Using the Moodle Chat activity module for learning

Using the Moodle Chat activity module for learningThe Moodle chat activity module is a simple, basic chatroom platform specifically designed for learning and closely integrated with Moodle courses. Learners can chat, teachers can monitor and participate. Chats can be whole class or in small groups. Moodle saves the transcripts of all chat sessions. This means that teachers and learners can copy transcripts into other activities so that learners can analyse and reflect on their performance, correct errors and devise learning strategies to improve their future performances.

Learners can:

  • Role play dialogues
  • Ask for and give informal help
  • Collaborate on problem solving
  • Collaborate on projects
  • Do information gap and jigsaw activities
  • Play guessing games
  • Study transcripts for error correction, communication content analysis, etc.

Using chat

Why use Moodle chat when there are so many free online services that offer internet telephony, video and file transfer capabilities? Simply because Moodle chat rooms give you control over who can enter and interact with your learners. In order to participate in a particular chatroom, participants must be enrolled on that particular course. More importantly, you and learners have access to chat transcripts and since each chat is integrated with a course, it’s easier to keep track of learners’ participation for support, assessment, grading, etc.

Learner support and study groups

Some students find that online classes and courses can seem isolated. Having a strong social presence within a learning community is vital for cultivating learner engagement and reinforcing their cognitive presence. Additionally, as final exams and dealines approach, learners’ anxiety and stress levels rise and feelings of isolation can increase. Chat sessions provide much needed social contact and support for learners who are stressed and/or in difficulty. Learners can get the support they need from teachers and peers, and chat transcripts are a useful record of others’ help and advice. Something that we don’t normally get from face to face contact.

Creating study groups

An important factor in productive chat sessions is in limiting the number of participants. Some Human Behaviourism researchers claim that the maximum coherent interactive social group has up to five members at any one time and that more than five members becomes difficult to manage. With Moodle chatrooms it’s easy to create a single chat activity that automatically breaks large classes up into smaller assigned groups, each with their own sub-chatroom. A chatroom can be entirely separate or learners can be allowed to see but not participate in other groups’ chat.

Initiating new groups with review assignments

For learners who haven’t worked together before, it’s a good idea to get them started by assigning each one a review topic to prepare ahead of the chat session. You could assign the same topic for all learners in a group, e.g. for critical analysis, or you may want to assign different areas of a topic to create information gap activities.

The need for mediators

In online chat sessions, it’s easy for learners to “lurk”, i.e. watch without participating. This is where transcripts can be useful for assessment and for coaching learners towards more productive and collaborative participation but it’s also necessary for someone to be responsible for encouraging everyone to participate and draw lurkers into the conversation. Teachers can monitor chatrooms or individual learners can be assigned the role of mediator.

Encouraging learners to formulate questions

While it’s often necessary for teachers to provide initial questions to get conversations going, chat sessions can be more engaging and productive if learners are encouraged to think analytically and critically and formulate their own questions. This keeps chats from turning into teacher led question and answer sessions and encourages greater cognitive engagement in learners.

Using chat for tutorial review

Chatrooms are an ideal medium for tutorial reviews with individual learners. Teachers can encourage learners to be more responsible and reflective by discussing their submitted assignments and projects. Learners can review the transcript afterwards for further reflection and maybe even resubmission.

Safe social networking alternatives

Safe social networking alternativesIn a previous post that I co-authored with Jeff Dionne, A thorny issue: Protecting teachers’ and learners’ right to privacy, we highlighted some of the ethical and legal risks of using popular commercial social networking and micro blogging sites such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter for educational purposes. Although modern LMS’ built on Social Constructivist approaches provide a number of tools for collaboration and social interaction, they don’t quite offer the persistence and immediacy of the services offered by Facebook, Google, Twitter, et al. So as a follow up to that article, here’s some secure, free and open source alternatives.

What are the criteria that make a social networking platform lower-risk?

For details about what some of the risks are, please see A thorny issue: Protecting teachers’ and learners’ right to privacy. Here’s a few points that make a social networking platform more ethical and legal for your learners to use:

  • Own and administer your teachers’ and learners’ personal information and user generated content.
  • Audit and monitor all channels of communication, including private messages.
  • Manage and define individual teachers’ and learners’ user access privileges.
  • Take down any inappropriate posts, comments or content as soon as they’re reported or detected.
  • Prevent inappropriate or distracting messages from being shown to teachers and learners, i.e. advertising, apps, games, etc.
  • In the case of younger learners, contact parents and/or guardians quickly and easily, e.g. via email, as soon as issues arise.

How can we achieve this?

There are free and open source projects that enable schools, academies, colleges, universities and companies to create and maintain their own social networking services. It’s early days but the outlook is promising.

StatusNetStatusNet

StatusNet is free open source micro blogging software that offers functionality similar to Twitter, Facebook and Google+. However, StatusNet seeks to provide the potential for open, inter-service and distributed communications between micro blogging communities by adopting the OStatus micro blogging communications standard. Enterprises and individuals can install and control their own services and data.

StatusNet is ready for production use (Version 1.0.1) and I’ve installed an instance on my server: http://statusnet.matbury.com

[update] Having explored StatusNet further, I think it’s still not ready for production use. For example, there’s no moderator or admin interface for managing user accounts so you have to go into the database to find the list of users’ IDs in order to discover their profile pages.

Diaspora*Diaspora*

Diaspora* is currently in Alpha development so it isn’t yet ready for production use. It’s a free personal web server that implements a distributed social networking and micro blogging service. Installations of the software can optionally form nodes (termed “pods”) which make up the distributed Diaspora social network. Diaspora is intended to address privacy concerns related to centralized social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+, by allowing users set up their own server (or “pod”) to host content; pods can then interact to share status updates, photographs, and other social data. It allows its users to host their data with a traditional web host, a cloud-based host, an ISP, or a friend. (Source: Wikipedia.org)

There are currently a number of experimental Diaspora* pods up and running that users can join. If you want to try it out, here’s a list of available pods.

The development team are currently working on a feature whereby teachers and learners can export their own data, making it easier for schools, academies, colleges, universities and companies to comply with existing freedom of information laws.

BuddyPressBuddyPress

BuddyPress is a plugin for WordPress which transforms it into a social networking platform. It’s smaller in scope compared to StatusNet and Diaspora* but it’s also ready for use on production servers. It isn’t possible to connect instances of BuddyPress into a network so users have to rely on RSS feeds and pingbacks to keep track of other BuddyPress sites. It’s suitable if you only want your social networks to run from a single site and collaboration between different schools, academies, colleges, universities, agencies and companies will be difficult.

I’m currently experimenting with an installation of WordPress + BuddyPress here. Please feel free to enroll and join in!

elgg.elgg.

Elgg is an award-winning open source social networking engine that provides a robust framework on which to build all kinds of social environments, from a campus wide social network for your university, school or college or an internal collaborative platform for your organization through to a brand-building communications tool for your company and its clients. (Source: http://elgg.org/about.php)

I’ve installed elgg. on my server and I’m exploring its functions and possible uses for educational purposes.

A thorny issue: Protecting teachers’ and learners’ right to privacy

A thorny issue: Protecting teachers' and learners' right to privacyIntroduction

Elearning is booming and many schools are investigating the advantages and opportunities afforded by using the WWW to enhance participation in learning activities and add value to the courses they offer. The following guide is intended to help schools and teachers avoid some of the risks involved in encouraging or requiring learners of all ages to participate in activities on the WWW.

“Learners’ personal privacy and data security are our responsibility if we require them to use web services.”

What do we mean by require?

Even if we don’t explicitly or intentionally state that teachers and learners must use a particular website, we can, in effect, do this implicitly and unintentionally. If teachers and learners cannot participate fully in a course without using a specific website or service, or may be at a disadvantage if they choose not to use it, then we are, in effect, requiring them to use it. For example, conducting discussions or posting course materials on 3rd party websites or services, or teachers and learners themselves may create their own groups on 3rd party sites if we don’t provide them with more private alternatives.

Why is it important?

Teachers’ and learners’ personal privacy is our responsibility if we require them to use websites and web services. It’s a legal requirement in most countries under “duty of care” (tort law) and in some cases civil law, e.g. the European Union Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications, to learn about privacy on the web and take those responsibilities seriously because failing to do so can result in issues such as:

  • Complaints from teachers, learners and/or guardians which can damage teacher and school reputations
  • Personally Identifiable Information (PII) leaks
  • Profiling of teachers and learners without their consent or knowledge
  • Loss of control of teachers’ and learners’ personal information and subsequent “permanence” making it difficult or impossible to remove
  • Cyber-crime and identity theft
  • Cyber-bullying, i.e. suppressing learners’ rights and freedom of expression
  • Grooming, i.e. predatory abuse of children
  • Invasions by spammers and marketing of products and services that learners may be uncomfortable with or even find offensive
  • Unmanageable offensive behavior by uninvited 3rd parties
  • In rare cases, legal action

Fortunately, there are measures that we can take to minimize these risks easily and effectively. The coauthors of this article have developed this guide to help raise awareness of the issues and provide practical advice.

Website Safety Guidelines

Raise awareness on the issues with teachers and learners

Caution!The first step is to acknowledge that the issues exist and ensure that teachers and learners are adequately informed and understand them. If we fail in this task, we expose ourselves to liabilities both legally and ethically. Fortunately, there are easy ways to raise awareness from short introductory seminars or presentations that highlight the issues, to web safety guidelines, to installing software and putting safety checks in place. So called Digital Citizenship programmes are becoming increasingly popular and participants are often grateful to have been made aware of these important issues and how to deal with them in everyday life on the WWW.

Instead of relying on school network filters, we can also look for other solutions for better protection and education. At the end of this article we list some useful plugins for Firefox and Internet Explorer that not only block the majority of internet surveillance but also help to raise awareness of how pervasive it has become.

Important questions to ask:

  • What are you doing to adequately inform teachers and learners of the risks?
  • What support and tools are you offering in order to help them make well-informed decisions?
  • What tools and resources are you informing teachers and learners about so that they can use the WWW and avoid internet surveillance?
  • Do you require teachers and learners to agree to a clear, concise statement of limit of liabilities for 3rd party sites before participating in online activities?

Minimize teachers’ and learners’ digital footprints

Digital footprintA learners’ or teachers’ digital footprint is the information they leave about themselves on the WWW. It can be innocuous information such as what they had for lunch or it can be an email, phone number, address or date of birth, otherwise known as personally identifiable information (PII). If PII falls into the wrong hands, it can be used for fraud, identity theft or to target teachers and learners with unsolicited marketing campaigns or divulge private personal information without their permission. The maximum information that we require from teachers and learners should be their names and avatars/photos: Just enough so teachers and learners can recognize and identify each other quickly and easily. In some cases, email addresses* may also be required so learners and teachers can be notified of updates to collaborative activities, assessment and/or announcements from teachers or the school. Any more information is more than likely unnecessary for online learning activities. Geographical location, Social Security numbers, addresses, age or date of birth, even gender shouldn’t be stored online unless we have a very good reason to do so and substantial security to prevent access to the data by 3rd parties is in place.

Websites’ privacy policies are probably your best guide to understanding what information they collect and what they do with it. For example, compare the privacy policies of two sites; Google and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and note the differences. Which one do you think is more open and transparent? Which one is more forthcoming with specific details?

Important questions to ask:

  • What Personally Identifiable Information are teachers and learners required to give?
  • Why is it required?
  • How frequently are the privacy policies and end user licence agreement (EULA) on the website updated?
  • What measures are in place for detecting and dealing with abuse such as acquiring other users’ PII and other forms of internet surveillance?
  • Does the website take steps to educate about and/or prevent users from entering too much PII?

*Some schools do not store learners’ email addresses. In this instance, we should look for websites which provide us with tools to create and manage teacher and learner accounts.

Don’t sell out teachers and learners

MarketingAlmost all websites have surveillance software in place, otherwise known as analytics, that gathers user data, i.e. users’ IP addresses, operating system and browser details, cookies from previously visited sites, navigation and mouse movements, etc., which can be aggregated to compile comprehensive profiles on individual users. What websites do with this data is of paramount importance to teachers’ and learners’ personal privacy. We should insist on using websites whose revenue strategies are transparent and aligned with our policies and mission statement.

Additionally, we should also ensure that sites do not contain any 3rd party “share” or “rate this” buttons or embedded apps that may contain user surveillance software. The surveillance of internet users has become a widespread phenomenon and we have a responsibility to reduce teachers’ and learners’ exposure in educational settings whenever possible (for much more on this see “Press articles on internet surveillance issues” at the bottom of this post).

Important questions to ask:

  • How is the website funded? Who or where do its revenues come from?
  • Can marketers and salespeople easily enter the site and promote products and services?
  • Does it support targeted advertising and sponsorship?
  • How easy is it for teachers and learners to shut down and delete their accounts?
  • How easy is their end user licence agreement and privacy statement to read and understand? Do they change often? Does it appear as if they are trying to obscure something?
  • Who does user generated content belong to and what do they do with it? Who has access to it?
  • Do they have software in place to analyze teachers’ and learners’ browsing habits?
  • Do they have business relationships with any non-educational entities? What are they?
  • What messages do they send to users? Why?

Don’t subject teachers and learners to trolls, spammers, child groomers or offensive behavior

Unsolicited marketing

Websites want to make it as easy as possible for you to join. “Join now!” “Signing up is free and easy!” In all but exceptional cases, we should consider websites with instant membership for anyone and everyone as unsuitable for educational purposes.

However, some sites also allow members to form virtual groups and create a protected environment or ‘walled garden’ within the site, i.e. uninvited 3rd parties and marketers cannot intrude on the groups. This may be acceptable if the tools are robust and we can manage them effectively. Often the most appropriate choice is for specialist education websites that are entirely ‘walled gardens’ with a rigorous vetting system in place where only specific people can join through a verification process.

Important questions to ask:

  • Who can become a member?
  • How easy is it to create accounts using false information?
  • If they ask us for our date of birth, address, school, etc., how do they verify that we are telling the truth and what sanctions do they impose on us for providing false information?
  • Once inside, are there effective tools or procedures to protect your environment from inappropriate behavior?
  • Are there privacy settings, and if so, are they clear, consistent, understandable and won’t change without warning?

Monitor and arbitrate teachers’ and learners’ online behavior

Gavel, statutes and scales of justiceWe are responsible for cultivating a productive learning environment that is safe for teachers and learners to use. Sites may include teacher and learner generated content in the form of online chats, discussions, projects and other collaborative tasks and we should ensure that we can meet our responsibilities effectively.

Most social networks enable and encourage users to contact each other privately. In a classroom setting there are risks of inappropriate teacher-to-learner and learner-to-learner behaviors. In the same way that we usually have policies in place that prohibit teachers being alone with a learner at any time in school, the same should be true online.

Also as teachers are required to be present during classes, it’s a good idea to require teachers to have some kind of presence in online learning groups. This is not only appropriate for detecting inappropriate behavior, it’s also a means to provide effective support and motivation to learners. Additionally, the option to automatically filter user-generated content, for example, blank out any email addresses, birthdays, phone numbers, offensive language, etc. that they might try to post, may be useful for some situations.

Important questions to ask:

  • Are all teacher and learner generated content and messages permanently recorded?
  • Can we access communications between all our teachers and learners?
  • Can we perform group-wide and/or site-wide searches for inappropriate behavior?
  • Can we suspend the accounts of teachers and learners who behave inappropriately until an issue is resolved?
  • Does the site provide automatic filtering options to detect inappropriate words or links?
  • Are the provided monitoring tools easy to use and effective?

Conclusion

Schools have always had the responsibility of keeping learners safe. While the current surge of interest in elearning has presented new challenges to these responsibilities, being vigilant and following these safety guidelines can help ensure that all participants are safer and more aware of the various risks.

Useful anti-surveillance tools

Here are some useful plugins for web browsers that monitor and block internet surveillance.

  • Ghostery (Firefox) sees the “invisible” web, detecting companies interested in your activity.
  • Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-out (TACO) (Firefox) automatically blocks 100’s of tracking technologies that advertisers and others use to track you.
  • NoScript (Firefox) is a more advanced approach with a variety of benefits.
  • Tracking protection list plugins (Internet Explorer 9).
  • EFF Surveillance Self-Defense guide to reducing the risks of all online activities.
  • IXQuick alternative search engine to Google that doesn’t profile you by recording your searches or your IP address. How to make IXQuick your default search provider.
  • TOR Browser – Encrypts your communications, data, searches, etc., and hides your IP address, rendering you unidentifiable. Used by law enforcement, military, journalists, businesses, political groups and people under oppressive regimes and extreme censorship around the world. If you use this, you’ll notice that very little of what Google and Facebook provides is actually “free” and many of their services are unavailable without surveillance and your personal data.

Press articles on internet surveillance issues

We’ve compiled a list of relevant news items. Please note that this is by no means exhaustive and that internet searches for news items on the topics mentioned in this article will return many hundreds of results. They are in no particular order.

  1. Facebook must destroy facial recognition data – or get users’ approval, Germany decides
  2. Google hit with record fine
  3. The Terrifying Ways Google Is Destroying Your Privacy
  4. Cory Doctorow describes Facebook as a Skinner box that trains you to under-value your privacy: how do we make kids care about online privacy? (Youtube.com)
  5. Teachers, students shouldn’t be Facebook friends
  6. Will Missouri ‘Facebook Law’ spook teachers away from social media?
  7. Kids Face Intensive Tracking on Web
  8. Are You Being Tracked? 8 Ways Your Privacy Is Being Eroded Online and Off
  9. Personal Details Exposed Via Biggest Websites
  10. Untangling the web: privacy
  11. Social Networking: Keeping It Clean
  12. How To Force a Friendship on Facebook in Three Easy Steps
  13. The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets
  14. Senate Probes Privacy Practices of Google and Apple
  15. How Facebook Betrayed Users and Undermined Online Privacy
  16. Facebook’s Arrogance
  17. Why Privacy on Facebook Is ‘Virtually Impossible’
  18. Facebook ‘close to settlement’ with FTC over privacy failings
  19. Web 3.0 and Privacy Issues – Concern Grows
  20. Facebook could face €100,000 fine for holding data that users have deleted
  21. Facebook investigates pornography deluge after users’ complaints
  22. School apologises for Facebook message calling pupils ‘inbred’
  23. Alarm over secret Facebook accounts that allow children to slip safety net
  24. Facebook refuses to take down rape joke pages
  25. Facebook to be investigated over privacy concerns
  26. Google+ forces us to question who owns our digital identity
  27. Google investigated over household data privacy breaches
  28. Privacy group demands apology from Google
  29. How Do Social Networks Make Money? [In Case You Were Wondering]
  30. Google Agonizes Over Privacy
  31. Facebook in Privacy Breach
  32. Your Apps Are Watching You
  33. There are no free lunches on the internet
  34. Cloud-based educational technology and privacy: a Canadian perspective
  35. Google vs. Facebook on Privacy and Security
  36. Privacy Policies Best Understood By College Grads, Senate Investigates
  37. Privacy, Privacy, Where for Art Thou Privacy?
  38. Why Web 2.0 will end your privacy
  39. Creepy or Convenient? Apps for Tracking, Keeping Tabs
  40. Facebook Squashes New ‘Stalker’ App
  41. Social Networking Privacy
  42. Commerce Department Releases Important Report Urging Comprehensive Privacy Protections
  43. Spokeo is the leading people search engine
  44. On Facebook, You Are Who You Know
  45. 1.5 Million Stolen Facebook IDs up for Sale

About the authors

Jeffrey DionneJeffrey Dionne is the co-founder and CEO of PikiFriends, a safe social network for jr/sr high schools in use worldwide, as well as a full-time ESL teacher in Tokyo.

Matt BuryMatt Bury is a freelance elearning consultant, EFL/ESL teacher, blogger, and Flash and Moodle developer. He created, developed and maintains two plugin modules for Moodle, and a suite of software applications and resources for second language learning. His clients include agencies of the European Commission, universities, schools and colleges in the public and private sectors.

What’s SMIL and why should we use it?

What's SMIL and why should we use it?OK, here comes a geeky article about elearning and data management best practices. Although the issues are very technical in nature, they require the support of well-informed management so that the most appropriate decisions can be made. Understanding these issues from the outset can save you or your organisation a lot of time, effort and going up blind alleys in the not-too-distant future.

What are the issues? If it isn’t broken, why fix it?

Currently, most elearning developers use so called “rapid elearning development tools”, e.g. Microsoft PowerPoint + Adobe Presenter, Adobe Captivate, Techsmith Camtasia, Articulate and Raptivity,  to create and publish content. They present quick and easy solutions to elearning novices, enabling them to create and deploy multimedia rich, highly interactive learning content on the web without learning a great deal of technical skills or knowledge. However, the vast majority of these tools publish content that is “single purpose” or “single use” and elearning content developers may end up spending a lot of time and effort on creating very impressive content that has little effect on learning outcomes and, in the long run, may make elearning courses difficult and time consuming to manage, maintain and develop. Here are some of the drawbacks:

Proprietary dependencies (lock-in)

Rapid elearning development tools create source files that only their software can read and edit. Often, they’re not forwardly compatible meaning that if you want to edit files from a newer version of the software, you’ll have to buy an upgrade. If you want to edit the source files in other tools, it’s usually a breach of copyright and the End User Licence Agreement (EULA) to do so. Additionally, some rapid elearning development tools publish content in out-dated versions of Flash leading to some unexpected problems for developers. Vendors rely on this to keep users dependent on their software and to make it as difficult as possible to migrate learning content development away from their tools.

Inflexible learning content

Published presentations from rapid elearning development tools generally take the form of single or multiple Flash (.swf) files that present the learning content in predetermined sequences. All the text, images, audio, video and animations are locked away inside the Flash file(s). If you want to change the order of a sequence, you have to go back to the source files and re-author and re-publish the new sequence. There’s no access to the published learning content from other software than can re-use and re-purpose it and Learning Management Systems (LMS) cannot allow teachers and learners to access media from the files and use it in presentations of their own or in discussion forums, wikis, glossaries, etc. Now that group learning (AKA social learning or Social Constructivism) is becoming increasingly popular among learners and teachers, this is a severe drawback.

Narrow range of uses

Pedagogically, presentations, slide shows, simulations, etc. have a narrow range of uses. Regular, old-fashioned HTML web pages often have comparable learning outcomes to rapid elearning tool produced learning interactions with video and multimedia. Furthermore, with all the multimedia, audio, video and animation options available at your fingertips, it’s easy to get carried away and to include too much media and too many different types media simultaneously resulting in cognitive overload and a subsequent drop in learning efficacy.

Inappropriate use of quizzes

Most rapid elearning development tools recommend and encourage the use of quizzes before, during and after presentations. Indeed, they pride themselves on providing the best possible editors, training and support for learning content developers to add quizzes to their presentations. However, according to the US Department of Education’s Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning,

Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the amount that students learn in online classes. The research does not support the use of some frequently recommended online learning practices. Inclusion of more media in an online application does not appear to enhance learning. The practice of providing online quizzes does not seem to be more effective than other tactics such as assigning homework.

Source: ED.gov (PDF, page 18)

Can your Learning Management System (LMS) do it?

Most modern LMS’ have well-developed and designed presentation authoring modules built in. They almost all have quiz and exam authoring modules. The results can be comparable to rapid elearning development tools. It’s worth spending some time with your LMS and seeing what it can do. While LMS’ don’t typically have the best support for multimedia, there are a lot of advantages to this option:

  • Learning resources can be edited and created immediately online.
  • No extra software or development tools are necessary.
  • LMS’ are usually database driven which means indexing, searching and maintaining libraries of learning resources in them is powerful, flexible and simple.
  • Some LMS’ have text filters that can automatically add links and tags to learning content and learner generated content to make make them more closely integrated, such as glossaries, wikis and discussion forums.
  • Some LMS’ provide easy to use tools for embedding multimedia into presentations, quizzes, glossaries, etc.

I’m not advocating abandoning rapid elearning development tools altogether (I think they’re very appropriate for one-off, highly particular presentations and simulations) but I think it’s important to understand their limitations and that, in many cases, there are more appropriate approaches to creating, maintaining and managing learning content.

Another option: SMIL XML

The Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL), is a W3C.org recommended XML markup language for describing multimedia presentations. It defines markup for timing, layout, animations, visual transitions, and media embedding, among other things. SMIL allows the presentation of media items such as text, images, video, and audio, as well as links to other SMIL presentations, and files from multiple web servers. SMIL markup is written in XML, and has similarities to HTML.

Source: Wikipedia.org

SMIL is currently most commonly used as a subtitle or text captioning format for online video, otherwise known as SMILText, TimedText or RealText, and for media play lists like those used with the JW Player and the Media Player module for Moodle but, as you’ll see in this article, it is capable of far more than that.

How does it work?

A SMIL XML file contains all the data necessary to organise a play list or learning interaction such as a PowerPoint style presentation or a multimedia quiz. Note that the main constituent parts of the learning interaction are kept separate; the multimedia files, the SMIL data files, any styling and the SMIL player. Software developers call this the Model-View-Controller* (MVC) design pattern which is used in almost all web software, such as Content Management Systems (CMS), such as WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and Mambo, and LMS’, such as Moodle, Sakai, ATutor and ILIAS. This means that each part of the multimedia, data, styling and player can be edited, substituted and recombined separately without “breaking” the learning interaction. Also multimedia, which tends to be costly and time consuming to produce, can be re-used and re-purposed easily for other learning interactions. For example, if all the learning interactions display an image, only one copy of that image needs to be stored on the LMS. If we want to change or update it, we only need to edit or replace this one copy and this will be reflected across all the learning interactions that use it, so there’s no need to go through the laborious task of editing and republishing tens, hundreds or maybe even thousands of files just to change one image, which is the case with typical rapid elearning SCORM packages.

SMIL diagram

* In the case of elearning MVC would be:

  • Model – SMIL XML files and multimedia files. Additionally, SMIL files often contain layout data.
  • View – Any styling, which could include colour schemes, fonts, graphics, backgrounds, logos and branding.
  • Controller – The software that manipulates the model and applies the styling to create presentations and other learning interactions.

Platform agnosticism

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of using a web standard format, like SMIL XML, is that it’s “platform agnostic“, i.e. it isn’t limited to just one operating system, software platform, runtime or playback device. This means that you can develop applications in any language for any operating system or runtime to play SMIL presentations. Options include but are not limited to: Flash and Javascript (for web browsers), Adobe AIR and Java (for desktops), Android apps (mobile phones and tablets) and iOS apps (iPhone, iPod and iPad). The following media players also support SMIL playback: Apple’s Quicktime player, Windows Media Player (WMP) and RealNetworks RealPlayer.

Flexible and adaptable

In addition to playing SMIL files from start to finish, as slide show presentations, it’s also possible to develop custom applications that can use the presentation data to create new activities, for example games, quizzes and reference aids. I develop Flash Multimedia Interactive Learning Applications (MILAs) that read SMIL files and use them to create a variety of learning interactions. With this approach it’s possible to create an almost unlimited range of activity types to your exact specifications.

When should we use SMIL?

SMIL XML is a potential replacement for presentations typically produced by using one of the many rapid elearning development tools. If you find yourself copying and pasting layouts, content, templates, etc. from one presentation to the next or you find yourself doing very repetitive tasks frequently, then that’s a good case for considering adopting a SMIL based approach. Typical rapid elearning development tools that SMIL can replace are:

* OpenOffice.org, the free open source alternative to Microsoft Office, can publish presentations directly to Flash. Additionally, it’s compatible with MS Office documents so it’s one of the cheaper and easier ways to convert old legacy presentations to Flash for web deployment. I previously wrote an article, Open source for elearning, which lists alternatives to commercial, proprietary software.

Why should we use SMIL?

The advantages

  • Open file format – Your typos, spelling mistakes, wrong images, audio or video, etc. can be corrected in seconds with a simple text or XML editor. (Moodle 1.9 allows you to edit SMIL XML files in the course files repository directly online.)
  • Media files are stored separately – Images, animations, audio and video can be updated without having to re-author and re-publish elearning packages. Also screen recordings in either video or Flash are separate from the main presentation structure and can be re-recorded without completely rewriting the whole project.
  • All the data and media is available at a “granular” level so it can be manipulated and re-purposed with software to create an almost infinite variety of learning resources.
  • Web browsers cache media files and, instead of unnecessarily downloading them multiple times, taking up bandwidth and time, they are re-used from the cache. It’s faster and more efficient.
  • Video file formats preserved – As long as video file formats are supported, they are played directly in their original form. This avoids the inevitable loss in quality caused when rapid elearning tools transcode video files imported into them.
  • Presentations can share files and data – It’s possible to re-use media files such as video saving you server storage space and reducing internet bandwidth usage.
  • SMIL is “platform agnostic” meaning that you can develop/use SMIL player applications for use on any operating system or runtime.
  • Course/Site wide configuration – Groups of presentations can be configured using a single, shared file and changes to courses or even whole sites can be made easily. With rapid elearning development tools, it’s necessary to edit and re-publish every single presentation.
  • Smaller file sizes – Most rapid elearning development tools typically produce unnecessarily large files. A combination of SMIL content files and software SMIL players typically produces smaller, optimal file sizes, therefore learning resources download and start faster.
  • No problems with rapid elearning development software versions – You can update image, animation and video production software without worrying if it’ll be compatible with previous or later versions. Additionally, you’re not tied to using any particular software to maintain legacy presentations.

In short, you get a leaner, meaner, faster, more flexible, more editable and ultimately more efficient way of producing elearning presentations and learning resources.

The disadvantages

  • Initial cost of developing a SMIL player (Almost no free or open source web based SMIL players available so please let me know if you know of any)
  • Knowledge of SMIL XML schemata for authoring and editing is required
  • Generally requires some specialised, skilled IT support

Ultimately, the choice is determined by the number of presentations you’re likely to deploy and maintain on your elearning courses. If it’s a small number, then the software development and inconvenience of training or hiring developers with the necessary skills and knowledge outweigh the benefits. However, elearning and blended learning programmes can quickly accumulate large numbers of multimedia learning interactions, which can become difficult and time consuming to manage and maintain and subsequently place unreasonable restrictions on your curriculum development programmes.

More information about SMIL

New Avatar (profile picture) Camera app

New Avatar (profile picture) Camera appIntroducing a new Flash app for the SWF Activity Module for Moodle that is possibly the quickest easiest way for learners and teachers to change or update their avatars (profile pictures). Using your computer or mobile device’s webcam, the app saves your photo directly to Moodle without saving images to your desktop or uploading.

When you’re creating online communities of learning and teaching, the ease at which learners and teachers can personalise their user accounts so that they can recognise each other while communicating and collaborating is vital for success. Indeed, many papers, journal articles have been written and presentations given on the importance of sociability and usability.  However, Moodle’s user profile pages are notoriously difficult for users to find and edit and then learners and teachers are left with the responsibility of taking or finding their own photos, editing them to a suitable size and uploading them. Some learners and teachers  don’t have the time or the facilities needed and just don’t get round to doing it. So the Avatar Camera at least resolves this issue. Using it couldn’t be easier.

Instructions

  1. Enter an instance of the Avatar Camera activity where it’s deployed in a Moodle course.
  2. On the Adobe Flash Player Settings dialogue box, select “Allow” to activate your webcam.
  3. The app will show your current avatar and a live feed from your webcam.
  4. Click on the camera icon button as many times as you like to take photos.
  5. The photos will appear, in sequence, on your screen.
  6. To save the photo you want, click on it.
  7. The app will overwrite your current avatar with the new one.

Please note: Moodle course, forum, glossary, message, etc. pages don’t handle caching very well so you may need to click the refresh button on your web browser to see the changed avatar.

Where can I see it?

An Avatar Camera demo is up and running on my Moodle on the Multimedia Interactive Learning Applications (MILAs) course. Guest access is allowed but guests can’t save avatar photos. It’s best deployed with the latest version of the SWF Activity Module for Moodle but, with a some programming know-how, it can also be deployed in other learning management systems (LMS) and content management systems (CMS).