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.