E-learning meets ‘The Block’

Lisa Wait

Lisa Wait, eWorks’ newest Accredited Consultant, has held key roles leading national digital education initiatives for government. Her passions include instructional design, educational strategy and digital resource development for schools, VET and industry. Earlier this month we heard about the importance of structuring an appropriate team when it comes to online course development, now let’s consider the best foundations on which to build our projects.

It’s all in the planning

Building a house or doing a renovation requires planning. Before the first ‘sod is turned’ much effort will have already gone into securing a budget, selecting the right builder and specifying the build so that it meets your needs. Months tick by browsing the Internet for ideas, reading decorator magazines, visiting show homes and meeting with bankers and builders. Yes, you guessed it – I went through all of this quite recently! In the process I have learned that an e-Learning project can be compared with constructing a house. The client and supplier work together to design, build and deliver a product within time, scope and budget.

Credits: Home Renovation Cupcakes, by Clever Cupcakes

Unfortunately, however, in the workplace we rarely have the luxury of long lead times to plan projects. Working on an e-learning project is fast paced with multiple technology, business and learner considerations. You can, however, make life easier for yourself. Even a little preparation before you meet with your e-learning consultant will lay solid foundations for your project and assist in building a program that meets business and learner needs. Here are just a few things you can do to get your e-learning project off to a good start:

Describe the e-learning environment

  • What are the educational drivers for your business adopting e-learning? Compliance training? Skills gap? Professional development?
  • Do you have a current technology platform and what are its specifications?
  • What technology access will learners have?

Define learner characteristics

  • Take the time to describe the profile of your learners, including their level of e-learning experience.
  • Will the learners have any special needs, such as language, literacy and numeracy (LLN)?
  • Will learners need technical support?
  • Is there a requirement for learner assessment or demonstration of competency?
  • Which learners will you access for user feedback and testing?

List business needs

  • What are the key business requirements? Demonstrating compliance? Improving productivity? Meeting legislative requirements? In other words, are the powers that be aiming to enhance the impact of training, or to save money, time or both?
  • When does the project need to be completed?
  • What logos/brand is required?
  • What image/key messages are important to the business?
  • And the all-important question – how much money do you have to spend?

Get your team/stakeholders on board

  • Plan how you will demonstrate ROI to management.
  • Agree who will sign off project milestones/final delivery
  • Identify the members of your internal team and their roles in the project
  • Negotiate access to other business units/specialist staff

Identify content sources

  • Source curriculum documents, relevant industry standards and so on.
  • Assemble any existing content
  • Identify style guides, glossaries

Check if there are any copyright or other restrictions to the content you plan to provide including text, graphs, videos, images

No excuses now – it must be time to get started on your project? Contact Lisa for advice.

Free audio troubleshooting checklist

Bronwyn Lapham

Bronwyn Lapham works within E-standards for Training, an activity eWorks manages for the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training. This project includes the annual research, development, review and ratification of the E‑standards for Training – the technical standards for the vocational education and training (VET) sector. As promised in the recently published blog post: Web conferencing audio issues? Get sorted!, Bronwyn now shares the perfect way to avoid web conferencing panic attacks – an easy audio troubleshooting checklist.

Now where did we leave it last time?

Okay, so we have already looked at:

  • The causes of audio issues in web conferences and webinars
  • The use of computer built-in audio alone
  • Best practice when it comes to headsets and microphones
  • Making sure that your speakers are set up properly
  • Consideration of your internet bandwidth
  • Screen sharing and making sure you have the right software in order to do this
  • Flash Players and associated plug-ins.

That’s all fine and well, but how will you go thinking through these factors in a time of stress, when your audio isn’t working at the start of a webinar for example? This troubleshooting checklist will help to get your audio sorted and you enjoying your web conference. We talk about BigBlueButton here, but the fundamentals are the same for most web conference applications.

Tick if OK Issue to Test

1. You have a decent-quality headset with speakers and microphone built in.

At the very least make sure all presenters and other listeners are wearing a set of headphones. Even cheap earbud/iPod headphones are better than nothing. It’s particularly important for the person speaking (whether presenter or attendee) otherwise, when using built-in mic and speakers, their voice going into the microphone is sent back to them via their speaker, then the microphone picks it up again and retransmits, creating a loop, which you hear as an echo. The software doesn’t know which is the important sound “stream”, and attempts to transmit it all.

You can use a conference speakerphone if your users are in one room watching the session on a large single screen. Make sure presenters are speaking close to their microphones.

2. All participants mute their microphones when not speaking.

If you are having audio issues with participants and their local hardware/equipment, one option is to mute everyone (except the presenter, of course!) and ask for questions and answers to be typed via the chat window.

Attendees can use the “Raise Hand” feature to get attention. They could then be un-muted to ask a question or make a comment.

3. Your Internet speed is adequate.

BBB users can check their speed at the time they have the audio issues using http://www.speedtest.net. Download speed should be 1.0Mbps or greater and their upload speed should be 0.5Mbps or greater. If you are using a webcam, you’ll need greater bandwidth – around 1.0Mbps upload as a minimum. (Speedtest step-by-step instructions below)

4. You don’t have ‘competition’ for Internet access.

Is anyone else on the network/at your house doing anything that uses lots of bandwidth (eg: downloading video from iTunes, YouTube, online gaming, VOIP based telephone calls)? Also make sure you only have the minimum number of browser tabs or windows open.

5. Your network is reliable.

Check network reliability by following the ping and tracert/traceroute instructions below.

6. The microphone on the headset is the one that BBB is actually using.

BBB uses the speakers and microphone selected in your operating system settings. To check what these are:

  • On Windows: Start menu > Control panel > Hardware and sound > Sound
  • On Mac: Apple menu > System preferences > Sound

Make sure the microphone’s record volume is set to high in the computer’s ‘sound’ settings. It is very easy to find speaker volumes on most computers but can be harder to find microphone input volumes.

If you need to change those settings, you may need to exit the BBB session and re-enter to for the software to pick up on the change.

To check that both you and BBB agree which headset and mic are being used from within a session:

  • Right mouse button click inside the BBB window during a conference.
  • Choose ‘Settings’ from the menu that appears.
  • Click in the microphone icon along the bottom of the Settings pop up window.
  • Make sure the microphone listed is your headset microphone.

Slide the record volume slider to 80% (NB if you choose 100% it may cause distortion and audio quality issues).

Tick the ‘Reduce Echo’ box.

7. You have the latest Flash Player version on your computer.

To check:

In a browser go to:   http://helpx.adobe.com/flash-player/kb/find-version-flash-player.html

Check your version shown against the current version listed. If they don’t match, follow the “download” and “update” instructions on the same page.

8. You have installed the latest version of Java.

If you can enter the room but you are unable to screen share it’s possibly Java related. Update or install Java – https://java.com/en/

9. You don’t have pop-ups blocked

If screen sharing won’t start check for any pop-up blockers (particularly Firefox where it is small, unobtrusive and at the top of the browser). Java won’t start until you’ve seen and clicked the acceptance message.

Test your connection

You can check the quality of your Internet access by “pinging”. Pinging sends small amounts of data (packets) to the server to measure response times to your computer (in milliseconds).

You can also check the route over which your data gets transmitted. The route taken is dependent upon your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and can highlight why you might be getting slow responses. An Internet outage somewhere might mean that your data has to be routed via somewhere out of the ordinary, or your ISP might be routing it in a way cheaper for them, but also slower for you.

The third test is the speed of actual data upload and download. The website speedtest.net will measure the amount of time it takes to upload and download 100Mb of data and report back to you.

Windows: ping and trace data route

The following tests are specific to BigBlueButton running on eWorks’ TVC. You would change the server to suit your specific situation.

Click on the ‘Start’ button.

Type cmd in the “Search programs and files” input field and select cmd.exe when it is located.

Ping – In the console window that appears, type ping bbb.trainingvc.com and press Enter. (Your window will have slightly different information unique to you.)

You will see any problems with loss of data described as packet loss, and round trip average speed ideally needs to be less than 50ms.

Route taken – In the same console window, type tracert trainingvc.com and press Enter.

This will show you the path that the data is taking to get to the BBB server (you may be surprised!) Somewhere between 10 and 15 ‘hops’ is pretty standard. Of course the more hops and the greater the distance between hops, the longer the data will take to get to and from you and your users, and consequently the more chance of your sound degrading.

This information can be very helpful when troubleshooting. To share this data with support:

  • right-click in the Console window and choose “Select all” from the menu.
  • Press Enter to copy the info to your clipboard. (Ctrl-C doesn’t work here).
  • Paste the info into Notepad or another text editor so you can then forward it on.

Mac: ping and trace data route

Launch Network Utility. (Use Spotlight to search for it.)

Ping – Select the Ping tab. Enter bbb.trainingvc.com in the network address input field and select the Ping button. You will see any problems with loss of data here (described as packet loss). Ping average speed ideally needs to be less than 50ms. If you want to share this information with support:

  • click into the information pane where the ping data is
  • Command-A to select All
  • Command-C to copy it, then
  • paste into a TextEdit or similar text editor window as a location to save it.

Route taken – Next, choose the Traceroute tab. Type trainingvc.com into the network address input field, then select the Trace button. As with the ping data, if you want to share this information with Support:

  • click into the information pane where the traceroute data is
  • Command-A to select All
  • Command-C to copy it to the clipboard then
  • paste into a TextEdit or similar text editor window as a location to save it.

Speedtest.net – Windows and Mac

In a browser window, navigate to http://www.speedtest.net/ and select Begin Test.

The software will select the appropriate server, and download 100Mb then upload 100Mb to get an average bandwidth measurement in both directions. It will also provide an average ping round trip.

(This reading is unusual in that upload speed is generally a good deal slower than download.)

The early bird and all that

Of course the best thing to do is log on early for a web conference or webinar, so that you have time to troubleshoot when there isn’t so much pressure. But even if you find yourself in a bit of a panic, this checklist should make life easier.

Good luck!

And of course let us know if you’re still stuck, or if you need a hand delivering or accessing online training in general.

E-portfolios: Helping kids in hospital to celebrate and share their learning

Emma Fraser

Emma Fraser is a teacher and the head of literacy at The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne Education Institute. The Institute works in collaboration with young people, families, schools, and education and health professionals to ensure that children and young people continue to engage in learning and remain connected to their school community throughout their health journey. In Personalising learning with e-portfolios we heard about The Institute’s plan to implement the use of e-portfolios, now we have a lovely update on their progress.

Earlier this year…

you heard from our Head of Teaching and Learning, Lauren Sayer, about The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne Education Institute’s plan to implement the use of e-portfolios. The idea was to further develop evidence of learning activities in which students take part while learning at the hospital, so as to facilitate a smooth transition into the next stage of their education and lives upon leaving the hospital. We promised to keep you updated on our progress, so you will be pleased to hear that our teachers have been busy using Evernote as a tool to track and assess student progress, share learning insights and reflections and link students back to their home schools, as seen in the case studies below. This flexible learning technology has also become a valuable internal communication and reflective tool; linking teachers within the hospital.

Credit: Children at school, by Lucélia Ribeiro

A day in the life of The Institute

During the course of a given day there are two early years group learning sessions, four primary group learning sessions, and two adolescent group learning sessions. Use of a flexible learning tool has allowed our teaching team a way to share their work with each other instantly, and has enabled subsequent planning for sessions later in the day. This is also the case when teachers are working on projects together, and can use it as a central storage location for all work relating to that project.

A writer’s notebook program

This year we have begun a writer’s notebook program to generate an interest in writing. Each student is given a notebook to keep. Students are encouraged to write daily entries; both in teaching sessions and when they are alone in their rooms. Students can collect artefacts, write observations, record experiences, memories, narratives, and understandings of the world in these notebooks.   The implementation of e-portfolios has been an effective way for our teachers to ensure that we capture the students’ writings from these notebooks.

The inpatient music program

Becky Hall, one of our primary school teachers, runs a music program with inpatients, and she feels that use of a cloud-based learning tools has allowed her to provide authentic links between music and literacy, focusing on drawing out the creative elements of the writing process using students’ notebooks. Just recently, Becky’s learning sessions for the week focused on teaching students how to create mood in a piece of writing, using music as a prompt for inspiration. Her students were taught how to play a song, focusing closely on the lyrics and they were then encouraged to recreate this song using a journey of their own as the focus. Students listened to various pieces of music and then wrote their narratives thinking about the mood of their journey, paying particular attention to the use of descriptive words and setting the scene.

Nikita, a student who participated in this learning experience, used her writer’s notebook as a way to plan, and create her song. Evernote was then used to showcase Nikita’s progress throughout the week. Her learning intentions from each session, class discussions, work samples and reflections were all captured and made available to her classroom teacher. The flexible learning tool was particularly useful in this instance because Nikita was unable to complete this task entirely in hospital, however during her recovery period at home Nikita finished and was able to send her narrative back to Becky. This was attached to her e-portfolio and has subsequently been forwarded to her regular school.

So much more than learning

Another teacher, Alexandra Klazinga, has been working with Josh for the past two years. Josh has had periods both on the wards and recovering at home. Josh and Alexandra have been building his e-portfolio consistently during this period. Originally it was used to document Josh’s learning journey so that he could review and reflect on it, as well as share his work with his teacher and his peers at school to maintain school connectedness. It also helped him to see that the work he completed at the hospital had a purpose and was important to his classroom teacher. Since January, after losing his vision, Josh’s e-portfolio has become more of a storage point for his completed work, for the benefit mostly of his classroom teacher. She has used the documentation contained within it to assess Josh’s current strengths and weaknesses, and to plan for his return to school in Term 2.

The beauty of sharing

Early childhood educator, Sonja Fea, has also found e-portfolios useful in her work with Rhys, a six year old, who is enrolled with Distance Education Victoria. Sonja has created a portfolio as a way to share Rhys’ learning within the hospital environment with his teacher at Distance Education. Sonja has been documenting all of Rhys’ sessions, focusing specifically on the areas of literacy and numeracy. This work is then shared with his Distance Education teacher who reviews and assesses the work samples and then provides feedback to Sonja. This in turn informs Sonja’s next teaching action, to ensure that Rhys is achieving all of the standards required by Distance Education.

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows an example of the interdisciplinary nature of one his sessions; a numeracy lesson focusing on one-to-one correspondence and phonetic awareness using images of different food beginning with the letter ‘s’. Sonja finds that e-portfolios are valuable tool which allow her to reflect with Rhys before, during and after learning sessions to gain an understanding of his progress.

Celebrating and valuing children’s work

As a teaching team, we agreed that the use of e-portfolios is holistic and personalised in its approach to the student’s learning and education, age and development appropriate, flexible and future-orientated, based on the student’s strengths with a focus on potential and shows evidence of student learning to schools and families. The three case studies described above demonstrate the flexibility offered by e-portfolios in the way they are used to suit individual needs and help with the transition between learning environments. The teaching team are finding that the platform that they used does not meet the needs for all students. Becky, who runs our music program has found the lack of video function difficult, for example, as this is a way she captures the student’s learning. Sonja also relies on film and video in her teaching, as this is a way to capture the role playing aspect of her learning sessions. Overall, it was agreed that using e-portfolios has enhanced the learning experience for not only the students but also the teachers of the RCH Education Institute, and has been a great way to celebrate and value all children’s work.

Do you have an e-learning success story to share? Then please contact eWorks.

The digital journey from mainframes to SaaS

Rodney Spark

Rodney Spark is the executive director of eWorks and chair of the E-standards for Training Expert Group (EEG). Rodney focuses on improving the flexibility and quality of learning through the application of information and communication technologies (ICT). Here, Rodney shares his views on the digital journey from his first encounter with computing to the emergence of software as a service (SaaS).

Where did your digital journey begin?

My first computer experience was a ‘dummy’ terminal connected to a mainframe. Interestingly, despite the emergence of the PC and individual computing, we have returned to the same scenario – personal devices that connect to large data storages and applications for manipulating the data. There is one significant difference worth noting though and that’s device mobility. For the end user the connecting spaghetti is now ubiquitous and invisible. While you could argue that it has been a 30 year circular path back to our starting scenario, it is important to understand that the journey itself has been essential for re-purposing computing, including for education, and for exerting a ‘people’s voice’ on the re-build.

Then came the thought of ‘big brother’

In the 70s individuals and society were exposed to the conceptual fears created by Orwell’s 1984 and big mainframe computers profiling everything we did was definitely ‘big brother’. Of course the government gave us the privacy legislation that we demanded but was that truly a guarantee that no-one was looking? The emergence of PCs enabled local applications and local data storage, the perfect ‘privacy’ solution for the distrusting public. Then Apple gave us intuitive interfaces enabling a common accessibility to the power of computing.

The birth of personal computers (aka fridges)

Apple IIe
Credit: Apple IIe, by William Warby

My first ‘PC’ was an Apple IIE in 1983 but it wasn’t until I upgraded to my Macintosh SE that I understood the flexibility and creativity that the world of ‘icons’ offered. It was only a black and white world though but the Macintosh SE was also unique for being the first portable PC. It was fully self-contained, you only had to carry the one item and use it wherever you could find electricity. For 1987, my Mac SE was a high performing PC with an 8MHz processor, 1MB of RAM and a 20MB hard drive. In terms of portability there was a well-padded carry bag with strong handles for carrying the 8kg weight. I used to strap the SE on the back of my motor bike and it looked like I was transporting a small fridge.

A time for sharing

Once satisfied with computing’s ‘new world order’ I wondered at the things we could do on our computers but it was a lonely experience given we couldn’t share it with others unless we put a floppy disk in the mail. The Internet changed all of that. At first it was hard to believe that something built for national security and covert activity would not impinge on our individual liberties. In fact the irony is that it enabled ‘people power’ and the capacity for us to share ideas, beliefs and those wonderful things we were starting to create on our PCs ….. and we were able to share privately or publicly.

Learning through computing

It was the Internet and subsequent growth of digital communication that enabled education to fully realise the learning value that computing offered. The wave of PCs that flowed during the 80s and 90s promised low-cost, self-paced learning for all. The IT world was excited about CBT (computer based training) and CAL (computer assisted learning). Employers embraced it with the same level of enthusiasm because it promised them low-cost training for large employee numbers. Educators, however, were not so quick to support CBT/CAL because it sought to replace rather than understand the teacher’s role in ensuring cost-effective learning outcomes.

Or not…

Large amounts of money were invested in CBT/CAL programs for diminished rather than increased learning returns. The three main reasons for the high development cost were:

  • level of technical expertise required
  • emphasis on professional production values, and
  • attempts to mimic the teacher’s capability to respond to individual learning needs.

Experienced teachers will tell you that the repetitive use of identical learning content and teaching strategies does not guarantee the same learning environment or learning outcome. The student is the differentiating ingredient and the teacher is able to adjust accordingly. CBT programs may have been technically innovative and visually attractive but their educational value was limited to rote learning. Consequently CBT/CAL failed to impact on mainstream education, let alone improve the availability and accessibility of learning.

The importance of content

The arrival of the Internet changed this because it promoted content over production values and it enabled content to be packaged with live social commentary. Students exposed to Youtube and other ‘cloud content’ no longer expected high quality production, the focus shifted back to the relevance and usefulness of the content. Today there is a greater student acceptance of teacher created learning material using new digital tools such as mobiles, cameras, videos and so on. Cut and paste learning objects surrounded by teacher commentary and learner support is the essence of quality and affordable e-learning. All good teachers have sound instructional design and communication skills which is why good teachers are also good e-teachers. Contrary to the original promotion of CBT, e-learning is affordable because of the teacher. Teachers adjust and support the learning experience, they provide the quality assurance for maximising learning outcomes and hence the return on the training investment.

The cloud with more than a silver lining

To understand the reason for returning to individual ‘dumb’ devices connected to centralised intelligence we need to understand the popular acceptance of the ‘cloud’. The Internet facilitated the perception of ‘anarchy, state and utopia’ where everyone benefits from everyone else’s presence. There is no perceived threat of ‘big brother’, you control your own content deciding who can see what and the rules of behaviour are limited to the basic requirements to ensure that the Internet survives. Putting aside the debate about the reality of this perception, the impact has been millions of people using the ‘cloud’ to create, store and display their intellectual property. Similarly, millions of people entrust the privacy of even their most intimate communication to the Internet in the same accepting manner as they have always done with telephony. Through social networking services such as Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn and Tumbler people have embraced software as a service (SaaS) and the cloud storage of their digital artefacts. SaaS provides reliability and predictable cost compared with owning local-based infrastructure. As our connecting devices got cheaper and smaller, our use of local applications and data storage reduced.

E-learning today

For eWorks, this shift in mindset is also very evident at a business level with over 200 employers and training providers now using the TrainingVC to manage and deliver their training. Although the TrainingVC has been providing the benefits of SaaS for over 15 years, the demand today for the service is unprecedented. Like many other businesses, training providers are seeking to reduce their ICT risk exposure (i.e. the escalating and unpredictable cost of managing secure business infrastructure) by moving to cloud based services which in turn enables them to concentrate resources to delivering their core business. E-learning began with local applications servicing pockets of innovation. Today e-learning is a core component of the business strategy requiring the provision of business critical systems. This means:

  • full disaster recovery
  • ensuring the security and integrity of data
  • 24/7 access for anyone from anywhere, and
  • large databases and storage requirements.

How has eWorks fared in the digital journey?

There are several reasons for eWorks’ longevity as an SaaS provider.

  1. Our industry leading Service Level Agreement guarantees a performance that’s greater than what’s usually offered for SaaS.
  2. Our research and development capacity to keep up to date with new technology and learning innovation, changing the service accordingly and in conjunction with the preferences and needs of our users.
  3. Our capacity to provide an end-to-end e-learning solution that includes the integration of the TrainingVC with other business systems and local portals, the provision of off-the-shelf or bespoke learning content and related staff training.

I am proud that eWorks’ track record of delivering excellent service is best illustrated by the volume of new business we win through referrals from a loyal and supportive portfolio of clients.

Does your organisation need some support through its digital journey?
Wherever you are, eWorks can help.