[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.
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 Acrobat.com 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).