slicker, faster, feature rich experience.

So what does this mean for e-learning?

This opens up a whole new world of possibilities for integrating Flash with learning management systems and information services. Flash will be able to directly use databases and rich media to create fast, efficient interactive multimedia applications for learners, course content developers and teachers. Many of the processes can be automated and made to be re-usable therefore cutting down on development time and costs.

In the not too distant future, we’ll see advanced learning interactions that can incorporate web services from Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, Skype, eBay, Google Web Services including Google Talk, Amazon Web Services… and the list is growing. We’ll see images, audio, video and animations being used more dynamically and with increasing complexity to provide truly amazing immersive learning experiences. We can look forward to collaborating with  classmates and teachers in virtual environments and interacting with text, images, audio, video, realtime 3D objects and animation. The possibilities are endless!

Added Advantages

As well as being faster, Flash Remoting has other benefits too. The traditional XML file based approach to send lesson data, i.e. questions, answers, texts, settings, etc. has a very serious drawback – browsers store lesson data in learners’ browser caches* which can be easily retrieved by learners so they’ll be able to read ALL the learning activity data. Even with the commonly adopted SCORM standard, this is still the case. Not very good if it’s a test or exam that gives learners credits or final grades! With Flash remoting, however, the data is loaded directly into Flash Player’s memory and is very difficult to access.

* Browsers, i.e. Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, etc. store files downloaded from websites in a special directory called a browser cache. If you return to a particular web-page, the browser checks to see if it still has a copy of any files downloaded in its cache and if it does, it simply uses that one and doesn’t download it from the website. It’s a good idea because it means your web browser has less data to download and your browsing experience will be faster.It is supposedly possible to tell browsers not to use cached files for certain pages but the standard is different across different browsers and in many cases it doesn’t work either!

OUP EFL/ESL On-Line Resources

Oxford University Press is the biggest university press in the world (Cambridge University Press is the second). It publishes an impressive catalogue of EFL/ESL course books that are used is academies, schools and universities and by individuals around the globe. Over the last year or so they’ve been very busy creating a complementary set of on-line resources to accompany their course books.

What’s the big deal?

I think OUP have made a very astute move, in marketing terms, by providing these resources. As you most probably already know, there’s already a plethora of free on-line EFL/ESL resources for students and teachers on the web, some of them high quality, especially on the BBC’s Learning English website and some of them not so high quality. The major drawback of most on-line resources is that they don’t always correspond very closely to what learners are learning at any particular time – they may cover a particular grammar point but the vocabulary and context may be completely different or they might cover vocabulary but in differently organised lexical groups, for example. OUP have addressed this problem quite admirably by providing on-line resources that correspond to specific books that they publish, such as New English File, Natural English and New Headway, unit by unit, topic by topic. Now it’s a case of learners looking up the website addresses printed on their course books and finding the appropriate chapter and language point that they want to practise.

But no learner accounts or records!

However, one drawback, that I can see, is that learners can’t easily keep track of their activities or progress. They can’t even tell if they’ve already done an activity or not, unless they make a note of it somewhere and keep it for reference. I think it’s an important part of promoting learner independence for learners to have access to records of their activities and reports of their attendance and progress. It can be very motivating and useful as a self-diagnostic tool.

I can see why this is, I don’t think OUP want to commit themselves to the administration overhead of maintaining a student login and records database system. That would be a huge project that might even rival the world’s largest learning management system at the UK’s Open University which accommodates nearly 200,000 students.

They’re definitely a good idea.

Overall, I think OUP’s EFL/ESL on-line resources are a useful addition to their publications and address the growing expectation from learners that some part of their studies should incorporate e-learning, and I think other publishers are likely to follow their example.

The OUP’s on-line resources are accessible to everyone, without registration and they’re free of charge.


Papervision3D is a 3D graphics engine for Flash. It allows you to create 3D objects and environments and manipulate them in real-time in Flash. You can easily create complex 3D objects and environments in your favourite 3D authoring software and export them as COLLADA files, or download 3rd party COLLADA files for Flash to use.

The example below is a 3D interactive globe. It’s simply a bitmap image of the earth wrapped around a sphere, so don’t expect Google Earth! Feel free to play with it and leave any comments. Please note that the image file may take a few seconds to download, depending on your internet connection.

[swfobj src=’https://matbury.com/assets/papervision/earth.swf’ title=’Papervision3D interactive globe’ width=’600′ height=’400′]

The data used to construct this model are here:

COLLADA (XML) file: earth.dae

Bitmap images: earth.jpg

Google Maps API

I’ve been playing around with Google Maps API for Flash. I’ve maintained all the usual controls that we expect from Google maps and I’ve added a search bar which accesses Google’s Geocode web service to convert addresses into latitude and longitude coordinates and then find those locations on the map.

Of course, it would be relatively easy to add a list of addresses either from an external XML data file or by accessing a custom database, so that users can quickly and easily find specific addresses without having to search for them themselves.

One advantage of Flash over regular web pages is that we can use full screen mode, whereby Flash Player takes over the entire user’s screen. Ideal for map-reading. Click on the “Full Screen Off” button on the bottom right to enter/exit full screen mode. Please note that in full screen mode, Flash Player disables the majority of keyboard input.  You can also exit full screen mode by pressing the escape key.

[swfobj src="https://matbury.com/assets/google_map.swf" width="500" height="400" required_player_version="9.0.0" allowfullscreen="true"]