The latest in live online classrooms

Big Blue Button Logo

Bronwyn Lapham is a senior technical officer at eWorks. In this role she lives a double life, working within the E-standards for Training activity on behalf of the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training, and also managing the TVC learning delivery platform helpdesk. BigBlueButton (BBB), which provides the classroom features and tools in eWorks’ TrainingVC, has been upgraded to version 0.91. This means that all TVC clients benefit from a range of new features – here Bronwyn tells us all about it.

Yes! The rumours are true

BigBlueButton has upgraded to version 0.91 and this version has been implemented on all TVC sites. BigBlueButton (BBB) is an open-source online classroom package that we have been working with for years. If you’re not quite up to speed with this package you might like to take a look at our top tips for using BigBlueButton. The upgrade means fantastic new features, especially the nifty little start/stop button for recording sessions.

Start/stop button for recording

Instructors can now mark segments of the recorded session for later publishing using a new start/stop recording button in the toolbar. After the session is over, the BigBlueButton server extracts the marked segments for publishing the recording. This means you can create concise, targeted recordings for distribution. Please note that recording needs to be started specifically, it doesn’t happen automatically.

blue buttonsCredits: Buttons by kaboompics

Audio check

To ensure that users have a functioning microphone when joining a session, BigBlueButton now provides a microphone check for users before they join the session. By encouraging your learners to perform an audio check prior to a session you can get sessions started on time and reduce the faff!

Listen only audio

To quickly join the conference as a listener only (no microphone check), BigBlueButton offers a listen only mode. We’ve all been in that situation when we want to quietly creep into a session.

WebRTC Audio

BigBlueButton now uses web real-time communications (WebRTC) audio for users of Firefox and Chrome, giving them better quality audio. And audio quality can dictate whether or not a learner stays until the end of an online class. Please note that Safari and Internet Explorer will continue to use Flash for audio unless WebRTC plugins are installed. For WebRTC, additional UDP ports need to be opened if there is a firewall in the way. The complete port list is TCP 80, 443, 7443, 9123, and 1935 and UDP 16384-32767. Proxy servers will also prevent web real-time communications audio.

Getting up to speed with BigBlueButton

If you’re not quite sure what BigBlueButton offers, or whether or not it is included as part of your Moodle, simply get in touch with eWorks. And for more information about TVC? Likewise.

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.

If you read one higher ed report this year…

NMC Horizon Report 2015 - Higher Ed edition

Bronwyn Lapham works within E-standards for Training, an activity of the National VET E-learning Strategy. 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. Today Bronwyn shares a summary of the one higher education report that we need to read this year – and in the process saves us from having to read it!

What is the Horizon Project?

The NMC Horizon Report – Higher Ed edition for 2015 was published at the Educause Learning Initiative Annual Meeting, held at Anaheim between February 9 and 11 2015. The Horizon Project is a longitudinal research project seeking to monitor emerging technologies expected to have an impact—in the case of this edition—on higher education. The New Media Consortium (Twitter: @NMCorg) also periodically publishes reports that focus on technology trends for schools, libraries and museums.

The Report is the output of collaboration by a panel of experts whose work is published, and freely available for viewing or download. There’s an extremely rich resource in the accompanying wiki, which includes the discussion that took place around each of the topics. The Report is—as previously—broken down into three areas: trends, challenges and technologies, all of which are sub-categorised.

This blog post summarises the trends in higher education that were identified in the NMC Horizon Report – Higher Ed edition for 2015; I’ll be following up with the challenges and technologies identified in the report in subsequent posts.

Short-term trends: 1-2 years in each direction

Increasing use of blended learning

The term blended learning describes the situation where at least some component of a learner’s education is delivered via digital media, and where the student has some control over when and where it takes place. This delivery method is blended with the more traditional face-to-face classroom-type setting.

Benefits of this style of delivery include flexibility and ease of access. The high rate of adoption followed by a large rate of drop-outs often observed in MOOCs initially indicated that use of this style of delivery might be short-lived. However, support mechanisms like learning analytics, adaptive learning, and tools allowing combinations of real-time and asynchronous communication between teacher and student continue to improve, allowing problems to be overcome and benefits realised.

Redesigning learning spaces

Changing the settings in which learning takes place is thought to transfer focus from teacher to student, and support more interactive, collaborative and active learning experiences. Collaborative learners are not necessarily confined to one place; learning can be shared with others in remote environments providing grounding in real-world work and social settings.

Common examples of these environments include relocating the presenter at the centre of the group, video conferencing with remote students, and the provisioning of common areas with electrical outlets, wi-fi and other supporting infrastructure to allow congregation of students engaged in learning.

Mid-term trends: 3-4 years in each direction

Growing focus on measuring learning

Learning analytics is the measurement of data gathered during the learning and assessment process. The data can be used to personalise learning for the student, improve on existing pedagogies and identify students at risk of disengaging or who are otherwise falling behind. The practice uses equivalents of commercial activities where businesses analyse online habits in an effort to predict consumer behaviour.

There is potential for great gains in the reliability of figures that benchmark achievements in retention and progression, but privacy and ethical issues should not be forgotten – what level of consent should be asked of a student? What control should they have over their data? Further reading is available in the report, but early research in Australian VET is also available. See Embedding Eportfolios from Box Hill Institute, and Interpreting Learner Analytics Data from Canberra Institute of Technology.

Proliferation of open educational resources

Open educational resources are those that are not just free of charge; there is a movement to have the definition include ownership and rights. In other words, to allow free use to take, re-purpose and modify resources at will. Prestigious universities in the US such as MIT, Harvard and Carnegie Mellon have published resources that range from full courses down to individual items. They are generally published under Creative Commons (or equivalent) licences.

In Australian vocational education and training, many such learning objects (including the Flexible Learning Toolboxes) exist at nationalvetcontent.edu.au, alongside resources for purchase.

Long-term trends: 5+ years in each direction

Advancing cultures of change and innovation

This topic addresses attempts to stimulate innovation and creativity. The underlying driver is the application of Lean Startup methodologies, that is, iteratively re-working product in response to needs of early adopters, reducing exposure to the risk that would traditionally be taken on with heavy investment in an initial launch of a product.

The way higher ed institutions are adopting this methodology is illustrated in the report using an example of how tech infrastructure on campus environments was upgraded to support the use of mobile devices. These upgrades were carried out when it became evident that mobile devices could play an important role in learning and teaching. Examples of the way universities around the US are sponsoring entrepreneurship include collaborations with business and government. VET in Australia would seem to be a leader in this.

Increasing cross-institutional collaboration

This section of the report discusses how, more and more, institutions are creating consortia for strategic alliances and combining resources. Joining forces is also seen as a sustainable way to support infrastructure and IT upgrades, and to provide a broader appeal by being able to offer a broader range of services. The Internet has effectively eliminated many barriers to these alliances.

While there certainly are–and will continue to be–mergers between institutes in Australia, it will be interesting to see how this trend evolves here, and whether market competition will allow local consortia to develop as they have in the US and Europe as stated in the report.

Queries or concerns about developing technology trends in higher education? Get in touch with @VET_Estandards or @eWorksTweets on Twitter, or contact us.

OZeWAI Accessibility Conference highlights

OZeWAI - Australian Web Adaptability Initiative

Since 1998, the OZeWAI conference has brought together people from all over Australia and the world to share experiences and advances in web standards, with an emphasis on inclusivity and accessibility. Over the last few years delegates have met in facilities among the beautiful trees on Latrobe University’s Bundoora campus in Melbourne’s north east. This year the conference ran from 8th to 10th December and was sponsored by Web Key IT, Digital Accessibility Centre and Media Access Australia.

Jacqui van Teulingen, Director of Web Advice and Policy at the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) delivered the keynote asking the question “Are we there yet?” referencing the National Transition Strategy deadline that had the goal of all Australian federal government websites being WCAG 2.0 Level AA conformant by the end of 2014. While progress has been made, the ambitious goal was not met but there has been a significant cultural shift, and the “Digital by Default” strategy is expected to continue the trend towards inclusivity.

This was followed by an update on W3C/WAI, ISO and GPII (Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure) activities from various contributors, then how universities are tackling inclusion and accessibility with representatives from LaTrobe University, Melbourne University and Monash University.

We saw presentations discussing social media and cloud computing accessibility, and a presentation from Andrew Arch on the beautifully meta subject of a standard for standards writers, describing what they should consider to incorporate accessibility in their standards. Yes, my brain exploded.

Mark Rogers of PowerMapper gave a demonstration of screen readers, and shared their fantastic screen reader comparison resource. See which screen reader supports which web technology (eg ARIA, CSS, HTML5 etc) in which browser, what caniuse.com is to HTML5, the PowerMapper Screen Reader compatibility matrix is to screen readers.

I was privileged to present the E-standards Accessible HTML5 Media Player, developed by Sean Norrey at Kangan Institute. I spoke about a little of its history and gradual enhancement which culminated in it winning the Deafness Forum of Australia’s 2014 Online Captioning & Digital Innovation Award. Of course, technology was waiting to bite me (despite my extensive sacrifices to the demo gods), and the projector’s screen resolution interfered with my demonstration.

This was followed by a session on accessible documents including Leona Zumbo introducing Vision Australia’s Document Accessibility Toolbar for MS Word, and Rosemary Spark and Rebecca Stringer Krein talking about training in MS Word accessibility.

Miran Choi, visiting from Korea, presented her work in accessibility requirements for language learning using text-to-speech technologies, and was followed Leona Zumbo introducing the study of the PDF format undertaken by Vision Australia for AGIMO. Mark Rogers also spoke about the WCAG Sufficient Techniques.

An interesting session on natural search user interfaces was presented by Ying-Hsang Liu from Charles Sturt University’s usability lab: “User-centred design and evaluation of information retrieval systems”, including trials of an alternative pointing device (literally – a glove). They used FaceLab’s EyeTracker to identify where people look for information: top left wins again.

Scott Hollier, Gian Wild and Dan Craddock discussed ongoing problems with PDF use. Dan shared stats on PDF use from the Consumer Affairs Victoria site which showed 0.18% of publication views were PDF downloads vs 99.82% page views. When the argument “but what about the aged?” was raised, retirement village stats did show a difference at 0.82% PDF downloads vs 99.18% page views. Andrew Downie gave his perspective on the Alternative Text conundrum – a picture tells a thousand words (but not to screen reader users, those with limited vision, a cognitive disability or a slow connection). Alt text is essential – afford it the same importance as the image.

The elephant in the room—cognitive disability—was the subject of the next session. There are two million Australians who identify as having a cognitive disability, which by the way does NOT equal an intellectual impairment. There is assistive technology for those with cognitive disabilities, but problems arise when trying to explain how it can be used.

The last session was by Gian Wild who described which accessibility-focused activities to perform at which stages of a website development, with a reminder to include periodic reviews after launch. Gian was followed by Justin Brown of Edith Cowan University, who spoke about the accessibility attributes of content management system authoring environments.

The conference finished up with the OZeWAI Annual General Meeting, discussing the possibility of holding next year’s meeting in Canberra and electing the office bearers for 2015. Presentations are expected to be shared on the OZeWAI website soon.