Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Show Document Rocks

Show Document is a slick freeware app that would make a great supplement for your home brew VLE. It’s strength is the ability to open a document on a white screen that allows viewers to edit or markup the document using a variety of tools – a pen, highlighter, whiteout, Add New Text, and Save to PDF. There is also a small window for text chat, so users can make comments and suggestions while editing the document. It works with most common file types including spreadsheet (.xls) and graphic files.

Without video and audio support, it might not replace Elluminate Live!, WiZiQ or Moodle as your core virtual classroom, but it does have features these others lack, so could complement them, or be used alone supplemented with stand-alone video or audio apps; for example by adding a phone conference using Skype or Gizmo would make the editing process go more smoothly.

It has the added advantage of being very easy to use. Open the app at and you will be prompted to upload a document and to invite participants. You may do so in one of three ways: (1) Send the provided URL and session number to invitees, with instruction to "JOIN" using any third-party channel, Email, IM or MySpace Friends, for example; (2) Send the session link; or (3) Send an Email from the Session startup page. A session begins when you upload your document. You cannot preload a document to be edited at a scheduled time later. A session lasts one hour.

In a synchronous VLE context, not being able to send out the session number in advance of a scheduled session requires a clunky work around – “OK Guys, trust me, at 3:00 PM next Monday be ready to receive (an Email/IM message/phone conference call) with the link and session number for class.” My experience suggests that it takes at least ten minutes to get everyone logged in; the younger the students and the more people invited, the more time required and the less time there is for work. For this reason, I would suggest that virtual classroom use be limited to small groups of two to five students with tightly defined goals.

When the session ends, as a security measure, the document is deleted from the server file; hence, the need for the easy-to-use “Save to PDF” button on the session screen. I didn’t see a countdown timer on the screen, but a countdown popup with a five minute warning would be a great addition for folks like me, who tend to lose track of time when working online.

The editing tools work well and edits made with different tools can be cleared selectively. Using the “Add Text” tool opens a text box at the cursor location. It may take a while to get the hang of lining it up with existing text. In addition to typing in the text box, you can cut-and-paste text from a file on your home screen to the text box on the Show Document screen; be warned, the pasted text initially appears as a text string without word wrap, so a long string (sentence or paragraph) simply runs off the document page. You can use your return key to insert line breaks and your pasted copy will appear within a resized text box, which also can be dragged to another location on the page. If you are using this approach to add text to a co-written document, it would be a good idea to provide lots of white space in the original source document for interlineations and text inserts.

I love the simplicity and ease of use. Show Document has great potential as a language teaching and literacy tool –it works with a dozen or more languages, including Chinese and Arabic. A widget for your web page or blog is available from Show Document. If you are using iGoogle as your home page, add the Show Document gadget. Do check it out; it’s free and the ads are not intrusive (so far).

Monday, December 15, 2008

About Online Learning Systems - Finale


I began this extended essay about Online Learning Systems and Virtual Learning Environments several weeks ago. After a discussion of a hypothetical system, modeled after a popular OLS which is currently in use, I gave three examples of ways to build a VLE using freeware web-based tools. The hub for each is a browser; in this case, Firefox, Pageflakes, and Flock; the last two built on the Firefox chassis. During the discussion of each, the key role played by Google became evident, because of the array of information sources accessible through Google gadgets and Google Reader for managing feeds.

The principles and processes I described also will apply equally well for anyone interested in using Google Chrome as the hub browser for a freeware VLE. As a reminder, the criteria I used are that that an effective online learning system (OLS) must have five characteristics: (1) support both synchronous and asynchronous access to a media rich online classroom; (2) a user-friendly graphic interface similar to the ones used on the home computers (Macintosh or Windows); (3) be cross-platform compatible; (4) be equally accessible to users with both low- and high-speed connections without detectable differences in access speed; and, (5) require no installation of software or added costs for users.

The core apps for all of the sample systems consist of: a browser with gadget/widget extensions and tabs; a workspace that includes a whiteboard, audio, video, text messaging, file sharing, and multimedia file display. For asynch operations, add a gadget to your VLE home page to access: a social networking app, such as Twitter; a blog, I use Blogger and Twitterfeed to post thumbnails from my blog to my Twitter page; a wiki, in my case PBWiki; a message board browser gadget; and a feed reader, for which I highly recommend Google Reader to organize your feeds and keep your hub VLE page uncluttered..

After nearly 40 years of face-to-face teaching and learning, I'm a big fan of synchronous operations. Even when Blackboard was the available VLE of choice for classroom support, I also used Elluminate Live!. It was very useful for tutoring, support for stay-at-home students, opt-in classes on snow days when school was closed, and distributed instruction to remote sites (or when I was traveling). It worked equally well from fourth graders to post-docs. Younger students needed about 40 minutes of face-to-face coaching, plus an opportunity to practice. Adults needed about ten minutes on login procedures, then time to participate in the online tutorials and free webinars offered by EL!

Unfortunately, Elluminate Live! is not freeware for groups of more than three simultaneous users, which limits its synchronous use in a freeware VLE to a very small class, tutoring and coaching individuals, and "office hours." However, because, you can archive a session, the small group class can be accessed for asynch review by anyone to whom you have given permission. In this way, with group of ten students, each student could, over a 15 week semester, receive three live classes and 12 archived classes, plus as many live tutorials online as you have the time and stamina to organize. The price is right - FREE - with the Elluminate Live! vRoom.

Other freeware versions of media-rich online learning systems which support a wide variety of tools for learning, are available; for example, WiZiQ and Moodle. WiZiQ has most of the features of Elluminate Live!, but, being newer, has fewer online support options for teachers and suffers from more technical problems synching up students' audio and video feeds, which was also true of Elluminate Live! when it first came on the market about six years ago.

Moodle is a more stable, option rich system. Technically, it is free, but there is a cost. For the no cash cost version, you have to install Moodle on your own server (or home PC). To do this requires more than average user skills and a willingness to mess with areas of your operating system where a screw up can do some real damage. If you are a novice and are going to attempt to install Moodle without outside assistance, backup everything, and I do mean everything, to an outboard source, so if you kill your computer, you won't have to kill yourself, too.

The cash option installation is safer, easier, quicker, and not horribly expensive. You simply rent space on a third-party Moodle server. When you sign up for Moodle, you will also get URL'S for recommended third-party providers. Of course, technically your VLE is not free anymore.

I haven't mentioned this before, but if you're willing to do without the whiteboard, you can still have a voice-only synchronous session in whic for five persons can participate in the live session braodcast on BlogTalkRadio to which the world can listen. While you're live on BTR, your participants can also be using a chat or social net working program for instant messaging or accessing other web sites that you might have sent out via email before the BTR session as program notes. Using a desktop sharing program, if you had big enough pipes, you could use your home brew VLE to push out other content during your BTR session.

If you are really want to be out on the frontier of online learning systems, look into Sloodle, ". . . an Open Source project which integrates the multi-user virtual environment of Second Life with the Moodle learning-management system" to create a 3-D learning environment, complete with avatars and a range of tools to support teaching and learning. If you are already a Moodle user, you can install Sloodle with your current Moodle system. If not, you will need to download and install Moodle (see caveats about).

Regardless of your Moodle status, you will need a Second Life (free) membership, easily obtained when you join Sloodle. Even if you are not interested in a Moodle-Sloodle mashup, a visit to Second Life is worthwhile -- try it. There are an increasing number of education-related activities within Second Life that might of relevance to your teaching. Be warned, there are areas in Second Life not appropriate for everyone. Using Moodle-Sloodle as your entry point allows your to restrict access to limited safe areas.

The pace of change is accelerating with new apps appearing almost daily. Two interesting apps have just come my attention, so they haven't appeared in any previous posts - redanyway and Quibblo. The former, now in beta, is a way to manage multiple blog posts and feeds; the latter, a way to generate online surveys, polls, and quizes, a nice feature to add to you VLE, if you don't have or don't want a full blown virtual classroom setup.

As the cost of technology drops for OLS/VLE options which deliver teaching and learning in ways which support social constructivism, systems based on outdated technology are in danger of becoming digital dinosaurs that disappear, because they have not been able to adapt to the changing environment and user expectations. If you have invested heavily in a digital dinosaur, it's death will be a painful one ,so you will probably try to delay it as much as possible. This only transfers the pain to your students and teachers -- let it die. Build a freeware VLE, much easier to keep up to date. If you're working with teens, put them in charge of maintaining it. If it dies, you won't feel the pain as
much amd will have leerned a great deal about the potential of Web 2.0 applications for eaching and learning.

Watch for a weekly post on this blog, or follow for thumbnails from this blog, where I will be discussing applications, problems, and pitfalls for VLE's and other technology tools available for use in real-world and virtual-world classrooms. Your comments and questions are welcome. I am especially interested to learn how you might be using these tools in your classroom.

If you wish to participate in a continuing discussion of this topic, I'd be happy to meet you in my vRoom virtual office. If there is sufficient interest in this topic, I will set up a hosted session on BlogTalkRadio for a weekly live broadcast, which is automatically archived for distribution as an RSS feed or podcast through iTunes. Contact me via email at

Thanks for reading. Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Flock to Blogger Video Post

From the Flock Media Bar, right click on a video thumbnail, select "Copy HTML for Media" and paste the code into the Blogger Edit Html tab in New Post. The result, with a little tweaking, looks like this:

About Online Learning Systems - Part VI

The Future - OLS to VLE

Sorry for the delay. Here comes the next-to-last installment in which I'll talk about building a freeware VLE on the Flock Browser and some concluding remarks about other tools you might find useful when creating your own VLE.


Flock is built on the new Firefox 3 browser. If you do not already have it, download the Flock browser. Several tutorials for the novice user are available on the opening page. In the upper left corner, the small globe icon, opens your home page, My World. The initial three-column format can be customized. Below the My World caption and date, you will see a gear icon for Widgets. Open it and select the column types you wish to see on you’re My World page. For more detailed information, check out this YouTube video from

Clicking the Person icon in the toolbar tab at the upper left opens Friends, giving you immediate access to Flock-enabled social networking sites. Unlike other browser based widgets, only Flock-enabled sites can be placed within Flock with a single click. These links open in large window on the Flock page. When you sign into a site a list of your site friends will appear in the left sidebar. For VLE purposes I would set up a private site at MySpace or Facebook to which access would be granted only to my "student" friends, making it extremely easy to distribute digital graphic materials. When you are done choosing widgets, you can reduce the list length by clicking on the black triangle to the left of the list title to hide the list.

For the purposes of creating a VLE, use the Accounts and Services icon (looks like a Key) to see the list of Flock-enabled widgets available. Clicking it opens the list in a sidebar. Choose and install the ones you plan to use. They will appear at the top of the sidebar linked to your login on the social network chosen. This becomes your quick hit list. I have Twitter, Blogger, and Aol Mail installed. I might add MySpace or Facebook if I were teaching a course with used digital imagery intensively, such a Art History. If you have your login in set for “Remember Me” at these sites, one click in Flock opens your home page in the app.

When you open one of your links, Flock automatically scans the page for RSS feeds. If one or more is found, you are notified in an orange header bar at the top of the widget screen, with instructions on how to subscribe. A single click on a “Subscribe” button directs the feed into your Feeds sidebar, which is opened by clicking the Feed icon at the top left (it’s the orange radio wave graphic of concentric 90 degree arcs). New feeds cause the icon to glow a brighter orange. If you expect to have a large number of feeds and have a Google account, by all means link your site feeds to Google Reader, rather than opening them in the sidebar. Opening a People widget site or a feed places it in a new tab.

The Image icon between the People and Feeds icons opens a Media bar at the top of the main screen. Thumbnails for videos and pictures will appear on the media bar. The first time you open the Media Bar, you will see thumbnails for videos about how to use Flock. Click-and-drag them onto the main screen to view them without downloding or opening YouTube. You can load videos and images from several popular media sites, such as YouTube and Flickr, onto your media bar, then send them to friends by dragging them to your list of friends at one of the social networking sites in the People sidebar.

Unfortunately, it seems that you can only drag videos into the Flock browser itself,not into flock-enabled apps, such s Blogger or, of course, others. Flock does give you a simple way to embed the video from a Media Bar thumbnail. To put a video on my blog, just right click the thumbnail in the Media Bar, then select copy "HTML for Media." Open the blog from the Flock sidebar, create a New Post and paste the code into your onscreen app – works like a charm for a Flock-enabled app like Blogger, as you can see from a prior post. Unfortunately, for non-Flock enable apps, it appears that there is no easy way to use the Media Bar to embed a video. You will still need to do it the old fashioned way – go to the source and download it or capture the video URL or embed code that appears with the video at the source page.

On the Flock top-left tool bar, the Stars icon is Favorites, automatically imported from Firefox, and the Clipboard is . . . . the clipboard. Stars opens your bookmarks in the left sidebar. For the purposes of a VLE, it would be nice if the Accounts and Services (Key), Favorites (Stars),and Feeds (Radio Waves) could all be opened in the sidebar at the same time . . . but they can’t, so flipping is in your future.

So that’s it for Flock. It’s main benefits are in its ability to move easily and seamlessly between Flock and Flock-enabled apps. It’s a terrific information manager, too, since it’s easy to capture feeds and, using Google Reader, to manage them can be a really powerful information tool. The main disadvantage for my purpose of building VLE is that it doesn’t play well with apps that are not Flock-enabled, such as WiziQ, Moodle, and Elluminate Live! vRoom, about which I’ll be blogging shortly.


Up to this point, I’ve discussed Firefox, Pageflakes, and Flock as possibilities for a hub around which to build a freeware VLE. Any one of them can be used to link and manage eLearning applications, with a high degree of overlap in the services than can be supported. The strength of all of them is the close integration possible from the Firefox 3.0 platform with Google apps, especially Google Reader for managing feeds.

My geekly choice would be Flock, with a prayer that they would Flock-enable Sloodle, which would allow use of Moodle, in a 3-D environment built in Second Life.

Firefox would be my choice for simplicity and ease of use, with iGoogle and it’s gazillion gadgets as my search engine and VLE home page, with the caveat that you cannot expect all third-party gadgets to work well all of the time, so choose carefully and test thoroughly.

Pageflakes is my favorite for creating a workable page layout and managing multiple windows; same caveat with respect to the quality of widgets.

I like the possibility of having each student use either Firefox with iGoogle gadgets or Pageflakes to create their own custom page with assignment-related gadgets/widgets and links of their choice as part of an assignment to be shared with the class online. I used to do this with community college students, with each student incorporating a link to a wiki page in which the project page could be discussed and commented upon by classmates. I used desktop sharing software to coach and help students develop their pages outside class hours. Students either volunteered or were selected at random to share their pages in class.

In my next set of posts, I will be looking more closely at some of the free apps that I’ve mentioned, beginning with the “virtual classroom” packages from Elluminate Live!, WiZiQ, and Moodle.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New and VLE Noteworthy

Item 1.This morning's Wall Street Journal, December 9, reports "MySpace Weds the Wider Web," by Emily Steel, B5, and goes on to say "...MySpace wants its members to start using the site as a central hub to manage their online identities with an ever wider array of information..." by using the MySpace ID to log into affiliated sights, thereby creating seamless data exchange between sites (my interpretation).

Sounds to me like the conceptual basis for a VLE, if MySpace were altruistically inclined --- maybe a new product without ads - not.

Item 2. Yammer " a discussion board for your company: post a status update; ask a question; shares news;, links, opinions and information ..." and "...a private social network ...each user gets a profile ... search (the archive) for any topic ... stay connected ... through our free web, desktop, Blackberry, iPhone, IM, email, or SMS clients... accessible only via SSL"

Membership is limited to members of legitimate companies. It doesn't say for profit companies only, so I don't see why it could not be used by a school or district that has a unique set of email addresses for each staff member and and willing to give them for students to set up a nifty, very low cost VLE . Add a WiZiQ or Moodle virtual classroom for shut-ins and home schooled students and you'ld have it all.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Bloging from Flock

I'm working on building a sample VLE based on Flock.  I've linked Flock to my Blogger site and am creating this post using Flock's blog editor. I like it better than the Pageflakes equivalent, because it opens in a larger pop-up window, is easier to link to Blogger, and has a more stable feel. Let's see how well it works.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

About Online Learning Systems - Part V

The Future – OLS to VLE

In the last post, I described how to create a home brew version of a VLE using free web-based apps and a Firefox browser. In this session, I’ll tell how to create VLE’s based on Pageflakes and Flock.


Strictly speaking, Pageflakes is not a browser; more accurately, it’s a user interface built on the Firefox platform. The concept is sufficiently different from other available browsers to make useful as the basis on which to build your VLE.

When you first open the Pageflakes homepage, it looks a bit like Firefox after you have added gadgets into your iGoogle page. The mini-windows are called “flakes” of which there are over 250,000 available. The Menu button at the top right opens a list of flakes and a link to all flakes. For example, if you have a Twitter account, there is a flake which allows you see a list of your most recent updates (tweets) and those made by other Twitter members you are following.

The Pageflakes page I am building for my sample VLE - K24x7 - uses a three-column format, which can be changed by using the Menu Button, then choosing “Change Layout” from the left column. The format you choose should match the purpose of your page nd teh amount of screen real estate available to you for opening additional windows. If you have lots of room you can use bigger flakes and fewer columns.

I’ve used the Top Links flake to create menu for quick access my blog, wiki, virtual office, my Twitter account, and a meta-search engine. Clicking a menu item opens a new window for the selected site. Since I am using a two monitor setup, I can view two or more sites simultaneously nearly full size. When using the VLE in synchronous mode, I’d open my Elluminate Live! vRoom virtual office in a separate window, and then use the Pageflakes for quick access to utilities and useful sites for reference.

The Mail flake allows me to see new messages as they arrive in my AOL email account; I can change the account I am using the flake’s Edit function. I can also compose and send mail and manage the incoming mail from this flake. In a VLE context, I can use to send email to students from Pageflakes without opening my email account. There is also a flake for Microsoft Windows Live, whoch you allow you to monitor multiple email accounts, but I was unsuccessful in getting it connected to my Live acccount.

I also included a Blog flake through which I can write and edit posts which appear in a mini-blog on my Pageflakes page and also are distributed through Google Reader to subscribers and to my main blog, Knowledge24x7. Authorized users cab also comment on the mini-blog by clicking the (more) link at the end of each post.

The Message Board flake is useful for asynchronous messaging. Clicking a message title opens the message and allows the reader to reply. Unfortunately, the post cannot include hyperlinked text, so you have to include a URL if you want to refer the reader to your email or another web site.

My site also includes the aforementioned Twitter flake. Like Mail, this flake allows me to monitor and update my Twitter account in real time without leaving Pageflakes. Updates are limited to 140 characters. You can see recent updates to your account, archived tweets, and view recent public updates.

In addition, to these communication tools, I’ve added a few flakes for utilities – Google Research, Universal Blog Search, Universal News Search, and a Calendar – and several flakes for online publications I want to follow. Because of my interest in eLearning and the purpose of this Pageflakes site as a VLE, I have flakes for Technorati, CNET Technology News, Slashdot, ReadWriteWeb, and TechCrunch.

The Anything Flake is interesting, although I haven’t decided how to use it yet. It allows you to build your own flake. Click the Start Editor button to design a flake with text, images, and HTML code. If you have a personal web site, you could open it here as a flake. If you plan on doing this, it would work best if you have a narrow version of your site, so it would open completely widthwise within the flake size limits you’ve chosen.

Finally, some housekeeping issues. If you have more flakes than you can easily view, you can collapse less useful flakes by clicking the (very) small triangle icon in the center of the flake’s lower border. The title bar will remain visible and the flake can be expanded by clicking the same small icon.

Don’t get discouraged. Some of the flakes are clunky, working well for a time then inexplicably giving you error messages. The Mail flake seems to be particularly quirky at the moment.

Access to a Pageflake page can be made private – the default- or public. A page is made public by making it a Pagecast. Do this from the Menu. As a public Pagecast, anyone can view your Pageflake, but not alter it unless you allow it. As a VLE adjunct, you can limit a Pagecast to a specific group for which you enter access privileges, such as students, and do separate page tailored for each class you are teaching.

I know I promised to show you how to build and VlE on the Flock browser and I will, just not in this post, as I realize it is getting too long for easy reading. Also, when I finish this series on VLE’s, I will publish a PDF version of the series; hopefully, before Christmas.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

About Online Learning Systems - Part IV

The Future - OLS to VLE

[Note: If you are not interested in the premise on which my forecast is based or are in a hurry, skip to So What.]


With the advent of Web 2 applications, online learning systems are evolving into Virtual Learning Environments. OLS and VLE are frequently treated as synonymous terms; however, I think there are significant differences.
Technically speaking, a system is a "... bounded set of interrelated parts which function as a whole to achieve a common purpose." (Human Behavior in the Social Environment: A Social Systems Approach by Ralph E. Anderson, Irl E. Carter, Gary Lowe.1999) Open systems exchange energy across their boundaries; closed systems do not. A social system is one in which at least two of the "parts" are human beings. In social systems, the primary form of energy exchange is through the communication of information.

Since, as we learned in Physics 101, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, a closed system is subject to entropy -- system death. For example, in a classroom that is truly a closed system, system death occurs when all of the information within the system has been exchanged; that is, when there is nothing more to be learned (or when there is more to be learned, but no one is willing to learn it).
The more open the (social) system, the more easily information is exchanged across its boundaries. Thomas L Friedman's flat world is a direct consequence of the dramatic increase in the ease of information transfer since the advent of widespead public access to the the Internet.

What's outside the boundary of a system? Outside a system's boundary are two things: other systems and the medium which facilitates the transfer of information (energy) between systems, which we call the environment.

So What.

As I see it, then, a Virtual Learning Environment is the larger, more inclusive construct within which one or more Online Learning Systems co-exist (open systems) or compete (closed systems). A relatively closed, text-based OLS, like that of our hypothetical Grade U. is at a competitive disadvantage to a multimedia system, such as Elluminate Live!, because it is unable to exchange information as efficiently and effectively as the more open, multi-channel system.

Why is Google so successful? If you follow my logic, it is because they are perpetually re-inventing themselves by adding new channels of communication. For example, Google acquired Blogger, a free blog publishing site where it is easy to post text, photos, audio files, and video. The New York Times reports (NYT, November 14, 2008)) that "..researchers have added sophisticated voice recognition technology to the (Google) company's search software for the Apple iPhone,? to provide a voice search capability."

What made Skype worth $2.6 billion to Ebay? According to the Only Ebay blog, ?"Skype Journal reports that a whopping 95% of all Internet telephony belongs to Skype, citing market research firm ipoque. This is an amazing statistic that demonstrates that regardless of monetization and growth rates, Skype is incredibly valuable property in the telecom space .... From Businessweek: "A new version of Skype's software, due in early 2008, may contain a number of innovative features that could, finally, demonstrate Skype's strategic importance to eBay. One project in the works, says a person familiar with Skype's plans, would allow eBay - one of the Web's top purveyors of physical goods - to sell digital content. With 246 million registered users, about a quarter of whom use Skype regularly, the Internet phone service provides a plum base of potential customers for music, video, and software downloads".

I rest my case.

Now What - Build It or Buy It.

In Part II, I concluded that an effective online learning system (OLS) must have five characteristics: (1) support both synchronous and asynchronous access to a media rich online classroom; (2) a user-friendly graphic interface similar to the ones used on the home computers (Macintosh or Windows); (3) be cross-platform compatible; (4) be equally accessible to users with both low- and high-speed connections without detectable differences in access speed; and, (5) require no installation of software or added costs for users.

To transform an OLS to a VLE, I propose that one more characteristic be added: (6) the system boundaries be as open as possible, allowing users to create and link new content and third-party applications as seamlessly as possible. In software development, this is typified by the Open Source or E. S. Raymond's bazaar approach. You have two choices: build it or buy it.

My guiding principle for building a VLE is that does not require any cash outlay. Fortunately, building your own VLE no longer requires writing code. Visualize a wheel with a hub and many spokes. Each spoke is a channel of communication. The hub holds the spokes together and allows them to interact and share information. Your VLE hub is going to be your web browser. The key to success is choosing a web browser which allows you to access multiple "spokes" simultaneously.

Elluminate Live! Moodle, and WiZiQ have done this for you. Elluminate Live! is expensive for more than three simultaneous users. Moodle is less expensive, if run on a third-party server, and
free if you can host it on your own server, but requires more than average technical expertise. WizIq is free and provides a half dozen channels of communication, but cannot be tailored to your specific needs, nor can other channels be added to it.Unfortunately, none of these systems, nor other popular commercially available OLS, such as Blackboard, include the ability to create and embed other media, such as podcasts and wikis

By using your own browser, you can easily build your own VLE from free third-party sources.Noteworthy examples of browsers that might be used for this purpose are Firefox, Pageflakes, and Flock.
I love Firefox. It is extremely easy to use, stable, and relatively virus resistant. You can create your own home page by adding "gadgets," mini-applications that deliver content to your home page; for example, a Google Map Search, headlines from The Washington Post, local weather forecasts, sports news from ESPN, or a currency converter. While owned and maintained by Mozilla, Google has been, and continues to be, a major contributor of funding and expertise. There are hundreds of gadgets available; not enough? Create your own gadget. If you click this link, you will see that, with the release of Firefox 3.0, Google's influence is now very evident.

How would I use Firefox to create a VLE. First, download and register it. When you open it, you will find Google is the default seach engine. Reset your default home page to your iGoogle home page; if yo don't have a Google account, create one it's free; then open iGoogle and reset your home page to it. At the upper right, you'll see a link to Add Stuff. This is where you will find the gadgets to populate your iGoogle home page. Choose your gadgets based on what you are planning to do in your nascent VLE. On the left side of the IGoogle page, you will see a hot list of your most popular links. Edit this list to add or eliminate links to provide access to useful resources.

Now add channels of communication you would like to monitor or access simultaneously. Do this by using the File>>>New Window or File>>>New Tab dropdown menu at the toop of the browser page. Use the New Window option if you only need to view a limited number of open channels (web sites) at the same time. With pges sized appropriately to their cintent, about four pages can be opened and used adequately on a on a 19" monitor, without flipping between pages, or stack up as many pages as you want, just don't plan to view them without flipping constantly. I have two 19" monitors, which are more than adequate for six-channel operations.

With six channels, I would use my Google home page with my links and gadgets in one page, My Elluminate Live! vRoom, with its audio, video, whiteboard, and synchronous access in another, my blog in a third, my Wiki a fourth, open Adobe AIR at for realtime file sharing in the fifth, and I still have a free channel to play with.

Add a couple of widgets on my desktop, maybe Trillian, which lets me know when someone in my contact list comes online for text messaging, and Scribefire to grab content from a web page and publish it to my blog.

At this point, my browser-based VLE consists of a combination of open windows, other windows in minimized tabs, and screen widgets for pop-up utilities. With a sound card, headset and webcam, I'm ready to multi-task to support both synchronous and asynchronous screen operations simultaneously, offering full duplex audio, text messaging, two-way video, a whiteboard, blogging, a wiki, and any other channel I might choose to offer, all for no investment in software. Depending on the audience and the purpose of the session(s), I can use any of the applications as my "hub" site and, with Dell Remote, I can run this setup on my home computer from anyplace in the world with Internet access..

I'll continue this discussion in my next post with a description of how to build VLE's based on Pageflakes and Flock can be be created; plus a nod to Google Chrome and some useful widgets you can add to enhance your site(s).

Friday, November 21, 2008

About Online Learning Systems - Part III

Finding an effective online learning systems (OLS)

In my last post, Part II, I concluded that an effective online learning system (OLS) must have five characteristics: (1) support both synchronous and asynchronous access to a media rich online classroom;? (2) a user-friendly graphic interface similar to the ones used on the home computers (Macintosh or Windows); (3) be cross-platform compatible; (4) be equally accessible to users with both low- and high-speed connections without detectable differences in access speed; and, (5) require no installation of software or added costs for users.

When originally developed in 2003, these design criteria severely limited our options; however, one system was clearly superior to others then available, Elluminate Live! ( The program supports synchronous teaching and learning in a virtual classroom with a live whiteboard, two-way multi-party, voice and video, polling, graphing and math functions, multiple-choice questions and quizzes, text messaging, downloads and uploads to and from students, plus other bells and whistles, and all online activities can be captured digitally and archived for asynchronous access. As you might guess, an OLS meeting these criteria would be expensive for the sponsoring host, but since Elluminate Live! is a web-based application, it is far less expensive, easier to maintain, and more durable than hosting it on your own server and having to maintain an IT staff to support it. Better yet, costs can be controlled by keeping the number of seats licensed small, and the program included training, in both synchronous and asynchronous modes, for our faculty.

A new feature, since I last used Elluminate Live!, is a vRoom?. According to the Elluminate web site (, vRoom is a free, 3-person version of Elluminate Live! (in which you can) "...Enjoy real-time collaboration with up to three participants using interactive features such as: Two-way audio; Interactive whiteboard; Direct messaging; Application sharing; File transfer; Synchronized web tour; Live webcam; (and), Breakout Rooms."

Using the vRoom? is a low-tech application by current standards. All that is required are 20 MB free disk space, a sound card with speakers and a microphone (or headset); and a minimum 28.8 kbps Internet connection. I can imagine the use of multiple vRooms for teams of three students engaged in a collaborative project, or teachers holding private conferences or mentoring sessions for students needing extra help, all at no cost and with no technical staff needed. With the free training available, a motivated average computer user would need a few hours a week for 2 to 3 weeks to become sufficiently prepared to deliver online instruction.

By contrast, the program at Grande U. is asynchronous text-only using a threaded discussion bulletin board format. It includes internal links to materials, many of which are available as PDF files, and other university resources in digital format, and can be linked to Microsoft Outlook Express for distribution and monitoring of posts. In addition to text, a post can include external links, but no embedded graphic images, voice or video files. To include an external link, a text document with hyperlinks must be created and formatted offline in MS Word, then cut-and-pasted into the bulletin board post. Text created online can be edited and spell-checked and it will accept attachments, which can be viewed or downloaded. There are no whiteboard or chat functions. Files created within the system can be archived. The user interface is a plain-vanilla, two-color version with minimal interactivity; the cut-and-paste function requires the use of Ctrl-X and Ctrl-V key combination, when used with a Firefox browser. I'm scared to think what would happen if used with Google's Chrome or the Flock browser.

In the late 1980's, I was running a freeware BBS with many of these same features to support teachers doing summer internships in industry. It was useful then for sharing information and responding to questions in an asynch mode, but I also had the advantage of being able to meet the teacher interns at their workplace, where most of the substantive communication and mentoring occurred. Now, twenty years later, it hard for me to accept the premise that a simple BBS is adequate to support high quality collaborative learning in a time compressed environment.

My answer to the first issue, then -- To what degree does the technology provide you with tools to facilitate collaborative learning on line? -- must be that the technology deployed at Grande U. falls far short of the OLS gold standard, Collaborative learning occurs, as Gerlach says,"... through the talk." Can text be considered talk? It delivers content, but text-only online messages lack the visual cues and emotional content helpful for interpretation and understanding. A Smiley is not the answer. By allowing faculty and students to use free tools, such as vRoom, to enhance its proprietary OLS, Grand U's efforts to facilitate collaborative learning online could be improved very significantly at little or no cost.

Does the technology itself encourage or inhibit learning online? Younger students, having been exposed to instant multimedia communication and 3-D multi-party gaming tend to be highly knowledgeable about technology and to have high expectations about its use. It seems likely that they might view the media-limited capabilities of an asynchronous, text-only system as more of an inhibitor to learning than as an accelerator, placing Grande U. at risk of a declining enrollment. It is probably financially unrealistic for Grande U. to replace its current system, but much could be done, as noted above, by using third-party applications to make the system more appealing to Tech-savvy users, as well as more flexible and powerful pedagogically.

Systems similar to Elluminate Live!, with their greater array of synchronous and asynchronous communication tools, are much more likely to be successful in providing the kind of environment needed to fully benefit from a collaborative approach to teaching and learning online. The learning curve is nearly flat, no new equipment or software is needed, and teaching materials and media already in digital format can be easily repurposed for use in an eClassroom.

In my next post, I will be writing about the future of virtual learning environments. In the meantime, questions and comments are welcome.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

About Online Learning Systems - Part II

How well does collaborative learning work in an online environment?

While there is extensive research on collaborative learning, there is less research available on its use in an online environment. What I have been able to review, while generally favorable, is more equivocal and conditional. Two barriers to success that I see forthe Grande U. program, in which I participated briefly, are its instructional design and the effectiveness of the technology, or lack thereof, which supports teaching and learning online.

With respect to instructional design, I've already commented on the apparent disconnect between the admission policy and the assumptions on which the GU instructional design is based. A second concern is the feasibility of delivering an effective program of college level studies, for example a 16-week course in macroeconomics, in the compressed time frame of six weeks to students who may also be working, who may have family responsibilities, who may never have taken a post-secondary course, who may have little or no experience working collaboratively, even at a minimal level, or who may lack skill and comfort in the use of technology, or even all of the aforementioned.

I can imagine this working in a full time, semester-long, face-to-face program, because that's what I did for ten years and loved it; however, I spent an immense amount of time cajoling and counseling students, teaching communication and social skills, group facilitation, and mediation, as well as the contents of a college level course. A truly collaborative program is more effective than it is efficient. It's a long reach for me to believe that the quality of the outcome from a 6-week program, even with more hours per week spent online than is typical of a face-to-face classroom, will approach that of a 16-week class. To be effective, a program needs to include time for introspection and reflection, as well as discourse, some-trial-and-error learning, and even a bit of direct instruction.

This brings me to my third concern, the kind of technology available to support collaborative teaching and learning. I have two issues with the use of technology.

The first issue is: To what degree does the technology provide the staff and students with appropriate tools to facilitate collaborative learning on line? The second issue is: Does the use of the technology encourage or inhibit collaborative learning online?

After I retired the first time in 2000 at age 65, as my wife will tell you, I failed retirement miserably. I first became involved in creating a program to reduce the digital divide by collecting old computers and training high school students to refurbish or recycle them. The recycled computers, with training and a free year of internet access, were given to families with school-age children who did not have a computer in the home. The problem of internet and email access was eliminated. The new problem that emerged was the inability and/or unwillingness of teachers, even those who were enthusiastic about the new potential of universal Internet access by students, to integrate the use of technology into their instruction. To assume that it is sufficient to provide technology without the recipients ability to use it effectively is a grievous error. Teaching online requires a new skill set well beyond the ability to use email and do posts on a bulletin board, wiki, or blog. The ability to design of instruction specifically for eLearning becomes critical.

That experience was followed by working with a network of rural charter schools in three states, to which I was now able to deliver a computer for every needy family because of my previous work. An immediate need of the rural schools was to find a way to share educational resources at a distance; for example, an advanced math teacher in one school teaching Calculus for students in all 17 schools, and to increase access to professional development for rural teachers unable afford or take time to travel to conferences and workshops. The obvious answer was through distance learning, but the harder question to answer was, how do we do it do it effectively on a very limited budget?

Our conclusion was that an effective online learning system (OLS) must have five characteristics: (1) support both synchronous and asynchronous access to a media rich online classroom; (2) a user-friendly graphic interface similar to the ones used on the home computers (Macintosh or Windows); (3) be cross-platform compatible; (4) be equally accessible to users with both low- and high-speed connections without detectable differences in access speed; and, (5) require no installation of software or added costs for users.

Watch for my next post for our solution! As always, comments and questions are welcome

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

About Online Learning Systems


I recently had the opportunity to participate in online training for certification as a faculty member at major provider of university coursework and credit; let’s call it Grande U.. I withdrew from participation at the end of the first week. I didn’t give an explanation other than to say that I had concluded that ‘”it was not a good fit for me.” Why did I decide an apparently highly successful program of adult education was not a good fit for me?

My hypothetical Grande U’s’s program is a program for adult learners in which “adult” is defined by the learners age, 23 or older; recently, the age restriction was lowered, and then eliminated. Instruction is delivered through a proprietary online system, about which I will say more later. Courses are, typically of five to six weeks duration, covering the equivalent of 14 to 16 weeks of traditional college course content.

Design of Instruction

The choice of the instructional design, collaborative learning, is based primarily upon the concepts and assumptions of Malcolm Knowles, who introduced the term andragogy to describe the teaching of adults, in contrast to pedagogy for children. His definition of “adult” is significant. Knowles “…assumes that the point at which an individual achieves a self-concept of essential self-direction is the point at which he psychologically becomes adult.”

ATHERTON J S (2005) Learning and Teaching: Knowles' andragogy: an angle on adult learning [On-line] UK: Available:

For those of you who may not be familiar with the term collaborative learning, one definition can be found at the National Institute for Science Education web site:

Collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of students working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. According to Gerlach, "Collaborative learning is based on the idea that learning is a naturally social act in which the participants talk among themselves (Gerlach, 1994). It is through the talk that learning occurs."

Gerlach, J. M. (1994). "Is this collaboration?" In Bosworth, K. and Hamilton, S. J. (Eds.), Collaborative Learning: Underlying Processes and Effective Techniques, New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 59.

There is a substantial body of research that supports the use of collaborative learning, service learning, experiential education and other similar hands-on, constructivist approaches in a face-to-face mode. The experiential urban studies program, in which I was involved, followed Knowles assumptions about adult learning with considerable success, combining direct experience from internships, with aspects of service and collaborative learning.

The program functioned seven days a week for sixteen weeks, during which I had face-to-face contact with 12 to 14 students for a minimum of 10 hours a week, plus on-the-job observation and three-way meetings with students and their internship mentors at least three times for each student, and as many as 20 hours with individuals who needed help -- 3:00 AM phone calls from the police station were not my favorite form of communication from “adults” whose self-directedness led them to make poor choices.

While collaborative learning may be an appropriate model for instruction, a disconnect between Grande U.’s age-based policy and Knowles psychologically-based definition of an “adult” is evident. The problem with a disconnect between an age-based admission policy and an instructional design on Knowles assumptions about adult learners, as I see it, is that attainment of “a self-concept of essential self-direction” may only be weakly correlated to a learner’s age. We all know numerous examples of childish adults and grown-up children. If this is true, limiting instruction solely to collaborative learning intended for Knowlesian adults may not be the most effective model of learning for an increasingly diverse student population, when no indicators of an applicant’s capacity for self-direction are available.

In my next post, I will be looking at the appropriateness of an OLS based on collaborative learning.

Comments and questions are welcome.