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.

Google Chrome, why?

When I first heard that Google Chrome had been developed, I was sceptical. The web browser market is already dominated by Microsoft with its encumbent Internet Explorer, currently at 67%, Mozilla Firefox is steadily gaining its share, currently at around 22%, with other browsers such as Opera and Safari making up the remainder. So the obvious question is why?

Apparently, for Google, it was a purely pratical consideration. The clever developer guys at Google are creating more and more user friendly gadgets, widgets and user-interface tools to make the web easier and more fun to use and therefore more appealing to us (Google makes its money from people using the Internet!). They’re also attempting to corner the market in what’s known as Cloud Computing. This is where applications such as word processors, spreadsheets and presentation software run on Google servers instead of on your computer which works in a similar way to web based email, Facebook, YouTube, etc. Google Documents is a popular example of Cloud Computing.

Existing web browsers just can’t cut the mustard

All these gadgets, widgets, and user-interface tools, which are necessary for Cloud Computing, run on a web browser based scripting language called Javascript. Compared to Flash, Javascript isn’t a particularly fast or efficient language and the problem is that if you have a lot of Javascript running in browsers such as Internet Explorer and Firefox, it tends to slow things down quite dramatically and can even cause your browser to crash. Also, with Javascript becoming more and more common on websites, the likelihood of those particularly annoying situations where you’ve just spent half an hour or more carefully writing an email, report or article and suddenly your browser crashes and you’ve completely lost all your hard work. Generally, it’s best practice to write in a desktop based text editor and copy and paste afterwards.

Google Chrome to the rescue

This is where Google Chrome comes in. It was developed with running lots of Javascript in mind and optimised specifically for that purpose. In fact, Google claims that Chrome is around 56 times faster than Internet Explorer! It also addresses a number of issues related to stability and security rather elegantly and, in my opinion, is a far superior web browser to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7 and 8. For example, browser tabs in Google Chrome run independently so if a web page on one tab causes it to crash, other tabs are not affected. Google also keeps track of known Phishing and Malware websites and Google Chrome will warn you if you attempt to navigate to one of these sites on their blacklist. However, this doesn’t include unknown Phishing and Malware websites and if you’re really security conscious and would also like to block all those annoying flashing banner ads, I’d recommend using Mozilla Firefox with the NoScript plugin.

Criticisms

Ultimately, however, even in a superfast browser with all the bells and whistles, Javascript is a slow and inefficient language when compared to Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight and Sun Systems Java. While better support for Javascript is necessary in today’s web environment, I believe that if we’re really serious about replacing desktop with web-based applications, that is, to truly achieve fast, efficient, seamless Cloud Computing, we should be looking at these platforms.

Like all the other web browsers, Google Chrome is free and easy to download and install and even includes a wizard for transferring all your bookmarks and saved passwords over to it.

A quick note to Moodle users: Moodle’s text input editor is not compatible with Google Chrome. You’ll have to wait until Moodle 2.0 to use it! 🙁