Free talking picture dictionary for Moodle

Free talking picture dictionary for MoodleI’ve just finished putting together a Learning Content Cartridge which I’m releasing for free under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) licence for anyone to use, edit and redistribute as they please.

There are 28 entries (33 including plurals) and each one has a corresponding image and an MP3 audio recording. The package is designed for teachers and curriculum developers to use to test out my CALL Software (MILAs) before deciding if it’s suitable for their needs.

What’s more, I’ve used the images and MP3 files to create a talking picture dictionary for the Moodle 1.9 Glossary activity module. There’s an entry for each of the 28 Common objects items which displays a short definition, the corresponding image and the corresponding MP3 file, embedded using Moodle’s standard Flash audio player (Make sure you have the Moodle MP3 filter turned on in Admin settings for this to work). You can try it out on the Multimedia Interactive Learning Applications (MILAs) demo course on my R&D Moodle (use guest access). See section #1 titled, “MILA resource cartridge repurposed for a picture dictionary – Common objects“. I’ve packaged the exported XML glossary data, images and audio into a downloadable zip file.

Auto linking the dictionary

One of the features of the Moodle Glossary module is that it can be set to auto link to entries anywhere it find those entries in other text on Moodle pages (not PDFs or links to external pages). For example, if the Glossary module finds the word “dictionary” in a paragraph of text, it’ll automatically highlight it and place a link on it. When a learner clicks on the highlighted word, a pop-up window appears with the corresponding Glossary entry for “dictionary”.

Please note: Some of the text formatting in the exported talking picture dictionary is a bit messy but can easily be corrected in Moodle with the Glossary editor.

Download

Instructions

  1. Unzip the downloaded package and look for the file called, “exported_glossary_data_to_import_to_your_moodle.xml
  2. Upload the zip package to your Moodle course files directory.
  3. Unzip the package and make sure the directory structure is as follows:
        • commonobjects/mp3/etc…
        • commonobjects/pix/etc…
        • commonobjects/xml/etc…
  4. Create a new Glossary module instance on your course page.
  5. In the Glossary module instance, at the top right of the screen, click on “Import entries”.
  6. Browse to and select the “exported_glossary_data_to_import_to_your_moodle.xml” file on your computer and click on “Save changes”.
  7. That’s it. You’ve just created a talking picture dictionary on your Moodle course. Feel free to edit and modify it in any way you please.

There are free apps to try out in your Moodle on the SWF Activity Module project downloads page.

Listen and select Multimedia Interactive Learning Application

What is it the Listen and select Multimedia Interactive Learning Application (MILA)?

Listen and select Multimedia Interactive Learning Application

It’s software for learning English as a Second or Foreign Language (ESL/EFL) written in Flash. When deployed in Moodle 1.9 using the SWF Activity Module, it has access to Moodle’s grade book and can save learners’ grades as well as other useful information. It can also be deployed in other learning management systems (LMS), in standalone web pages, and in content management systems (CMS) if you have some basic knowledge of HTML.

What does it do?

It loads multimedia learning content cartridges and uses the images and audio in them to generate simple, intuitive, interactive game-like activities. From a learner’s perspective, they:

  1. Look at the four images
  2. Listen to the audio recording
  3. Select the image which most closely corresponds to the audio
  4. If the learner selects incorrectly, they can try again until they find the correct image
  5. Go on to the next four images
  6. Repeat until all the images and audio have been matched

The Listen and select MILA automatically generates the activity and “shuffles” the images into random order each time it’s played. That way, each attempt at the activity is slightly different so learners can’t memorise the order they come in or remember any of the answers by their position. In other words, the only way to successfully select the correct image is to match it to the corresponding audio.

Common Objects Images Common Objects MP3s

Images and audio from the Common Objects multimedia learning content cartridge.

Since the multimedia learning content cartridges that it loads are external and interchangeable, the Listen and select MILA can be reused to generate any number of activities with different cartridges. For example, an elementary English course (A1) may include vocabulary related to the alphabet, numbers, phone numbers, jobs, flats and houses, food, times and dates, and common verb expressions. You can deploy an instance of the Listen and select MILA for each of the vocabulary sets or even break the vocabulary sets up into smaller, “bite size” activities and spread them out over the course of the week.

The cartridges themselves are open format, i.e. separate, reusable media files, which means they can be edited to create new combinations of images and audio, and with a little knowledge of SMIL XML (easy to learn) and some basic audio and image editing skills, you can create new cartridges of your own. Additionally, the images and audio in the cartridges can be used in other pages and activities in your CMS or LMS, for example in Moodle’s Glossary activity module to create picture and audio dictionaries.

When deployed in Moodle, the Listen and select MILA records the number of correct selections as a percentage of the total, the time taken to complete the activity, and the total number of images in the activity in Moodle’s grade book. The SWF Activity Module generates progress charts from Moodle’s grade book entries that show graphs of previous attempts over time, which can encourage learners to develop mastery of the activities.

Where can I try it out?

You can see a working demo of it deployed in a course in Matt’s Moodle here. Log in as a guest and go to section 5 of the MILAs course. Guest users cannot save their grades in Moodle’s grade book. Please contact Matt if you’d like to have a free and confidential learner account on the course so you can see how the progress charts work.

How can I get it for my school’s or organisation’s site?

You can buy a licenced copy of the Listen and select MILA by contacting Matt directly. All MILAs are licensed under a generous 30 year agreement which allows you to deploy as many instances as you like from the specified domain or website as well as any local testing servers or intranets you or your organisation might use. They also come with a free Common Objects starter multimedia learning content cartridge to get you started. Licences include updates, enhancements and bug fixes. Full details of the licence agreement are available on the MILAs demonstration course.

Are Flash and HTML5 locked in a mortal struggle for control of the internet?

Are Flash and HTML5 locked in a mortal struggle for control of the internet?

It’s a loaded question, isn’t it? The kind of attention grabbing headline we’ve come to expect from the mainstream media who receive a substantial portion of the $691,000,000 (2010) of Apple Inc.’s annual marketing budget. So what of this epic struggle between Adobe’s flagship software platform and the open source, open standard HTML5?

Some sobering facts

  • HTML was born* in 1995.
  • Javascript was also born in 1995.
  • CSS was born in 1996.
  • Flash was born in 1997.

* By “born” I mean the first working versions of the respective languages and runtimes were released to the public, i.e. HTML 2.0 and Flash Player 2.0.

So none of them are new and they all get significant new features added to them from time to time. HTML, CSS, Javascript and Flash have co-existed, collaborated and integrated with each other for the past 14 or so years. They’ve done very well together and if we took any one of them away, the WWW would be a poorer place for it. They all have their merits:

  • HTML is open specification and great for flexibility and accessibility. HTML text flows naturally across the screen, browsers can apply anti-aliasing to make it smoother on the eye, the text can be resized (Ctrl + mouse wheel) which is perfect for the sight-impaired, assistive technologies can convert the text to speech for accessibility, etc. In short HTML is wonderful for everyone.
  • CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) defines the physical appearance (look and formatting) of web pages, for example defining text fonts, sizes, colours and styles, the arrangement of areas of text, images and other elements on the page.
  • Javascript is a flexible, open format, object oriented scripting language that runs natively in web browsers. It adds interactivity to web pages transforming static, inert HTML elements into interactive objects that respond to users’ actions. Since 2000, Javascript has also been commonly used in elearning SCOs, e.g. Adobe Captivate, Articulate and Raptivity, to relay data from Flash applications to Learning Management Systems’ SCORM modules. It’s now becoming more widespread with the introduction of code libraries such as JQuery and MooTools which make programming with Javascript’s idiosyncrasies much easier.
  • Flash and its native programming language, Actionscript, provide the whiz-bang wow factor on the WWW. Its role has always been to do the things that web developers couldn’t and can’t currently do on the WWW with HTML, CSS and Javascript alone or where it is impractical to do so. Its primary rise to internet fame was in providing a platform to display scaleable vector graphics (SVG) and animation in web browsers, i.e. images that move and don’t get pixelated when you expand or zoom them. Shortly after that it provided support for sound and then video. Before Flash Player supported video, it was possible to play video on web pages with other plugins like Apple Quicktime, Windows Media Player and Real Networks Real Player. However, they all used different, proprietary video formats that weren’t cross-compatible (See Youtube API Blog link below). Flash Player is currently the only way to do web conferencing with access to webcam and microphone in a browser. The most recent version of Flash Player (11) introduces 3D graphics engines and GPU hardware acceleration: http://away3d.com/

In short, they’ve all had a long and productive history together and they’ve all contributed to making the web a richer, more enaging, more accessible medium. At one time or another, they’ve all had their critics and predictions of their demise. Will HTML5 kill Flash? More likely, HTML5 will gradually replace HTML4 and some but not all of what Flash currently does. No killers, no victims and not very sensational after all.

Further reading

An alternative approach to EFL/ESL course design

[swfobj src=”http://blog.matbury.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/social_networking.swf” width=”600″ height=”300″]An alternative approach to EFL/ESL course design[/swfobj]

The following article is a tentative presentation of a few ideas for an alternative approach to EFL/ESL course design that incorporate the rapidly evolving technologies and social norms of the 21st century. The ideas I’m presenting here are by no means new or my own. My intention is to share my thoughts and hopefully stimulate some discussion and constructive criticism about them.

On EFL and ESL course books

Currently, the majority of EFL and ESL courses at private language academies, public colleges and universities rely on course books, from such publishers as Oxford and Cambridge University Press’, Longman Pearson and MacMillan, to provide the syllabus and curriculum for learning English. If we want to provide alternative approaches to learning and teaching, we need to re-evaluate the role of books and other resources both in and out of the classroom.

The current learning and teaching paradigm

The majority of EFL and ESL programmes at schools, colleges, universities and language academies around the world emphasise a single learning and teaching approach as prescribed by the Cambridge CELTA, DELTA and Trinity RSA (EFL and ESL teaching certificates and diplomas), and defined in Communicative Language Teaching Today (Jack C. Richards 2006). The most commonly found EFL and ESL course books are also based on this teaching approach. They use, without exception, explicit focus on forms, strongly behaviorist/cognitivist approaches to learning and teaching, i.e. a list of grammatical structures and lexical sets of vocabulary and expressions that learners study, memorise and apply in a regular, paced, linear progression.

No course books!?

Focus on form, necessarily, makes up a proportion of any EFL/ESL programme but, from the course books I’ve seen over the past 11 years, the coverage of language patterns, vocabulary and grammar leaves a lot to be desired and is usually inadequate for learners’ needs, especially in learner-led programmes. It’s hardly surprising, since course books try to provide comprehensive vocabulary and grammar references, guided lessons, reading, writing, listening and conversation materials, exercises and even tests for 9 month programmes in only 100-300 pages.

Instead, if we regard books as simply another resource, learners would be required to obtain their own copies of dictionaries, grammar references and, in the case of exam preparation, practice tests. These may be print or digital copies from whichever publisher and vendor they prefer or even online resources. An increasing number of learners now use their mobile phones to access dictionaries. Teachers and academic directors could provide some assistance with recommending a range of appropriate choices according to learners’ specific needs, e.g. academic, medical or engineering dictionaries.

  • Dictionaries are based on systematic studies of corpuses and usage frequency lists, give concise definitions and examples of correct use in a variety of the most common contexts. Bilingual dictionaries also have comparisons of accurately translated example sentences. Picture dictionaries are an option for lower levels of language proficiency.
  • Grammar references give concise and comprehensive definitions and examples of language patterns, and cover the language in use in a variety of contexts.
  • Practice tests provide authentic, realistic examples of what learners can expect and prepare for in official exams, for example Cambridge University Press’ ESOL practice test books and free downloadable sample exams. They’re usually guaranteed to be consistent and at the correct level of difficulty and test the same language points as the official exams.

Any focus on form would be initiated and driven by learners’ curiosity and interest, as and when it is useful and appropriate. From this perspective, the brief vocabulary and grammar references provided by EFL and ESL course books would, in most cases, be insufficient to meet learners’ needs.

Input

According to Stephen Krashen, Rod Ellis, et al, one of the most important factors in second language acquisition (SLA) is comprehensible input, i.e. reading, watching and listening to authentic, meaningful English. They also inform us that the input must be relevant and interesting to learners and that they should feel relaxed and receptive (low affective filters) in order to gain the maximum benefit from it.

From media impoverished to media rich

One of the major differences between the 20th and 21st centuries is how we access information and media. In the 20th century, learners went to schools, colleges, universities and libraries to access high quality information and media, and there were very few alternatives. We lived in a media impoverished world where media distribution networks, to a great extent, decided what we could and couldn’t have access to. In the 21st century, all this has changed. People with internet access now have a world of information and media at their finger tips. As Diana Laufenberg among others informs us, this has profound implications on how we organise the ways in which we learn. In particular, EFL learners have access to enormous quantities and a staggering range of media for input that they can read, watch and listen to at a low cost and in the comfort of their own homes, at work and now even while they’re on the move. This means that learners can now search for and collate their own input based on their own particular needs instead of their teachers teaching them vocabulary and grammar related to parts of a wheelbarrow or sewage farms (Laser B1, MacMillan) or out of date film and pop stars to teenagers from course books.

From the outset, learners should be informed that an integral part of their courses will be reading, watching and listening to authentic English language media. Learners will be required to read, watch and listen to a minimum number of words/pages/hours of language each week. Input media could include:

  • Reading – Novels, graphic novels, magazines, newspapers and news websites, blogs and non-fiction
  • Watching – Films, soap operas, sitcoms, documentaries, news programmes, lectures and presentations
  • Listening – Radio programmes, podcasts, music and audio books

Perhaps the first text, video, listening or two could  be prescribed by their teacher so that learners can get to grips with what they are required to do on their courses (rubric) and make informed decisions. However, in order to make the input interesting and relevant to learners, they should be encouraged to find and choose their own. This also opens up the possibility of learners reviewing books, films, programmes, etc. and making recommendations to each other, thereby making communicative and collaborative activities that are realistic, meaningful and functional. Timothy Bell did some interesting research on student led reading programmes at Kuwait University. This approach to resources should dramatically increase the overall number of hours of study since much of the input will take place at home, at work or in the library. Learners would also have the option to organise study sessions together for themselves such as book clubs, film nights, etc.

As I stated earlier, each individual learner can easily satisfy his or her own particular tastes and preferences and access high quality, authentic text, audio and video quickly, conveniently and cheaply. Internet book, music and video shops (mail order), desktops, laptops, media centres, tablets, smartphones and eReaders all offer convenient ways for learners to consume media.

Processing

Learners will be encouraged to process input in various ways by sharing, reflecting, discovering, discussing, problem solving, advising, etc. They can share and compare their understanding of input either verbally or in writing and the focus is kept mainly on meaning so that language acquisition and awareness occurs implicitly. The collaborative or group approach to learning lends itself well to this kind of processing and gives ample scope for learners to develop their communicative skills and to negotiate meaning. Also, learners will develop practical skills that are useful in real world situations when working on projects and on teams in their professional and social lives.

Process writing

We can help learners to learn the skills they need to be more expressive, dramatic and convincing writers, learning how to create suspense, mystery, dynamism to keep readers engaged, to organise compositions into coherent wholes with their salient points emphasised and expanded as opposed to a list of sentences strung together.

Peer review

Learners can develop their analytical and critical thinking skills by assessing their own and each others’ written and spoken production. It would also help learners enormously and give them great satisfaction to know that the hard work that they put into writing and giving presentations would be appreciated by more people. Additionally, learners can read, watch or hear alternative interpretations of assignments by their peers which could inspire further ideas of their own.

Discussing and debating

Learners can research and prepare presentations for discussions and debates, and develop their discourse management and reasoning skills in both face-to-face spoken debate and on online chat and forums. They can also learn how to share and contrast different points of view without creating conflict and thereby learn more about their peers’ and their own world views which, in my opinion, is the main objective of discussion and debate.

Interpreting and appreciating

Groups of learners can read, watch and listen to media and give their own personal interpretations and opinions. They can reflect on what they understand about it, develop their own ideas and share and contrast them with their group.

Recommending and encouraging

In reading programmes, many researchers have noted that recommendations made by learners’ peers had significantly more influence on their choices of books than those from their teachers.

Concept mapping and illustrating

Concept mapping is a way for learners to interpret and process what they understand and how they think about complex ideas and concepts. Learners’ concept maps tend to be personal and idiosyncratic and, when used correctly, can help facilitate their linguistic skills to express themselves more concisely and allusively.

An alternative view of teacher intervention and error correction

We, as educators, need to cultivate an atmosphere of responsibility, mutual understanding, support and shared purpose. Mistakes/Errors should not be seen as failures but rather as a necessary and integral part of the learning process. If learners aren’t making mistakes, they probably aren’t learning as much as they could. It is my belief that intervention on the part of teachers to correct errors will, in most situations, be counter productive since they interrupt learning activities and inhibit the free flow of thoughts and ideas. On the other hand, while negotiating meaning during communication, some learners tend to correct each other helpfully or, when negotiation of meaning fails, seek help from other learners or a teacher. In this case, when seeking help, the focus on form is initiated by learners and their desire to “get it right” at a point when it is most useful, relevant and memorable to them.

Output

Processing input often inspires learners to create works of their own. In many cases, it seems like the natural and logical ‘next step’ since they may be inspired by the language input, their peers’ ideas or their own, and want to participate in some creative output activities.  For example:

  • Writing – Emails, letters, short stories, plays, dialogues, reviews, essays, reports, letters of reference, etc.
  • Speaking – Telling anecdotes, telling jokes, giving presentations, dramatic performances, comedy performances, etc.

Learners can produce language output for summative and formative assessment which contributes to a “body of work” or portfolio. This is especially useful for participants in the European Commission’s Europass (C.V. and portfolio) project. Assessment can take many forms and be organised in many ways. In some cases, the process may be the main aim, e.g. learner created tests or peer assessment, in others the aim may be to indicate increases in competencies and/or overall language proficiency.

Additionally, when learners generate a substantial body of work during their studies, it gives them and their teachers an overview and it is more representative and reflective of their language proficency and progress towards their goals. As a teacher, I prefer using learners’ portfolios to decide when they’re ready to move up a level, rather than using high-stakes, standardised testing methods, which only assess a very narrow set of skills and knowledge, at the end of a semester or academic year.

To sum up…

It is my ambition to come up with some coherent, comprehensive form of an alternative approach to EFL and ESL course design that focuses on the following points:

  • Creating communities of learning and teaching.
  • Make exchanges between learners as natural, functional and meaningful as possible (socialising is a function).
  • Acquiring language and developing language awareness and skills occurs naturally as part of learning activities.
  • Allow and support learners in choosing their own input to meet their own particular learning needs.
  • Learners review and recommend input to each other.
  • Focus on form (grammar and vocabulary patterns) is initiated and driven by learners’ needs, curiosity and interest.
  • Learners process input and share their understanding of it in writing or spoken (classroom, online or blended learning).
  • Processing is doing meaningful, engaging real world tasks with the input.
  • Learners create “bodies of work”, i.e. portfolios, both individually and collaboratively.
  • Learners assess their own work and each others’ to develop their higher order thinking skills (Analysing and Evaluating).
  • Formative assessment plays a central role in learning, i.e. learners give each other constructive criticism as well as getting teacher feedback.
  • Mistakes/Errors are seen as points of learning, not as failures, on the path to language development.
  • The emphasis is on experimentation and play, i.e. discovery through trial and error and negotiation of meaning.

I await your constructive criticisms and comments!

Further reading

Dynamic phonetic chart application

I’ve just completed a new Flash learning application, the International Phonetic Alphabet MILA, aimed at EFL/ESL learners and teachers which I believe is a good solution to many of the problems facing those who want to use phonetics in teaching English as a foreign or second language.

What does it do?

It can display any number of phonetic symbols which appear in groups as coloured buttons (see illustration).  When users click on one of the symbol buttons, a list of example words appears with the phonetic spelling and a play button next to each one so that they can listen to audio recordings of the example words.

The example on my Moodle deploys the symbols in a typical arrangement. They’re in columns of corresponding short and long vowels, dipthongs, corresponding voiced and unvoiced consonants and finally the remaining consonants.  By editing an external XML file, you can arrange and group the set or subsets of the phonetic symbols any way you like. For example, the past simple of regular verbs ending in /-id/, /-d/ and /-t/.

Why is it an advantage to make it dynamic?

Traditional phonetic charts are fixed, static items that you cannot change. In most English courses, learners are presented with a single, very general, one-size-fits-all chart for the entire course. Such charts typically have a small, fixed set of vocabulary for learners to view and listen to and, more often than not, it bears no or little relation to the vocabulary being studied at any particular moment in the course. See this example on Oxford University Press’  New English File site or this example on the British Council’s BBC Teaching English site.

Making any Flash web application dynamic gives one very important advantage. Anyone can edit it without having to buy expensive software. In fact, all you need is a text editor and a little familiarity with XML, which is human readable and relatively easy to learn. Any teacher or course content developer can create any number of vocabulary sets and deploy them in Moodle along with the related course materials, giving learners specific pronunciation support for the target language in a particular module, unit or activity. Did I mention that it’s also very easy to correct any typos that you find?

Secondly (the technical bit), the Flash learning application contains no text or audio itself, all of that is loaded externally, making it only 12Kb in size which is less than half the size of the containing Moodle web page (a similar sized photo would be around 50 – 200Kb). This means that it appears almost instantly. The International Phonetic Alphabet MILA then loads the words and phonetics as an XML file (XML is the de facto standard file format for dynamic elearning content). The audio files are loaded as and when users play them. Typically, audio files tend to be quite large and so only loading them as required means that the application starts faster and only uses the internet bandwidth that is absolutely necessary – ideal for users with slow (mobile) or intermittent connections.

How is using Flash an advantage over normal web page based phonetic charts?

Phonetic symbols have always been a bit of a problem on the internet, well actually, text and fonts in general. In order for a web page to be displayed with the correct font, e.g. Times New Roman, that font must be installed on users’ computers. If it isn’t, a substitute font is found automatically. The trouble is that not all fonts contain phonetic characters, in fact very few do, so what works perfectly well on one computer may be unreadable on another if it hasn’t got the correct font installed.

Flash resolves this issue by allowing developers to embed (include) fonts within their Flash applications. This means that the application carries the required fonts with it and will work on any computer regardless of whether it has any fonts installed or not. This is especially important with phonetic characters since so few fonts contain them. Problem solved!

Try the demo

As always, I’ve deployed a demo of the International Phonetic Alphabet MILA, with 445 example words, on my Moodle MILAs demo course (Login as a guest).

New Media Player module for Moodle

In this article, I’m going to give you an introduction to the new Media Player module for Moodle. It’s a flexible, robust and feature-rich method of deploying video in Moodle as an activity.

The Media Player module for Moodle using Searchbar and Playlist features

In November 2009, I started the FLV Player module for Moodle project. It was a way of deploying video in Moodle that was robust, standards compliant and above all easy to use for non-developers. It’s been a great success and I’ve have a lot of feedback from teachers, course content developers and admins. As a result of this, I’ve decided to update the module and include a number of new features. I’ve developed this new version as a separate and distinct module to avoid teachers and course content developers having to redeploy existing instances of the FLV Player module due to conflicts between the old and some of the new module’s settings.

You can already deploy video in Moodle. Why create a Module for it?

Moodle already has media filters that automatically convert HTML links to video files into instances of video player plugins, including Flash, QuickTime, RealPlayer and Windows Media Video. These work well for basic video deployment but don’t allow users to:

  • Decide which video player plugin to use
  • Control how the video player looks and behaves
  • Allow you to deploy streaming video from a media server
  • Do anything other than basic video playback functions

The Media Player module uses a single, extremely well developed and supported Flash video player (JW FLV Player) which effortlessly and gracefully handles the majority of web video formats, including FLV and F4V (Flash video), M4V and MOV (Quicktime) and MP4. It also supports the new and popular H.264 (Blu-ray) video CODEC and of course the most asked for feature in web video players, a variety of playlist formats.

Also, the only way to deploy captions with video is to hard-code them into the video file which is inflexible, doesn’t adjust when the video is scaled and doesn’t support multiple languages. External captions, on the other hand, are very flexible, easy to edit and easy to read at any magnification.

Obviously, many teachers and course content designers would like to do much more than basic video playback deployment for e-learning purposes and that’s where the Media Player module comes in.

But video is a resource. Why is Media Player an activity module?

If you only deploy video and nothing more, then it isn’t interactive and it would be unreasonable to call it an activity. The Media Player module includes options that have quite a high degree of interactivity such as Snapshot and Searchbar. As you’ll see while you read this article and try out the demos, it’s much more than a video player and will continue to support more features as they become available.

So what can I do with the Media Player module?

There’s a lot you can do with it and you can also use all of these features in combination with each other. The features are difficult to describe and I think it’s much better to see them demonstrated. See the links at the end of this article for some demos.

Here’s a list of the available options:

  • External captions files: Supporting the popular SMIL and SubRip captions standards which allow very detailed control over how captions are displayed. You can also deploy the same video multiple times with different captions that play in the same playlist. Learners can immediately see what captions are available and there is no screen refresh when they select different ones. The captions can also be turned on or off at any time during playback.
  • High and normal definition video files: You can deploy two versions of the same video, one normal definition and the other HD. Users can switch between the videos according to the speed of their Internet connection. If you use a streaming media server, you can also use automatic bandwidth checking so that the video player automatically finds the optimum definition of video to play.
  • Info box: A consistent way to display information about the video being played (title, description, author and date deployed). An easy way to comply with copyright and licensing requirements.
  • Livestream: This one if for live video broadcasts from media servers. Normally, users have to keep checking manually and refresh the web page every few seconds to see if a live broadcast has started. This feature automatically checks at defined intervals to see if the broadcast has begun without refreshing the web page and then plays the video so users are free to do other things while they’re waiting.
  • Logobox: Include a logo with videos and also a link. It also supports Flash animation files so you can have an animated logo. The link could be to a web page or to a downloadable ZIP file.
  • Metaviewer: Displays metadata information of the video files being played. It’s a convenient way for teachers and course content developers to find out essential information about the video file such as the exact width, height and duration.
  • Playlists: By far the most asked for feature on video players is the ability to deploy several videos in one player. For example, if you have a video which is very long, it’s necessary to split it up into shorter (5 – 10 minute) sections or chapters and deploy them in order in one presentation. It supports thumbnail images, titles and descriptions for each item on the playlist. This means that users can easily return to a video and carry on watching from more or less where they left it. It’s also much easier to find a particular section without having to download the entire video. It supports several standard playlist formats including those produced by YouTube.com and iTunes.
  • Search bar: Allows users to perform keyword searches on sites such as YouTube.com or, if you have a custom search script, anywhere you wish to define. It’s useful if you’d like users to do research without leaving your site.
  • Snapshot: Allows users to take snapshots of frames of the video being played. The snapshots are stored in the course files directory and a link returned to the user. They could use this to post snapshots in course forums or blogs. The ability to store snapshots is controlled by creating a special directory in the Moodle course files directory for each user. To protect your server and users’ computers, the Snapshot feature follows the Flash Player security model and only allows users to take snapshots of videos hosted on the same site as the Moodle. It’s possible to enable other sites but only with a correctly configured crossdomain.xml policy file.
  • Use YouTube.com as a video hosting service: Play videos directly from YouTube.com without any annoying advertising or popups and without users accidentally “clicking through” to the YouTube.com site. Only a small unintrusive YouTube.com logo appears in the bottom right of the screen. A cost-effective solution if you don’t mind making your video content publicly available and has the additional benefit of promoting your e-learning courses to a huge audience.

How can I start using it?

The Media Player module plugin for Moodle is open source and available to download and install from the project site hosted on Google Code. Please use the project Issues Tracker to report any problems or requests.

Can I see a demo?

There’s an HD (1280 x 720) video tutorial, deployed using the Media Player module, demonstrating how easy it is to deploy video with it here (login as a guest).

There are more demos of the various features on my Moodle here (login as a guest).

My Flash MP3 player to be included in Moodle 2.0

In my last post, I described a project I had just started which was a Flash MP3 player that can be used for tests since teachers can determine exactly how many times a learner can listen to an audio file. Here’s an update on the latest developments…

MP3 Player for Tests

Part of Moodle 2.0

I’m pleased to announce that Gordon Bateson, a core Moodle developer and author of the very popular Hot Potatoes module for Moodle, has chosen to include my MP3 Player for Tests in the next major release of Moodle, Moodle 2.0. It will be part of the QuizPort module which is the successor to Hot Potatoes. Over the last few days, I’ve been working closely with Gordon on the exact specifications and functions of the player to optimise it for learners to take listening tests in Moodle.  The announcement came today on Moodle.org forums. You can login as a guest if you are not already a member of Moodle.org.

Moodle FLV Player module update

In February 2009, I released the first beta version of the FLV Player plugin activity module for Moodle. It leverages the ubiquitous JW FLV Player and has been very popular among teachers and course content developers working with Moodle. I’m working on a substantial update for the module and in this article I’m going to write about some of the improvements and new features in it.

What has changed?

The most significant changes in the module will be:

  • Support for alternative HD video streams.
  • Support for audio descriptions.
  • Uses simpler SWFObject 2.2 embed method.

Alternative HD video streams

The current FLV Player module can play any video format supported by Flash Player, which includes FLV, F4V, MOV,  MP4 and Youtube.com videos as well as MP3 and AAC audio files, and JPEG, PNG and GIF images (animation is not supported) and Flash animation files. See here for a full list of supported formats.

The new version of the player now supports an alternative HD video stream. This means that users can switch between normal and high definition video at the click of a mouse. All you need to do is provide two video files, one normal and one HD for the player to switch between. This is particularly useful for providing an alternative low definition stream to users with slow or intermittent internet connections.

Audio descriptions

This one’s still a bit buggy and doesn’t allow full control over the audio file. An audio description is a second, separate MP3 audio file that can be deployed alongside a video. It is synchronised with the video so that if you seek through it to a new point in time, the audio file plays at that point respectively. Users can switch the extra audio on and off as they like.

Audio descriptions are typically used for accessibility support for the visually impaired but can also be used for multi-language support, optional narrator’s voice overs, director’s commentaries, etc. I’m sure instructional designers, teachers and course content developers can come up with some creative applications for this feature.

SWFObject 2.2 embedding

Previous versions of the FLV Player module were a little “inconsistent” across different browsers and some suffered from bugs when it was necessary to perform Flash Player upgrades for users who don’t have Flash Player 9.0.115 or later installed. I’ve upgraded the module to SWFObject 2.2 and used a static embed method so that even with Javascript disabled, the video player will work, as well as detecting users’ Flash Player versions and informing them if they need to perform a Flash Player upgrade in order to view the video content, instead of automatically deploying Express Install, giving users more control. The new embed method has been successfully tested on Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Google Chrome.

Prompt to upgrade the Flash Player version

A prompt to upgrade to the required Flash Player version.

Other features still supported

As well as these new features, the new version of the FLV Player will continue to support:

  • HTML notes under the video playback window so you can put lecture notes, diagrams, graphs, tables, photos, links to files or pages, etc. on the same page.
  • TimedText, RealText, ASX, ATOM, RSS and XSPF video caption formats (Users can now switch captions on and off).
  • XML Playlists.
  • Skins to change the visual appearance of the player (also includes support for XML based skins).
  • Definable player control colours.
  • Video poster images before playback commences.
  • A variety of other JW FLV Player plugins (as a CSV list).
  • Player configuration via an externally loaded XML file so that course-wide player policies can be established.

When will the new version be ready?

Many thanks to the brilliant developers at LongtailVideo.com for all their ideas and hard work. I’m still testing and trying to “iron out” the bugs in the FLV Player module but this should be finished in the next week or so. Unfortunately, there’s a bug in the Audio Description plugin, which is beyond my control and I’m waiting for the respective developer to resolve the issue. Hopefully, this will be soon.

Update…

After spending some time going over the various requirements for supporting the new plugins, the changes to the module code and the database table structure, I’ve realised that a number of the changes would “break” older instances on Moodle courses and lead to a lot of extra work for teachers and course content developers. With this in mind, I’ve decided to leave the FLV Player as it is for people who don’t need a feature-rich media player.

I’m now developing a very feature-rich “Media Player” module that will support most of the plugins currently available for the JW FLV Player as well as playlists and all the other features that we expect of a good web video application for e-learning. The module editing page will also be better organised to make it easier to use. The JW FLV Player plugins that I’m experimenting with at the moment are as follows:

Please note that the Live Stream and Snapshot plugins require a server-side script and will not be enabled as standard for security reasons. The search Seach Bar plugin can use custom search scripts but only YouTube.com search will be enabled by default.

Here’s the Google Code project home page: http://code.google.com/p/moodle-mplayer/

Flash MP3 player for tests

GNU GPL Open Source ProjectEver wanted to control the number of times a learner can listen to a recording in a listening test? Well, I’ve seen this request a number of times on Moodle.org’s forums recently and not so recently. So I’ve decided to develop and share this Flash MP3 player for tests.

What does it do?

It streams (progressive download) and plays a single MP3 (or AAC) audio file once. It has no play back controls whatsoever so there is no way for a learner to listen to the recording again except by refreshing the web page in the browser. There is an optional parameter that sets the number of times the MP3 file plays.

What is it for?

It’s for deploying in listening tests or activities where it’s necessary or desirable to limit the number of times a learner can listen to an audio recording. For example, Cambridge ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) listening tests require that the learner only listen to each recording twice so it’s particularly useful in practice exercises for learners who are preparing to take one of these exams.

How can I use it?

Detailed instructions are included in the download package as well as some example embed code. Unfortunately, I can’t provide any easy to use plugins or modules for LMSs (Learning Management Systems) – It’s too complicated to explain here and now. For now, this Flash application can only be deployed by manually inserting the necessary embed code and editing some of the parameters. I’ve included some code examples and explanations for how to embed it in Moodle from the course files directory (moodledata).  This should present no problems at all for an experienced web designer or web developer and an IT savvy teacher or course content designer could probably deploy it successfully by copying and editing the embed code examples provided.

Do I need to buy a licence to use it?

No, this project is open source and completely free. You can copy it, change it and redistribute it in any way you like. The only condition is that you must leave my name and copyright on it and distribute a copy of the GPL open source licence with it. The Flash CS4 FLA and ActionScript 3.0 source files and full details are included in the download package.

How secure is it?

It’s worth noting that this MP3 player for tests is not secure. An IT savvy learner could easily look at the source code for the web page and see the URL of the MP3 file being played and download it directly. The very popular Firefox web browser also has a number of plugins that makes it very easy to download media files from virtually any source no matter how well they are protected, even streams from media servers that are supposed to be very secure. The easiest way to make it more difficult to cheat is to put a time limit on the listening test itself. That way, there isn’t enough time to listen more than once.

Update:

I’ve moved the MP3 Player for Tests to Google Code to make it more accessible to developers and easier to find and download. You can find the project page here.

Good quality video Part II

Recording high-quality video Part II
Recording video from webcams:
Several HD (high definition) web cameras have appeared on the market recently promising to record up to 1400 by 900 pixel resolution video for an outlay of around €100 or less. The specific webcams that I’ve seen are the Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000, the Microsoft ???? and the Creative ????. Although these cameras are capable, in theory, of the claimed results, it’s important to bear in mind what else is necessary to achieve them. Unfortunately, the average PC or Mac on sale today does not have the processing power required to compress and record a high resolution video stream. They’ll struggle with even relatively low resolution video streams and usually compensate by automatically reducing the frame rate from 30 frames per second to as low as four frames per second. In order to record high definition video from a webcam at 30 fps, you’d need a very powerful computer to do so. Something like an extreme gamers PC. To be honest, you’d get better results from getting a “normal”, cheaper PC and spending the money you’d save on a high definition video camera. Plus, it’d be a lot more flexible and easier to shoot on location plus you’d get the added benefits of optical zoom and no PC fan noise in the background to deal with.

creative_livecam_socialize_hdmicrosoft_lifecam_cinema_webcamlogitech_quickcam_pro_9000I’ve had quite a few inquiries about using web cameras to record video for e-learning purposes. On the face of it, it seems to be an easy way to record high definition video very cheaply. In this article, I’m going to talk about what’s available at the moment and what you can realistically expect from an HD web camera.

Several HD (high definition) web cameras have appeared on the market recently promising to record up to 1280×720 pixel resolution video at up to 30 frames per second for an outlay of around €100 or less. The specific webcams that I’ve seen are the “Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000“, the “Microsoft LifeCam Cinema” and the “Creative Live! Cam Socialize HD“. Although these cameras are capable, in theory, of the claimed results, it’s important to bear in mind what else is necessary to achieve them. Unfortunately, the average PC or Mac on sale today does not have the processing power required to compress and record a high resolution video stream. Only the Microsoft product information appears to be completely open and honest about this, recommending an Intel Dual-Core 3.0 GHz or higher CPU and at least 2GB of RAM. Less powerful computers will struggle with high resolution video streams and usually compensate by automatically reducing the frame rate from 30 frames per second to as low as four frames per second, hence the words “up to” next to the frame rate you’ll see in manufacturers’ descriptions.

High definition blur

The effect of a slow frame rate on video is quite noticeable: if anything in view moves, it gets blurred. This really defeats the whole point of high definition which is clear, sharp image quality. To see this in action, have a look at the many web camera reviews posted by users on YouTube.com and look for anyone who moves their head or hands in front of the camera. You can then compare these with reviews of 3CCD high definition camcorders to see the difference.

Also, you’ll need to acquire software that is capable of compressing and recording the webcam video stream to a high quality format, the best one being MPEG -2 (DVD quality). If the video stream is compressed too much, for example with H.264 (MP4  or MOV), any subsequent editing or recoding that you do will substantially reduce the image quality.

To be honest, you’d get better results from getting a “normal”, cheaper PC and spending the money you’d save on an MPEG-2 high definition video camera. It’d be a lot more flexible and easier to shoot on location plus you’d get the added benefits of decent optical zoom and no PC fan noise in the background to deal with.