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 Twitter.com/k24x7 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading. Happy Holidays.