Moodle SWF Activity Module developer preview

SWF Activity Module

SWF Activity ModuleOK, this is going to be a very techie post as it’s aimed exclusively at developers who are interested in integrating Flash and Moodle. If you’ve never written a line of computer code, then this article will most probably bore you to death!

What is the SWF Activity Module?

The SWF Activity Module deploys Flash learning applications as activities in Moodle courses. It uses standards compliant XHTML 1.0 Strict embed code and leverages SWFObject 2.2. For Moodle users, especially non-developers, it’s a quick, easy, reliable, and mostly importantly, non-techie method of embedding Flash.

What’s the developer preview?

I’ve just uploaded a two-part installer package to the SWF Activity Module project site on Google Code. The first part, like any other Moodle activity module, performs the installation in Moodle and acts as the user interface. The second part is the Flash Remoting service library which handles communication between Flash and Moodle. The particular implementation of this is AMFPHP. This package is a developer preview. It has not been extensively tested, has not been proven to be stable and is not intended for installation on public servers.

What does it do?

So far, the activity module does the following:

  • Installation
  • Backup and restore
  • Creates and manages SWF Activity Module instances
  • Creates and manages grade items in Moodle’s grade book
  • Custom grade reports

The Flash Remoting service library does the following:

  • Establishes fast, lightweight, powerful two-way communication between Flash learning applications and Moodle
  • Handles user authentication, capabilities and permissions
  • Allows Flash learning applications to push and retrieve grades and user data in Moodle’s grade book
  • Allows Flash learning applications to retrieve user data such as avatars, VoIP client IDs, groups, etc. to facilitate social networking and web communication between learners and teachers

Accurately track learners’ activities while on-line

The custom grade reports are particularly interesting because they provide a much asked for function in Moodle activities, namely tracking the amount of time that learners spend on activities accurately. The problem at the moment is that Moodle can only record the time elapsed between requests sent to the server while learners are using a module. Between server requests, Moodle can’t tell whether a user was studying or if they went for a tea break, either way the elapsed time logged is the same. Since Flash learning applications run on learners’ computers, they can track mouse, keyboard, camera and microphone actions over any given period of time. If a learner goes for a tea break, mouse, keyboard, camera and microphone actions stop and Flash learning applications can take this into account, for example, by discounting inactive time. I had to create the custom grade reports because Moodle has no provision for this kind of user data.

Open up Moodle to more web services

The SWF Activity Module is far more than we’ve come to expect from Flash based learning interactions. The Flash Remoting gateway opens up Flash and Moodle to a wide range of 3rd party web services. Here’s a few possibilities to consider:

  • Deploy web conferencing clients that use open VoIP and chat protocols. Here’s an example of an existing project could be leveraged.
  • Deploy Flash clients that leverage Google Wave’s open protocol, when it goes fully public, for real-time multimedia collaborative projects.
  • Consume map, video, search and data services from providers such as Google and Yahoo!
  • Or any combination of protocols and services for media-rich, collaborative learning interactions. The sky’s the limit.

How can I use the developer preview?

This is where I need your help. I’d like this module to be tested in as many environments as possible except, of course, public servers so if you are a developer and have a development server with Moodle installed, this is where you can help. Installation instructions are included in the developer preview package and the Flash Remoting gateway comes pre-configured for Moodle. There’s also a sample “Grade Pusher” Flash application that simply pushes grades into Moodle’s grade book. Please try it out on your development servers and let me know if you encounter any problems with it.

The SWF Activity Module project site is at: http://code.google.com/p/swf-activity-module/ where you’ll find downloads, documentation, examples, source code and the issues tracker.

The SWF Activity Module is proud to be open-source.

Google Wave is out!

Google Wave logoIn a previous article, I wrote about a new web communication protocol being developed by Google called Google Wave. Well, five months later,  I finally have my Google Wave developer’s preview invitation and I can start creating waves and experimenting with my very own account.

Embedded in this article below is a Wave hosted on wave.google.com. Unfortunately, Google Wave hasn’t gone fully public yet so the only people who can see and interact with the embedded Wave are other developers with preview accounts. For the vast majority of readers of my blog, I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with a snapshot image of how it looked when I first wrote this article. Due to the dynamic and collaborative nature of Waves, this one will change over time as more people make their own contributions. Eventually, when Google Wave goes public, you’ll be able to see it, interact with it, post your own comments, add images and files, gadgets, etc.

There’s a buzz in the air

There’s a great atmosphere of buzzy anticipation among the privileged few who have developer preview accounts and the growing community is constantly speculating about how this will shape the future of web communications. I believe that this new protocol, which is open source and available to everyone, will bring about a revolution in on-line communication and collaboration. Google are promoting it as a replacement for email, although I personally doubt that this will be the case. I think it certainly will have a huge impact on social networking. How this will unfold, we can only wait and see.

How will it affect e-learning?

As I wrote in my previous blog post on Google Wave, I think this new protocol is particularly relevant to e-learning and learning management systems. At the moment, having these real-time, on-line, communicative and collaborative tools comes with a hefty price tag and companies such as WebEx (Cisco Systems) and Adobe Connect charge such high prices for their services that only large corporations and organisations with big budgets can afford to use them. Google Wave promises to level the playing field and make high-end web telecommunications as cheap and easy to use as email. Expect to see web conferencing and real-time on-line classrooms at a school, college, academy or university near you soon!

Also, since it’s an open protocol and the software is open source, anyone can create gadgets, plugins and interfaces for it. Propelled by heavy demand, Google are already setting up a marketplace for them as we speak. I expect most of the new applications will be available for free. I can already see learning management system developers scrambling to create plugins that will leverage Waves for e-learning purposes. For learners at least, the future looks bright, the future looks exciting.

Update 3rd April 2010:

More and more developers are getting onto Wave and developing plugins/widgets/gadgets/whatever you want to call them, some of which integrate Waves with other sites such as Facebook, MySpace, etc. These integration plugins are not secure and could expose your web accounts to hackers, spambots, spy-ware and other security threats. Under no circumstances should you use these plugins on the open web. You find your Facebook account, bank account and/or identity belong to a Mafia gang in Nigeria, Russia or China faster than you can say, “How did that happen?” You’ve been warned!

Here’s a static snapshot taken at the time of publishing:

Snapshot of this Wave as of 27th October 2009

If you have a Google Wave account and you’ve signed in, you should see a live Wave below. You can sign up for a Wave preview account here.

Update 1st December 2012

Google have deprecated Wave as a standalone service. It’s now incorporated into Google’s other services such as Docs and G+.

Social networking for EFL/ESL

social-networkingIn this article, I’m going to discuss the relevance of social networking to learners of English, some of the developments in learning English as a foreign/second language on-line and how this might shape the future of e-learning and learning management systems for EFL/ESL.

So much to learn, so little time to learn it.

For learners studying English in their own country, it is often difficult or inconvenient for them to get enough exposure to and practice with English. Classroom time with small groups (i.e. twelve learners or less) with a native speaker tutor who can give guidance on what constitutes “authentic” English at schools, colleges, universities and academies in most countries is at a premium and most only provide between two and four hours per week, although in some cases this can be as high as six. In my opinion, between two and four hours of small group classes per week is not adequate for students to learn the language and develop the communication skills they need.

The majority of EFL/ESL coursebooks include workbooks that provide further written grammar, vocabulary, reading and sometimes even listening activities for learners to do outside the classroom in their own time. Also, tutors often encourage or require learners to read, listen to English radio programmes, watch English films and TV shows, keep diaries, etc. These are typically solitary activities that place the emphasis more on passive understanding or grammatical understanding of language than on active production and communication skills.

Using the Internet as a learning resource.

Growing numbers of learners are now taking the initiative for themselves and using Web 2.0 technology to practise their English. As well as passive comprehension practice such as watching videos on YouTube, listening to English language radio stations such as BBC Radio 4 and BBC Learning English.com, reading on-line magazines and news sites, learners now have an assortment of social networking sites to choose from where they can get in touch with other people with similar learning interests to their own. Currently, there is a bit of a “land grab” going on as small start-up companies such as Babbel and Live Mocha create social networking sites especially for EFL/ESL learners. Currently, learners can keep in touch with each other through instant messaging (chat), bulletin boards (forums), VoIP (Internet telephony) and, of course, video conferencing and shared on-line whiteboards.

How do social networking sites affect learning management systems?

web20-iconsQuite rightly, EFL/ESL learners just want to “get on with it” with what they already know. Many have already spent a considerable amount of time exploring and learning how to use the software applications on social networking sites for activities such as instant messaging, bulletin boards, VoIP calls and video conferencing. Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to insist that learners learn to use yet more, often poorly designed, social networking application interfaces. So why not just let them use the ones they already know?

There’s a wide variety of software and services available and often the most widely used and known ones are free. Google and Yahoo! are popular and particularly good at supporting open protocols and open source (i.e. free and adaptable) software. It’s much cheaper and easier to use 3rd party web services provided by Google, Yahoo!, AIM, MSN Messenger and Skype because they have established networks that have been developed by highly skilled and talented teams of developers over several years.  The really hard work has already been done for us so we get the benefits of reduced development time, huge, stable, well maintained and powerful networks, well documented APIs and public support forums for both developers and users. Having all this available for free has brought the cost of creating and running social networking platforms for e-learning effectively, within the reach of even small schools and academies.

So, allowing learners to stick with their favourite social networking applications and services and integrating these with learning management systems effectively kills two birds with one stone:

#1 – Learners are already well-versed in using the software and so are more likely to engage with their classmates on-line,

#2 – The most costly parts of developing, maintaining and improving the services are expertly taken care of for free.

Keep up or fall behind

I think that in the near future, LMSs will have to incorporate and integrate more 3rd party social networking services or risk becoming irrelevant to EFL/ESL learners as they migrate to social networking sites for their communicative language practice. I’m sure that many learners will welcome the opportunity to link their own personal social networking spaces within LMSs so that they can share their blogs, comments, etc. with their classmates. They’ll also have the added benefits of having all their applications available from a single website, i.e. their school’s learning management system, and developing their English communication skills with topics and ideas that are genuinely relevant to them in a safe environment with people they already know and see in class on a regular basis.

 

Google Wave

wavelogo

Another revolution in the way we communicate and interact with each other on the web. Google may have done it yet again. Introducing… Google Wave!

What is it?

It’s difficult to explain. The Google developers’ way of describing it is to ask the question, “What would e-mail look like if it were invented today?” It’s probably easier to think of it as combining all the different ways we use to communicate and interact with each other on the Internet. Think of users who have e-mail, Facebook or LinkedIn, MySpace, YouTube, Blogger or WordPress, Twitter, chat and forum  accounts. It’s an ambitious project as it looks like they want it to replace e-mail. That’ll take some doing.

Why create yet another social networking tool?

E-mail, Facebook or LinkedIn, MySpace, YouTube, Blogger or WordPress, Twitter, chat and forums are all great ways to communicate and keep in touch with individuals and groups but they’re all separate and distinct and everyone has their own preferences for different service providers. E-mail is probably the most popular and widely used because accounts allow users to interact with users on other networks. For example, if you have a Yahoo! account, you can send and receive e-mails not only from other Yahoo! account holders but any other e-mail service providers such as Gmail or Hotmail or even to and from your own e-mail server. While e-mail is an open standard or protocol, most other services such as Facebook and MySpace are not. You can only keep in touch with people who have accounts with the same service provider. This can result in some people feeling “badgered” by friends, colleagues and acquaintances to get yet another account on the latest Internet messaging fad.

An example of Google wave's user interface
An example of Google wave's user interface

Google Wave promises to be different or should I say, more like e-mail. It’s an open source project so anyone can set up a Wave service of their own.  It’s also a protocol, which means that like e-mail, all Wave services can talk to each other so users only have to sign up to one service provider, just like e-mail. It’s also extensible so developers can create their own customised versions and add new functions and features. So we could end up with Google Wave, Yahoo! Wave, MSN Wave,  Acme Wave, etc.

What happens when you combine all these different ways of communicating into one unified interface?

In a word, synergy. It’s difficult to predict how it will evolve. It’s up to all of us and the developer community to come up with new, interesting and useful applications of this new technology. A good analogy would be the case of Nintendo: all they did was to combine a simple games console with the motion detector from a car air-bag system and it gave us the Wii. Almost overnight it overtook the Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox to become the most successful games console ever in what was previously believed to be a saturated market. It fundamentally changed the way we interact with games consoles and the types of games that are possible.

From what I’ve seen, one of the real strengths of this project is its user interface. It’s obviously aimed at the general, non-tech savvy user. A lot of the functions are “point and click”, “click and type” and “drag and drop”, meaning that it’s pretty intuitive for anyone to participate fully in a Wave. It’s quick and easy to drag and drop links to pages, embed images or other media and have them appear instantly and automatically – no more user interface dialogue boxes. The interface is also “live” so that all participants of a Wave can see what each other are doing and typing in real time, so no more watching and waiting while others are typing their contributions.

One thing’s for sure. The developer community are very excited about Google Wave and we’ll see a lot of activity and new ideas coming out of it soon. The e-learning community is already buzzing about it too. Actually, I suspect that the Google development team gave this early preview seminar because they knew it was already creating quite a stir and was going to be made public quite soon in one way or another.

How is this relevant to e-learning?

Well, more and more learning management systems (LMS) are being built around social networking structures so that tutors and learners can interact and collaborate with each other, much the same way that they do at schools, academies and universities. At the moment, holding a webinar or on-line classroom session requires a media server, something that is not within the budget or capabilities of a lot of educational organisations. There are 3rd party services available such as Adobe Connect and Elluminate but they also come at a price.

I’ll make a bold prediction. I bet that it’s only a matter of time after Google Wave’s official public release that developers start coming up with extensions to incorporate Internet telephony (VoIP) services. Once we have that, companies that provide web conferencing services like Adobe Connect and Elluminate should be very concerned. We’ll all have free access to some very sophisticated, powerful and flexible web conferencing tools that can do all of the things that used to come with a premium price-tag. In other words, we can look forward to seeing the overall cost of live, interactive e-learning being reduced in the same way that Skype has reduced the cost of international telephone services.

Wave is open source and extensible so anyone can add new features to it
Wave is open source and extensible so anyone can add new features to it

This has huge implications for learning on the web. Tutors will be freely able to hold web conferences with individuals or groups of learners where everyone is on a unified interface where they can talk, see each other, write and share text, images, graphics, animation, games, polls, surveys and questionnaires, audio and video much more quickly, flexibly and easily than even in a modern hi-tech classroom. The participants can be located anywhere in the world and the only requirement is a computer with a broadband Internet connection. Anyone will be able to start up e-learning courses and tutors and course content designers will be freer than ever to do what they really want with the tools available and worry less about getting LMS developers to make their ideas possible or worrying about how they’re going to pay for services that previously came with a premium price-tag. I think we’ll see an acceleration in the quality and quantity of e-learning appearing on the web.

How can I find out more?

Google presented Wave at a developer seminar and kindly recorded it and uploaded it to YouTube. They’re promising to make an official public release of Wave later this year. Please note, it’s an hour and twenty minutes long so make yourself and cup of tea or coffee, maybe even some popcorn, get comfortable and settle in for a long presentation.

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Google Wave project home page.

Google Wave page on Wikipedia.org.

LiveMocha.com & Pearson buddy up

Livemocha PearsonReuters announced on Wednesday 11th March of this year that LiveMocha.com and Pearson Education Publishing (owners of Longman Publishing) have teamed up to provide a English as a Foreign Language e-learning service marketed directly to consumers.

What is LiveMocha.com?

It’s essentially a social networking website, similar to Facebook, for example (it evens includes a Facebook linking plugin) that is specifically geared towards people who want to learn foreign languages, not just English. It currently offers Arabic, English, French, German, Hindi, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Ukrainian. At present, LiveMocha.com boasts over two million members who can connect with potentially thousands of other members who have similar or complementary language learning needs.

How does it work?

Membership is free and simple to set up although it appears to make its money through plenty of banner advertising which seems to permeate every corner of the site. Once you’ve created your personal profile, LiveMocha.com immediately starts suggesting potential language learning “friends” of different ages and backgrounds from all over the world. So basically, this is a Web 2.0 version of the traditional pen-pal exchanges of our school days. Of course, the web offers far more for communications than the traditional pen, paper and international postal services. One thing I’d strongly recommend here to anyone who’d like to use this service is not to put any “identity sensitive” information, i.e. information that fraudsters could use to steal your identity, such as your date of birth, home town, surname(s) or middle names, etc.

Strengths

From what I can see, the real strengths of this website are in its emphasis on social networking and peer review. Members can write compositions or record and submit speech that they submit for other members to review, grade and give advice. For example, you could write or record and submit a short paragraph about your favourite past-times. Other members are notified about your submission and they can read or listen to it and either write or record their assessment of it. There’s also a basic grading system for giving marks out of five for spelling/pronunciation, quality and grammar.

Since this is a social networking website with an emphasis on conversation and communication, I at least expect to see some way of calling other members through a VoIP service (Voice over Internet Protocol) such as Skype, GoogleTalk, Messenger. What they provide is a chat window with the option to use their proprietary VoIP service. I tried a few times to connect to a variety of other members but without success.

Weaknesses

There doesn’t appear to be any kind of discussion forum or bulletin board which is a shame. Bulletin boards are especially effective at encouraging realistic dialogues between learners as has been amply demonstrated by Dave’s ESL Cafe. It does have chat, however, which appears to work well for one-to-one communication which is probably better than the majority of group chatrooms that frequently descend into a linguistically challenged “free-for-all”.

They also provide a number of language “courses” that appear to be aimed at learners from complete beginners to Pre-Intermediate level. The materials are very basic and some are either frustratingly slow or don’t appear to work at all (I have a pretty fast and reliable Internet connection). The materials appear to be SCORM based and I suspect that they’ve been authored using some kind of automated SCORM IDE. This could explain why they’re so slow. SCORM IDEs tend to produce very large file sizes, typically between 10Mb and 100Mb, for activities that should only be a fraction of that, usually less than 1Mb. To be honest, I don’t think this site is going to win any awards for its e-learning course materials.

Why the LiveMocha.com – Pearson partnership?

I guess that this is where the partnership with Pearson comes in. LiveMocha.com have the framework and an established on-line language learning community that is well advertised and well used but doesn’t have much in the way of course materials, while Pearson have a huge library of language learning course content for learners at every level. It would be great to see LiveMocha.com offering integrated, well designed courses that would incorporate and complement their very successful social networking framework. I await further news on their progress with this project!