Enabling web conferencing in Ubuntu Linux

Ubuntu logoUbuntu Linux and other distributions like Edubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, and Xubuntu have come in leaps and bounds in recent years and are becoming more fully featured and easier to use. I think they are now getting to the stage where they are potential replacements for Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s OS X for elearning. Well, almost…

Web conferencing usually requires Flash

Elearning increasingly includes live multi-way video web conferencing, which on Ubuntu Linux can be problematic. Most web conferencing platforms and systems require either Adobe Flash Player or Java Runtime Environment (JRE) to be installed. If you use the standard Firefox web browser, you need to install Flash Player as an extra, since it isn’t free and open source software (FOSS) and cannot be included in FOSS distributions. Luckily, it’s easy enough to do via Ubuntu’s software centre. It’s a similar process to installing apps on a smartphone or tablet but faster and easier.

More uses of Flash in Ubuntu Linux

There are other areas where Flash Player can be useful. For example, Ubuntu Linux doesn’t have support for the H.264 video CODEC. H.264 is used all over the web, including Youtube*, Vimeo, and Google Hangouts. Adobe Flash Player is an easy workaround to allow you to access and view those services. Also, the SWF Activity Module, Online Audio Recording, Soundcloud, WizIQ, LiveStreaming, and many more plugins for Moodle, as well as Moodle’s default media player, all use Flash.

* Youtube will play video without Flash or H.264 as HTML5 but only low-resolution versions intended for some mobile phones and not all videos are available in this format.

How to install Flash Player in Chrome, Chromium, and Opera

However, installing Adobe Flash Player doesn’t make it available to all web browsers on your operating system (Even on Windows, you need to install one Flash player for Internet Explorer and then one for other browsers). If you want to install Flash Player for other web browsers in Ubuntu, e.g. Google Chrome, Google Chromium (the FOSS version of Google Chrome) or in Opera, it’s a bit more complicated. This means using the Terminal (Ubuntu’s command line; press “Ctrl + Alt + t” to open it) and carefully typing in the following commands. After the first command, Ubuntu will prompt you for your admin password, which is usually the same password you use to log in with (if you’re the computer owner):

sudo apt-get install pepperflashplugin-nonfree
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get autoremove

How to install Java Runtime Environment

Some video web conferencing services and systems require Java Runtime Environment (JRE) to run on your computer. Most notably, Blackboard Collaborate, formerly known as Elluminate Live, requires JRE but even with it and the Iced-Tea browser plugin installed, it can have issues with connecting the audio. This is a frustrating issue that I haven’t found a workaround for yet. Please let me know if you know of one!

You can install JRE and the browser plugin from the Ubuntu Software centre. Look for the OpenJDK Java 7 Runtime and the Icedtea Java Browser plugin and install them both. If you’re feeling more confident with using the Ubuntu Terminal (Ctrl + Alt + t), it’s quicker and easier to install them like this and it will make sure that your computer uses the latest installed version of JRE by default:

sudo apt-get install openjdk-7-jre
sudo apt-get install icedtea-plugin
sudo update-alternatives --config java
sudo apt-get update

More uses of Java Runtime Environment

There are a number of web resources and projects for elearning that require JRE. These include Tufts University’s Virtual Understanding Environment (VUE), a feature rich concept mapping tool, as well as the NanoGong audio recording, Scratch learning games, Java Molecular Editor, Easy Java Simulations (and Open Source Physics), Jmol 3D molecular chemical structure, GroupDocs Viewer plugins for Moodle all require JRE.

Finally

So it looks like Ubuntu Linux is almost there… but not quite yet. Support for multi-way video web conferencing is there and is possible but not complete, especially in the case of Blackboard Collaborate. It’s also sometimes necessary to install additional software in ways that most “normal” users may find confusing and/or discouraging to do themselves on their own computers. Additionally, many learners and teachers may not know why their web conferencing platform doesn’t work or know that it can be fixed by installing the correct software. Let’s hope things improve further in the coming months or years.

Instant, simple video conferencing for free

appear.inThe following is a quick, simple “How to… ” guide for setting up instant, free, “no frills”, easy to use, multi-way video conferencing and chat in Moodle for up to 8 people at a time. It also works on any web page as you see in the embedded room at the bottom of this article.

How to embed appear.in in Moodle

  1. Go to https://appear.in/,
  2. create a video/chat room,
  3. copy the URL link,
  4. in Moodle, create a page (Page resource module),
  5. in the Moodle HTML editor, click on the show source code button <>,
  6. copy (Ctrl + c) and paste (Ctrl + v) the following code: https://appear.in/room
  7. replace [room] with the name of the room you created in step 2,
  8. and save the Moodle page.

There are also options to claim a room as your own and lock it so that only users with the correct password can access it. If you lock a room with password protection, you can simply put the password at the top of the Moodle page where you’ve embedded the appear.in room.

If you want to record conferencing sessions, you can use one of the many screen recording applications that are available. A good free and open source one for Linux systems is Record My Desktop. Here’s a list of screen recording software for other operating systems.

What is appear.in?

According to their terms of service:

“Appear.in is a web based video conversation service that allows you to have video conversations with others in the browser simply by having individual participants typing in the same URL in the browser window. Typing in the same URL will make the participants appear in the same room where you can talk to each other with voice and text chat and see each other with transmitted video. You do not have to install any software or plugins to use appear.in. You also do not have to register or log in to use the service.

Video and sound communicated in appear.in, is only seen by the people who are present in a room at the time the content is communicated. It is not disclosed to anyone who are not present in a room. You should be aware that by default a room is open, so anyone who knows the url can enter the room simply by typing the URL in the browser. If anyone enters a room you are present in, you can see them in the room. You can prevent others from entering a room by locking the room. When a room is locked, only room owners can enter a room.

Chat messages communicated in a room can be seen by people who are present in the room when the message is sent and by people who enter the room during the same chat session. A session ends when there are no people in a room any more. At this time, all messages sent in the chat session will be deleted and can no longer be viewed by anyone.

You can claim a room as your own room. This will give you control over the room, and give you the ability to customize it for your own communication needs. When you claim a room, you enter your email address. You will then get an email containing a link that provides access to the owner privileges for the room. Room owners can customize a room e.g. by setting the background image in the room and by using other customisation options that is or may be provided in the service in the future. Only room owners can set the lock for rooms that have been claimed and the lock will be retained when everyone has left the room so you need the room code to enter back into the room. A crown symbol will be shown on the video feed of a room owner to make it apparent who is the owner.

You can follow a room by clicking the “follow” symbol. Following a room implies that you will be notified whenever someone enters a room you are following, even though you are not currently in the room yourself. You can click the notification to enter the room and have a conversation with those that entered the room.

We retain the right to create limits on use and storage at our sole discretion at any time without prior notice to you.”

Source: appear.in – Terms of Service

Example video conferencing room @ appear.in/matbury.com

https://appear.in/matbury.com

Disclaimer

I have no affiliation with appear.in or anyone associated with them. I have written this article based on my own use of the service with learners and it should not be considered as an endorsement. I am not responsible for anyone under any circumstances who decides to use the appear.in service.

Specifying elearning resources and strategies

Specifying elearning resources and strategiesA common challenge facing those about to embark on elearning projects is knowing just what their options are and what they have to offer. Novice project managers, teachers, and curriculum developers often find themselves at a loss as to where they should start and what they should be looking into. This article is not intended to be a definitive guide (That could fill several books!) but more of a general outline and starting point to investigate and gain a broader understanding of what options may currently be available and how they can be used.

How does this guide fit in with elearning projects?

Organised learning involves some kind of explicit or implicit learning contract, i.e. an agreement and alignment between learners, teachers, and support staff of shared objectives and goals. Here’s a quick overview of some of the main aspects* of developing an elearning contract:

  • Diagnosing learners’ needs
  • Specifying learning objectives
  • Specifying learning resources and strategies
  • Specifying evidence of accomplishment
  • Specifying how the evidence will be validated
  • Reviewing the learning contract
  • Carrying out the learning contract
  • Evaluating learning

Adapted from: Knowles, M. S. Self-Directed Learning. A guide for learners and teachers, 1975, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.

This guide is limited to a broad overview of one particular aspect of investigating, planning, and developing an learning project; Specifying learning resources and strategies; and, in order to limit the scope, does not take into account strategies such as blended learning, i.e. combined face-to-face and online learning. Blended learning in particular, makes many more options available so curriculum developers, teachers, and learners can have the best (or worst?) of both worlds. It also assumes that your project will be centred around a learning management system (LMS) that supports some or all of the features and tools listed.

*Please note that this list is by no means definitive or a set sequence of stages. Developing elearning is often a complex, messy, recursive, fluid activity that frequently revisits and re-evaluates the various aspects in the light of unforeseen discoveries and developments.

What are the options?

This guide is by no means exhaustive and lists only the more commonly researched and used resources, activities, and strategies. There are more options and many that are specifically for particular topics and subject areas. I’m frequently surprised by the number of qualified, experienced teachers, instructional designers, and curriculum developers working in elearning who appear to be unaware or at least uninitiated in using many of the options available to them. Hopefully, this guide can provoke more investigation into and discovery of more of these options.

Resources

  • Text documents: HTML web pages, pure text, Microsoft Office Doc, Open Office ODT, PDF, and eBook formats, e.g. EPUB (free and open ebook standard), AZW, and MOBI.
  • Images: tables, charts, diagrams, infographics, illustrations, photos, etc.
  • Audio recordings: radio programmes, podcasts, lecture recordings, interviews, self-speech recordings, i.e. listening back to yourself talking your way through an activity or problem, etc.
  • Video recordings: similar to audio recording but also including presentations, visual documentaries, etc.
  • Animations: animated illustrations, animated 2D and 3D models, interactive models, etc.
  • Slide show presentations: PowerPoint, Adobe Captivate, Raptivity, Slideshare, Prezzi, etc.
  • 3rd party websites, databases and repositories: external sources of information and media; Wikimedia Foundation, Creative Commons, OER, Google/Yahoo!/Bing Maps, etc.

Synchronous activities

Chat

Allows participants to have real time synchronous text discussions. Pure text discussions have some advantages over voice discussions, in that although they are generally slower and convey less information, so they tend to provide stronger focus on the content of what participants are saying and can encourage normally reticent learners to make more contributions. Additionally, since it is more difficult for and more obvious when some learners try to dominate the conversation, there tends to be more evenly distributed participation and greater inclusion. Chat sessions are also easier to analyse and assess than voice over internet protocol (VoIP) since they’re already transcribed.

Chat services also allow learners to contact each other more spontaneously and informally to ask questions and/or ask for clarifications, and generally increase their engagement, social presence, and sense of community.

Popular examples: Skype chat, MSN Messenger, Facebook chat, etc. Almost all modern LMS’ have chat activities available.

Web meetings

These are real time online virtual spaces that often include multi-way chat, voice over internet protocol (VoIP), audio, and video, shared whiteboards, file uploads/downloads, and slide show presentations. Some services allow participants to attend by traditional telephone for when internet access/bandwidth is an issue. Many web meeting services also offer the option to record sessions so that learners and teachers can review and refer to them at a later date.

Web meetings are an effective way for learners and teachers to increase social presence, get to know each other, build trust and cultivate a stronger sense of belonging and community between  participants.

If users require or would like to access web meetings on mobile devices, it’s essential to check that whichever service you choose provides a native app for it. For the foreseeable future, web browsers on mobile devices are unlikely to have sufficient capacity to reliably support the high demands of multiple participants in multi-way, multimedia communication over the web.

Web meeting software services run on media servers with high processing and bandwidth requirements, and are complex and require highly specialised skills to maintain. Most media servers are consumed as 3rd party web services from independent specialist providers, even by many of the larger media organisations, universities, colleges, and institutions.

Popular examples: Big Blue Button (free and open source), Meeting Burner, Tok Box, WizIQ, Google Hangouts, Skype, and Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate).

Collaborative documents

Shared online text documents, databases, and spreadsheets that can be edited in real time by multiple participants simultaneously. Real time online co-construction of documents can provide a strong focal point to discussions and collaborative projects especially in Social Constructionist learning and teaching approaches, where the emphasis is on the process of creating a document rather than the finished document itself (process vs. product).

Popular examples: Etherpad (free and open source), Google Docs, MS SharePoint, etc. Here’s an example of integrating a collaborative document platform with an LMS: Etherpad and Moodle Integration

Asynchronous activities

Assignments

Similar to traditional college and university essay “drop boxes”, assignment activities enable teachers and assessors to grade and give comments and feedback on uploaded files and assignments created on and off line. Submissions can be documents, images, diagrams, concept maps, infographics, posters, learners’ blog posts, inline web pages, audio, and/or video recordings. Some assignment activities support peer assessment. An advantage to online assignment activities is that learners and teachers can always be sure that they’re looking at the latest version of a document and its comments, avoiding the confusion of trying to manage multiple versions of files from multiple learners via repositories or email (Yes, some people do that!), and can also review earlier versions to see the progress of changes.

Also consider using forums, glossaries, databases, and wikis for collaborative assignments.

Databases

Enable participants to create, maintain and search a bank of record entries. Most people understand databases as MS Excel spreadsheets (although spreadsheets and databases are quite different). They can be a useful tool for learning how to categorise and organise information, construct overviews, and thereby gain a broader understanding of a process, system, or subject area. Databases needn’t be limited to storing text; they can support multimedia too. Having online databases means that learners can collaborate in editing them, leading to greater discussion, reflection, analytical and critical thinking, and therefore deeper learning.

Popular examples: Open Office Base (free and open source), DHTMLX.com (free and open source), Microsoft Access, etc.

Feedback (surveys)

For creating and conducting surveys to collect feedback from learners. High quality feedback can give teachers and curriculum developers invaluable information and opinions from learners related to resource, curriculum, and course design, as well as attitudes and relationships towards each other, teachers, and support staff. Feedback that is frequent, and easy to administer and easy to participate in, and is anonymous when and if required, is an effective way to offer real choice and control over to learners and make their learning experiences more democratic, inclusive, responsive, and engaging.

Forums

Forums allow participants to have asynchronous discussions. For many years, online discussion forums have been one of the main focal points of elearning, communities of practice, and communities of inquiry. They offer many of the benefits of face-to-face discussions and, in addition, give opportunities for different styles of discussion and interaction, as well as providing environments where normally reticent participants can contribute more and have a more influential voice. As forums are asynchronous, they allow time for participants to reflect on their ideas, do further reading and research, and give more informed and considered responses. Some forums support peer assessment via rating systems.

Popular examples: BuddyPress.org (free and open source software), phpBB.org (free and open source software), Elgg.org (free and open source software), Slashdot.org, LinkedIn.com, Actionscript.org, and Facebook.com.

Glossaries

Glossaries enable participants to create and maintain lists of definitions, like a dictionary.  Some glossaries support peer assessment via rating systems, peer, and teacher feedback, and hyperlinks can be automatically added to glossary entries whenever they are used in online text within the LMS. Learners can collaboratively build class glossaries, thereby demonstrating their understanding and mastery of learning objectives while they study and continually use them as a reference resource for key terms and ideas. They can also update and refine their glossary entries as they deepen their experience and understanding.

Lessons/Presentations

Lessons/Presentations are mostly used for bringing together different types of activities into one session and/or creating branching scenarios***. In most cases, lessons amount to presentations of information, maybe with some practice, and maybe with quizzes or tests, i.e. the so called “present-practice-produce” (PPP) approach to learning and teaching; appropriate for transmitting “useful to know” information. As an alternative or complement, it’s also worth considering reading texts, documentaries, and/or silent demonstrations with follow up chat and/or forum discussions so that learners and teachers can get a clearer idea of what learners have understood and learned from the information presented.

Beware: There are many elearning “experts” and quiz software vendors who claim that including quizzes throughout presentations promotes deeper learning. They frequently fail to differentiate between quizzes during presentations and spaced repetition (a technique for memorising verbatim information). To my knowledge, there is no conclusive evidence to support these claims. A meta-study of research papers** on present-practise-produce elearning with and without quizzes concluded that there were no measurable differences in learning outcomes and that including quizzes only managed to needlessly take up more of learners’ time for the same gains.

**Source: U.S. Department of Education, Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning – Review of Online Learning Studies (2009) (PDF)

***A note on branching scenarios: They were an early attempt at adaptive learning, i.e. changing the activities and resources presented to learners according to their responses to choices and questions. They are very difficult and labour intensive to design and set up and have so far shown to be of marginal benefit in comparison to learner centred activities and decision making, e.g. reflective inquiry and reflective practice. Current research is looking into artificial intelligence for solutions but we’re a long way off from anything broadly productive.

Polls

A teacher or learner asks a question and specifies a choice of multiple responses and encourage participants to vote on them. Polls are a quick and easy way to offer choices and gauge reactions to and understanding of learning resources and activities. Many forum software packages, web meeting services, and some learning management systems (LMS’) have polling activities built in and/or are available as extensions.

Quizzes

Allow the teacher to design and set tests and exams, which may also be automatically marked and feedback and/or to correct answers shown. Quizzes can support audio, video, and animations, and some interactive features such as drag and drop matching, order sequencing, and identifying points and areas on images. Native learning management system (LMS) online quizzes have mostly taken over from earlier SCORM based assessment and testing. They are usually easier to create, organise, and maintain, are more flexible, support more features, are easier to make accessible (for Section 508 compliance or similar accessibility legislation), and are more secure, e.g. with SCORM the answers to quizzes are sent to the learners’ web browser cache where “tech savvy” learners can access them.

SCORM packages

SCORM packages are usually authored/created by instructional designers with rapid elearning integrated development environments (IDEs), e.g. Adobe Captivate, Raptivity, and Articulate, among many others. They present an easy entry point into elearning design and development and allow novice elearning instructional designers with very little technical know-how, a shallower learning curve to producing learning resources and activities. They were previously used to present content and give quizzes but have since been superseded by open format, easier to create, edit, and maintain resources and tools that most modern LMS’ support, e.g. presentations, lessons, and quizzes. However, they are still widely used in military organisations (e.g. the US Pentagon is a huge “cash cow” for SCORM based elearning products and services) and corporations for things like basic health and safety conformance/compliance training, and training to use software, since they are much cheaper than providing tutored or supervised training.

However, rapid elearning IDEs like Adobe Captivate and Techsmith Camtasia do have legitimate and productive uses, for example rapid prototyping of ideas for learning interactions, quick “How to…” guides for teacher and learner technical support, and silent demonstrations.

Also see: Cheating in SCORM

Surveys

For gathering data from students to help teachers and curriculum developers learn about classes, resources, and strategies, and reflect on their own teaching. Appropriately designed surveys can also encourage reflective thinking and help to further develop learners’ analytical and critical thinking skills.

Popular examples: Lime Survey (free and open source), Survey Monkey.

Wikis

A collection of web pages that participants can add to or edit; a kind of collaborative encyclopedia. Common activities are co-creating documentation, collaboratively constructing narratives and stories, and categorising, ordering, sorting, and organising information. Most wiki software keeps a record of changes, who made them, and when, making them useful tools for assessing contributions and collaboration between learners.

Popular examples: Wikipedia.org (MediaWiki, which is free and open source).

Caveats and common issues

Different learners will more than likely have different knowledge, experiences, and abilities, and many will be unfamiliar with some of the current elearning activities on web platforms. Which of the options available that you choose to use will depend on learners’ and teachers’ needs, prior knowledge, experiences, and abilities.

Despite what many people believe, we tend to be very poor at multi-tasking; only about 2% of people can multi-task efficiently; and we need to focus on one activity (frame of attention) at a time. In particular, learners and teachers frequently report that they sometimes feel overwhelmed by the skills and knowledge they have to learn in order to successfully complete learning activities. It’s possible to overload the best and brightest of learners by asking them to learn too many things at once. There are three main areas:

  • Tools: Do learners (and teachers!) already know how the tools work and how to use them? Can they easily perform all the actions the learning activity requires of them? e.g. navigate, create, save, edit, submit, download, upload, link to, recover forgotten passwords, etc.
  • Rubrics: The fundamental design of the learning activities. What do learners have to do? How complex are the activities, what are “the rules”, and how long will it take to learn them?
  • Learning objectives: The skill(s) and/or knowledge they are supposed to acquire and/or develop, i.e. the syllabus.

To avoid “cognitive overload” and demotivating learners as soon as they start an activity, it’s important to consider just how much it’s asking learners to do at once in relation to their existing knowledge, experience, and abilities. Ideally, we’d like to spend as much time as possible on learning objectives and as little time as possible on learning to use tools and understanding rubrics. However, some activities can offer significant learning opportunities that make them worth the time and effort. In such cases, we need to reduce the cognitive load from the learning objectives while learners focus on learning how to use the tools and/or what they have to do (the rubrics); so called introductory or user interface training activities.

What’s next?

Now that we’ve established a broader overview of some of the options available for developing resources and learning strategies, we have a starting point for further investigation. There are many more specific and comprehensive books and guides available, as well as large and growing bodies of research into online learning and teaching approaches, methods, and strategies.

However, and I can’t stress this enough, there is no substitute for hands on experience and experimentation, and “learning by doing.” Trying out elearning tools and strategies with learners and watching activities unfold in different contexts, and getting honest, direct feedback from learners and teachers is invaluable. It also gives a better understanding of research papers, providing much needed background procedural knowledge to their usually abstract, declarative generalisations.

A word of caution

Beware of books, guides, and gurus who say things like “This is how it’s done.” or “If you do X, Y will happen.” People are complex and unpredictable. It’s difficult to say how they’ll react to or behave in a given activity. More reputable researchers report their findings along the lines of, “I did this with these particular learners, here’s the context and their backgrounds, and here’s the data I collected and my interpretation of what unfolded.” Above all, be prepared to be comfortable with dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, and getting mixed results. As with all learning and teaching activities in any medium, it takes time, insight, discipline, patience, and understanding complex concepts and interactions to get to grips with elearning.

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

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