Archive for the ‘tools’ Category

There seemed to have been rather a lot of discussion in 2009 about whether the VLE or Virtual Learning Environment was alive or dead (including the ALT-C 2009 debate), and the rise of the PLE (Personal Learning Environment).

I’m very interested in PLEs and informal learning and have blogged and vlogged about the concept.

I’ve perhaps been less interested in VLEs. They seem to serve an institutional purpose, but always seemed to constrain the means students use to express their learning and, therefore, the learning process itself.

However, I’ve recently had cause to look at the area of VLEs. Doing this process I asked myself, “What if you wanted to use VLE technology to provide an environment for open learning?” Well, two things have caught my interest in answering this.

The first is ATutor. I began to amass information about ATutor and rather than let that work go to waste, I decided to write it up here in the hope that it might be useful to others.

When considering the available VLE products, I was interested in the potential of utilizing OpenLearn resources; this led me to consider interoperability standards. The significant standard on the rise for educational requirements is the IMS Common Cartridge, driven by the IMS Global Learning Consortium. This seems to be more significant to education than the SCORM standard, which from my reading of the information, is more appropriate for distance learning and training, and is primarily significant for the US Government and Military training purposes. Common Cartridge aligns much more with a blended learning approach, though is still useful for distance or purely online learning.

Well, by early January 2010 there were only two products that conformed to the IMS Common Cartridge standard, one of which was ATutor.

First I needed to look at the content from an OpenLearn module, so I downloaded one in Common Cartridge format from the Open University site, and then something to look at it with. I found the use ‘as is’ Common Cartridge Builder software (zip file) and downloaded it. I was able to easily unzip and import the OpenLearn module, look at the folder structure and add to the content if I wanted. That seemed very easy.

So how would the same module load into an open demo version of ATutor? I logged into this demo version, and even without unzipping the module was able to import it into ATutor. That too was so easy. Atutor comes with a Common Cartridge editor built in, so creating interoperable content should be easy (I haven’t tried this out yet). I was beginning to think I was onto something here. What if I could create a community using ATutor and import Open Educational Resource (OER) modules and allow access to anyone who wanted to learn from them? Plus I could create my own courses and then make them available as OER. This could possibly encourage others to do the same.

As ATutor is developed out of the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC) at the University of Toronto, accessibility of the software is a primary concern. So ATutor conforms to these accessibility standards:

  • W3C WCAG 1.0 (AA)
  • W3C WCAG 2.0 (pending release)
  • W3C ATAG 2.0 (pending release)
  • Section 508 (US Rehabilitation Act)

There is also an ATRC Web Accessibility Checker so content can be check for accessibility as it is being developed.

ATutur runs on Apache, PHP and MySQL, so nothing too surprise there. I installed a working version of ATutor onto a server running Apache 2.0.63 – PHP 5.2.10 – MySQL 5.0.85 in a little over two hours. The only problem I encountered was that I couldn’t log into the Super Administrator account, not sure why, but I amended the password in the database and everything was fine.

Core releases occur in June/July and December to not interfere with general institutional run courses.

Because of the open ethos of ATutor, there are links from their support website to Open Educational Resources (a vlog post about OER). And significantly, there is a module available to integrate MERLOT resources into ATutor hosted courses.

MERLOT is a leading edge, user-centered, searchable collection of peer reviewed and selected higher education, online learning materials, catalogued by registered members and a set of faculty development support services. MERLOT’s vision is to be a premiere online community where faculty, staff, and students from around the world share their learning materials and pedagogy.

MERLOT’s strategic goal is to improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning by increasing the quantity and quality of peer reviewed online learning materials that can be easily incorporated into faculty designed courses.


I’m interested in using ATutor to create an open learning environment open to anyone to use; with OER course content and with the integrated social network facility for collaborative learning. This could become yet another componet of someone’s PLE. I’ll play around with my installations some more and then start to populate it with some courses.

Which leads me on the second system that has caught my interest. At the time I’m writing this there doesn’t seem to be a vast amount of information available about NIXTY (it’s not publically released yet; I’m on the list for the private beta), but what I have come across has made me very interested in the concept. NIXTY is another Learning Management System (LMS). However, it seems to be going to offer an environment that provides a place to integrate formal and informal learning. The learning processes can be sheltered for an institutions needs, but there is also the potential that learners informal activities can be brought within the NIXTY environment. Also, with a view to the way learning could be going, there is the potential to integrate other Web 2.0 technology with this LMS. It gives learners a place to present their informal work as well.

I was trying to think of a metaphor for NIXTY this morning, and what popped into my head was an old pirate galleon. The main part of the ship is the institutional section, with all that contains, but should you want to walk the plant there is a vast ocean of other resources to you investigate and use for you learning. I await developments in this area with eager anticipation.

Oh and I read NIXTY is working to becoming IMS Common Cartridge compliant.

Additional Links via Diigo:

Some VLE is Dead links:


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Today I came across two very interesting pieces which provide options for assessment when requiring students to participate using blogs and wikis. Assessment when using some of these technologies in education seems to be a continuing bugbear.

The first is a very interesting slidecast by Konrad Glogowski from the University of Toronto. Konrad explains one route to introducing the process of blogging into the classroom and how to develop that process with students. Here he uses a plant growing metaphor, which requires the students to consider what they want from their blog right from the onset. Formative feedback is given to the students partially based on the students’ initial considerations. The overall process applied is one of student enquiry, with them engaged on a topic of research of interest to them (hence ‘engaged’ is the operative word). Konrad nicely weaves in concepts from the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi throughout his presentation.

If you are even considering introducing blogging into your curriculum I would suggest spending 36 minutes to view this slidecast:

with a corresponding blog post.

Paralleling this but for introducing the use of wikis into teaching is this blog post. This article gives some of the academic theory for using this collaborative process. Significantly how to apply assessment to a collaborative wiki based process is considered. And interestingly there is an explanation of how a tool developed by the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) called WikiDashboard was used to ‘measure’ contributions to wikis by individuals.

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Is it possible to recreate the immediacy and interaction of a small seminar group within a large lecture theatre setting?

Well there are tools that can provide a lecturer with feedback during a lecture, the student response system being one example. However, that has to be pre-planned prior to the lecture to be used effectively, so that system doesn’t necessarily give the immediacy you might be looking for and doesn’t allow for audience questions and discussions to take place like in the small seminar group.

But I think there is a phenomenon that can be used to give a lecture more interactivity and dynamism. The concept has arisen out of microblogging during conference presentations. I first saw it at Eduserv Symposium 2008 with the audience (in the lecture theatre and elsewhere online) microblogging comments and them being displayed on the big screen. I’ve subsequently participated as a microblogger from my office, whilst watching livecasts of conference presentations, or without seeing any official output from a conference. This is backchannelling; the discussions that takes place outside the organised channel, so to speak. (I suppose you could say the backchannel is anything that isn’t directed from the front.) If this backchannel is brought into the proceedings it does add an extra dynamic angle to the event. The primary medium for this is now ‘Twitter‘, though before that there were various exponents of ‘CoverItLive‘.

Now image taking that process and implementing it in a lecture theatre with full connectivity and students with laptops or smart phones. Suddenly you’ve got a means of involving your audience right there in the moment. They can be asking questions, giving immediate feedback, allowing content restructuring in realtime, highlighting areas where they don’t quite grasp the concept and need further explanation, they can be interacting, discussing and answering each other’s questions. By the end of the session you and the students can have a transcript of the process, which may be beneficial depending on your needs. Also the channel can be used outside class-time to continue discussions or for the tutor to ask questions to reinforce understanding.

So what are the services that could be used for backchannelling? Well a few suggestions of one’s that allow you to set up a private space for your purposes without having to register are Chatzy, Today’sMeet and TinyChat. Alternatively you could use Google Docs.

My Diigo links about ‘backchannel’ and ‘backchannelling’

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Whiteboards can be used for collaboration or shared discussion work. A group of four or five students gather (or huddle) round to develop ideas. There are ways of capturing this work, placing copycams around the place to take an image of the whiteboard and upload it onto a web location for retrieval tends to be the institutional approach. A quicker way I’ve found is to use a smartphone to take an image and upload the image directly onto a photosharing site using Shozu.

This is good in small teaching rooms for small groups. But does it scaleable? And is it affordable?

Well I think a viable, free alternative has just evolved, and it’s called EtherPad. What EtherPad allows you to do is to simultaneously edit text online as a group, see the screencast. This means that groups can collaborate online in real time, pitching in ideas, but with the advantage of having a useful ‘document’ at the end, which can be accessed from anywhere, re-edited or cut and pasted elsewhere if required. Much more useful than just an image.

With student laptops in lecture theatres this services could be used to introduce effective small group work within a large group setting. Also, there is no requirement to have an expensive AV system installed for the lecturer to be able to display work from different groups. Instead, the lecturer can just use the lecturn PC to display the work of different groups via a web browser, provided s/he has the relevant URLs. Again, this is an example of scaling up a facility that is only usually available in expensive technology rich small group working rooms.

There are additional advantages. Groups where members are physically remote can still easily collaborate in realtime.

But doesn’t Google Docs do this already? The answer is no, not in realtime. “EtherPad lets multiple people work on the same text simultaneously”

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There is an expectation that students can increasingly interact with materials, educators and their peers. A student response system (SRS), also know as instant feedback system, student voting or polling, is a tool that facilitates a rich learning environment within the traditional lecture theatre setting.

I’ve looked through some of the published literature and developed a presentation to highlight some of the advantages of using it for the learner, with some case studies to give a flavour of how it has been used by some instructors.

Link to SRS Presentation

Link to SRS Slidecast

(Clicking on the image will take you to the slidecast. Click to start the presentation, which will automatically scroll through the slides. Video and audio are embedded in the presentation.)

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Online personal portal environments have immense potential in education for a whole host of uses.

Three of the best known online portal tools are:

You can see comprehensive notes about online portals, and Netvibes in particular, from ‘Click On‘ by the BBC/Open University.

Firstly, they are an invaluable way to categorize and organize content of interest if you are a learner. You can place common items on the same page and categorize using understandable names. The content can come from any source that has an RSS feed, which delivers any changes straight to your particular portal page. This saves you lots (and we mean LOTS) of time and effort locating new content of interest to you. This has to be one of THE most useful tools for learners out there and it’s a mystery why more aren’t using them.

This has suddenly turned into a very useful research tool for your studies. Not only can you pull in relevant external reference content, you can also access all your own produced content. This means you can categorize content into separate sections for your different study areas. Then under the relevant section you can pull in all your bookmarks from your preferred social bookmarking tool, along with other content you’ve produced elsewhere; be that reflections or notes you’ve blogged, videos you’ve produced and hosted on YouTube (or elsewhere), your online lab notebook wiki, etc.

You can keep this content in your online portal personal, or (and this is a really good bit) you can share it with others. This means that portals can be used by educators to deliver relevant, topical content to a group of learners. Will Richardson has written about this in his Weblogg-ed blog. You can see how this can be used solely by the instructor educator or as a group resource with the ability for any of the group to add additional content feeds.

Extending this concept further, portals can easily be developed as the hub of content for a community to share resources.

I’ve been working for a while on the use of personal portals from a social education perspective. I played around by developing the uostech portal pages as a hub for Users of Scholarship Technology. I used this as an experimentation and research platform to ‘play’ around with how Web2.0 tools could be loosely harnessed for learning, teaching and research. I presented the uostech concept with a colleague at a Research 2.0 Workshop at the NCeSS Forth International Conference on e-Social Science, Manchester, UK, 18-20 June 2008. A slidecast of the presentation is available online.

By writing this post and working on uostech I realise that there is much more to be done with using online portal tools and I will develop more examples.

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