Moodle Integrated Synchronous Teaching/Conferencing: A Free Open-Source Synchronous Capability for Moodle

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1 Moodle Integrated Synchronous Teaching/Conferencing: A Free Open-Source Synchronous Capability for Moodle Nicholas Clark, M.S. Research Associate, C4I Center J. Mark Pullen, D.Sc Professor of Computer Science Priscilla McAndrews, M.S. Laboratory Manager, C4I Center Charles Snow, PhD Associate Chair, Applied Information Technology Moodle is a popular free and open-source learning management system with over 49,000 currently active sites registered in 211 countries [1]. It provides a robust and powerful environment for asynchronous distance education. Network EducationWare (NEW) is a synchronous online teaching technology, also free and open-source, that has proven effective in several years of use at (GMU) [2]. Moodle Integrated Synchronous Teaching/Conferencing (MIST/C), pronounced "mystic", is an evolution of the NEW software that integrates fully with the Moodle environment. MIST/C provides instructors an easy way to add a synchronous component in their Moodle courses along with Moodle functions for managing students and course content. In addition to integrating with Moodle, the MIST/C software contains numerous improvements over NEW, motivated by feedback from students and instructors during its use at GMU. These changes include improvements to the user interface, connection reliability, installation, and startup. We discuss here our integration with Moodle: the reasons we chose to use Moodle; software improvements and the user requirements driving those improvements; and our experiences using MIST/C for its first semester. Background With regard to online learning, asynchronous systems typically facilitate student access to course content at a time of their choosing. Students can study and contribute to course content through systems such as discussion forums and , doing so at their own pace. Synchronous systems, commonly supported by technologies such as audio or video conferencing and chat systems, provide students and educators with real-time interaction [3]. In synchronous systems, the instructor controls the pace of learning during the class session. NEW is an open-source system that supports both synchronous and asynchronous interaction. Using NEW, students can choose to connect synchronously to a live class session using audio, video, slides with real-time annotations, and text chat. They can interact directly with the instructor and other students and/or asynchronously through recordings made of the live class sessions. However, NEW does not support all of the advanced capabilities of modern asynchronous learning environments. Copyright 2010 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 1

2 Teaching, Learning and Course Management With the growth of the World Wide Web and the proliferation of Internet access, the Web has become a common delivery mechanism for educational and training content. Over the years, Web technologies have advanced from hard-to-update static content to rich interactive Web applications. Once webmasters, skilled in markup languages and scripting, ruled the Web and manually posted content to servers; now communities of end-users create content in interactive wikis, message boards, and content management systems without needing any knowledge of programming or special markup languages. These technologies have been adapted to education and training purposes in Moodle. A learning management system (LMS), also called course management system or e-learning environment, is a Web-based software tool that allows educators to easily create and update content for an educational community. Typically, this includes features for managing students, tracking grades and performance, scheduling, creating quizzes and homework submission systems, and interactive media such as wikis and message boards that promote student contributions to course material. There are numerous LMSs available, including free and open-source projects such as Moodle and Sakai and commercial products such as Blackboard and Desire2Learn. Our experience using Moodle led us to focus our development efforts there in creating MIST/C. We liked that it was free and open-source with thriving user community and that it is based on the PHP development technology, with which we have significant experience. Since we had been using Moodle for some time, we saw a need for a free synchronous education capability and liked the idea of contributing such a capability to the Moodle community. NEWCM The predecessor to MIST/C, NEW, included a course management capability called NEWCM. For students, its primary function was to provide an easily accessible website for students to obtain course slides, download software, and launch that software to connect to class. For instructors and administrators, it also provided the capability to manage courses, users, slides, and class recordings. NEWCM worked well in supporting the synchronous environment, but was not well suited for asynchronous work beyond managing class recordings. It did not include capabilities for rich content creation, quizzes, grading, or many of the other capabilities of a modern LMS. This resulted in many courses operating in two distinct environments. Users would login to NEWCM website for the synchronous components (e.g. connecting to class) and to Moodle or Blackboard for the asynchronous activities. MIST/C takes advantage of the all of the advanced capabilities of Moodle as an LMS and augments them with a synchronous, live class capability for streaming audio, slides with live annotations, and video content. Moodle Moodle is an acronym for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment. It is designed with a modular architecture and supports a plugin application programming interface that makes it relatively straightforward to enhance Moodle's capabilities or add features. There is a library with hundreds of plugins available from the Moodle community [5]. MIST/C was developed using this plugin interface as a Moodle activity module. This makes it very simple to install (or uninstall) the plugin in an existing Moodle environment. The installation automatically creates the required database tables and entries to support the MIST/C server software. By integrating with Moodle, MIST/C is able to take advantage of existing Moodle infrastructure, thereby reducing the complexity required in maintaining multiple Web applications. It also reduces the burden of Copyright 2010 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 2

3 development by allowing a focus on improving the synchronous software components without maintaining a separate management interface. Moodle provides authentication (or account management) and file management to MIST/C. Most schools have existing systems for managing student accounts and enrollment using technologies such as Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), FirstClass, ActiveDirectory, etc. Moodle can take advantage of most of these systems, which means that MIST/C is able to do so as well. The Moodle student, instructor, and administrator roles provide appropriate privileges in the synchronous class. Instructors and administrators have the ability control the "floor" in the context of the online class, determining who can send audio or manipulate slide content. Moodle also has extensive capabilities for managing content and organizing it in formats as appropriate for the type of course. Courses can be organized into weekly, topic-based, social, or SCORM-based [6] formats. By using Moodle s file management capabilities, instructors can arrange their MIST/C slides and recordings in the way best suited to their course format. Virtual Rooms The MIST/C plugin adds a new activity to Moodle called a "MIST/C Virtual Room." Instructors can add the synchronous capability to their class by adding this activity to their course. In the context of the synchronous class, a virtual room is a dedicated meeting space used only for a specific course, which is available for use at any day and time. In the context of the software architecture, a virtual room is also a specific server process. Evolution of NEW MIST/C is an evolution of NEW that includes improvements in system reliability, interface usability, and new features. All of these were driven by specific requests and feedback from students and instructors. Reliability: Connections MIST/C is a client-server software system. Although the client can operate in an offline mode for viewing and creating recordings, for live classes it usually is operated by connecting to a remote server over a network connection. All network connections are not created equal and, even with the better quality ones, transient failures can happen. With NEW, a network issue might result in the client and server connection being aborted, which would cause the client software to shutdown. Even at GMU, with an excellent network environment, broken connections happen more than we would like. Most GMU classes using MIST/C or NEW operate in a mode that we call "simulteaching" with instructors teaching both a face-toface class and a group of remote students at the same time. In this mode, a network disconnection that interrupts the class and requires the instructor or a support person to restart the software can be very disruptive. To address this issue, MIST/C supports an auto-reconnect system. The software detects the network disconnection, notifies the instructor, and automatically attempts to reconnect to the server. The reconnection happens in the background and does not interfere with the face-to-face live class or the recording. If the client cannot reconnect (which implies a serious network issue) the instructor can continue to teach the class and produce a local recording to be posted for the remote students to download from Moodle later. Copyright 2010 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 3

4 Reliability: Recording Like NEW, MIST/C includes the ability to record all of the activity in the live class session. This includes audio, chat, video, and slides with real-time annotations, all of which are kept synchronized. With NEW, these recordings could be made by the instructors (or students) locally by pressing record in a recording control interface on the client software. It includes the capability to pause the recording if they instructor takes a break or there is an interruption. In use at GMU, we discovered that sometimes instructors would either forget to start the recording or fail to resume it after a break. This would result in missing or incomplete recordings. To address this issue, MIST/C includes the capability to automatically create recordings of class sessions on the server as well as the client. These recordings can easily be retrieved and posted for students in Moodle. Interface Improvements A common complaint from students using NEW involved the number of independent windows: one for each component in the system. The windows needed to be managed individually and created confusion when they were minimized or misplaced on the desktop. MIST/C combines most of these windows into a single unified control window with a reduced footprint on the screen. This makes managing the component interfaces simpler and allows more space for slides, text chat, and video. MIST/C has buttons in its unified interface to start and stop the components, e.g. the recorder or playback control, without having to restart the application. As the components are started and stopped the other tools automatically resize to accommodate the tool on the available screen space. Figure 1 shows a screen shot of the unified control interface with the playback component running. New Features Figure 1. MIST/C Unified Control Interface NEW included a whiteboard component for displaying slides along with annotations synchronized with the audio and video. The native format for slides in the whiteboard is a single page PDF file. The whiteboard also supports the JPEG picture format and can convert Microsoft PowerPoint files into these formats. In MIST/C we have added support for importing multi-page PDF format slides, which we believe provide the most generic and easy to create format from all applications. Early use of MIST/C In the Spring 2010 semester, 27 students in a graduate Computer Science class at GMU beta-tested MIST/C as part of a class taught in the "simulteaching" style. Moodle was used as the LMS and was combined with MIST/C for attending class in real time or reviewing recordings. Homework assignments and lecture slides were made available in Moodle. As a project in the class, 17 students used MIST/C to create their own oral reports including audio, slides, and annotations. The reports were recorded by the students independently using MIST/C in offline mode with no assistance. In addition to recording the lectures, students were requested to provide feedback on their experiences with the software. Of the 17 students who attempted the project, all successfully produced lecture recordings. Most all of the feedback was positive, although several students reported on a specific documentation problem that confused them. We were able to modify the software to accommodate their suggestion and improve the experience. It turns out encouraging students to test your software is a good way to find problems! Copyright 2010 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 4

5 Conclusion MIST/C is a newly available component that provides a synchronous teaching and learning capability for the Moodle community, based on the NEW system plus many enhancements. MIST/C is available free and open source and is easy to add to the Moodle environment. Early tests indicate that it has great promise to enrich the scope of free Internet education software. More information is available at References Hrastinski, S. (2008). Asynchronous and synchronous e-learning: A study of asynchronous and synchronous e-learning methods discovered that each supports different purposes. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 31(4), Moodle Modules and Plugins, Moodle Site Statistics, Network EducationWare,, Networking & Simulation Lab, Snow, C., Pullen, J. M., & McAndrews, P. (2005). An open-source Web-based system for synchronous distance education. IEEE Transactions on Education 48(4), SCORM Module, What is SCORM? Moodle. About the Presenters Nicholas Clark is a Research Associate for the C4I Center who develops software for distributed education and performs research in information security and network protocols and technologies. He holds a BS in Information Technology and MS in Information Security and Assurance from GMU. Address: Engineering Bldg University Drive, MS 4B5 Fairfax, VA, Phone: Fax: Priscilla McAndrews is the Laboratory Manager and a research contributor in the areas of Web-based distributed systems. She holds a BA in Mathematics from Vanderbilt University, a BS in Computer Science from the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and an MS in Computer science from GMU. Address: Engineering Bldg University Drive, MS 4B5, Fairfax, VA, Phone: Fax: J. Mark Pullen is Professor of Computer Science at, where he heads the C4I Center and its Networking and Simulation Laboratory. He holds BSEE and MSEE degrees from West Virginia University and the Doctor of Science in Computer Science from the George Washington University. He is a licensed Professional Engineer, Fellow of the IEEE, and Fellow of the ACM. Copyright 2010 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 5

6 Address: 4400 University Drive, MS 4A5 Fairfax, VA, Phone: Fax: Charles Snow is an Associate Professor of Applied Information Technology at George Mason University. He holds a Ph. D. in Computer Science from McGill University. His main interests are pervasive computing and the effective application of technology to the areas of education and medicine. Address: Bull Run Hall 102F University Boulevard, MS 4F5 Manassas, VA, Phone: Fax: Copyright 2010 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 6

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