Virtual Labs: Transform your IT delivery

Jason Kinsella, CEO of Cloud PeopleJason Kinsella is CEO of Cloud People, an Australian online education company. Cloud People’s Virtual Labs platform has been developed to help education institutions deliver cloud-based practice labs to their students in a user-friendly, cost effective way. Here, Jason explains how Virtual Labs can transform the delivery of IT courses and improve student engagement.

Can you learn IT online?

When learning IT skills, hands-on practical experience is essential. IT practice labs bring theory to life, by giving students an environment in which they can apply the practical skills they learn in an IT course. While this might seem obvious, giving students access to real IT equipment for labs, coursework, or practical assessments remains a huge challenge for educational institutions and IT learning organisations. And as education moves from traditional classrooms to the online environment, this challenge is even greater.

What are IT practice labs and how are they beneficial?

An IT practice lab is a web-based environment that contains real IT equipment. Students can access this environment 24/7 using any modern web-browser to develop their skills, without having to install any software. By using IT practice labs, students can deepen their technology understanding without the risk of harming any production systems. In other words, they won’t ‘break’ anything.

Cloud People, has been working with TAFEs, universities and private registered training organisations (RTOs) for almost ten years. In that time, we have seen a number of ways that these organisations try to include IT practice labs as part of their IT learning delivery. Generally they either build an in-house solution, or they provide their students with access to a software vendor’s online labs offering, such as Microsoft Online Labs.

Unfortunately, both of these approaches have their limitations. In-house solutions are expensive to implement and difficult to maintain: They require significant datacentre infrastructure and a team of engineers to manage them. Software vendors’ online lab solutions, while usually provided at no cost to the institution, can be overly generic in their content, are limited in technical support, and operate in complete isolation from your LMS, so there is no visibility of student activity, and therefore no way to track their progress.

How does Virtual Labs transform the delivery of IT practice labs?

Two years ago at Cloud People, we started to develop a platform to solve these challenges. The result is Virtual Labs, a cloud-hosted platform that provides learning providers with a fast, easy and secure method to create full-featured IT practice labs. Our platform has been developed in close partnership with our customers, and in particular, course administrators. The creation and publishing of courses is intuitive on the platform, and it is easy to create new content, or import your existing content.

Virtual Labs is fully integrated with LMSs such as Moodle and eWorks’ TVC. As a result, course enrolments can be automated, and students can seamlessly gain access to practical modules of IT courses, with real equipment – servers, desktops and networking equipment – in their own secure, private cloud. Student results from Virtual Labs practical exercises can then be pushed back into the LMS, to assist with assessment, and provide evidence for auditors.

Our platform also contains detailed, real-time analytics about individual student interactions including access, usage and engagement. These insights are key to improving engagement and completion rates. With a growing focus on the measurement of learning and learner profiling, it is essential that learning providers measure and understand this information.

Virtual Labs LMS Dashboard

We have seen institutions increase student engagement and completion rates, while reducing the total cost of ownership by implementing Virtual Labs. This has been very encouraging for us. We still consider Virtual Labs to be a young product, and feedback from our customers is invaluable in helping us define the future product roadmap.

Do you think your institution could benefit from Virtual Labs?

If you’d like to know more about Virtual Labs, we are currently offering free Virtual Labs trials to all eWorks customers.. Please contact eWorks for more information.

Easy video streaming through your LMS: Why reinvent the wheel?

john-collins-headshotJohn Collins is passionate about cloud-based e-learning solutions which enable the delivery of online training anywhere and anytime. Today, John explains how to easily stream video through an LMS using inexpensive and user-friendly tools on the market – a highly effective alternative to buying and setting up a custom streaming media server with your LMS.

Moodle and video content

Moodle is rapidly emerging as the most popular LMS in the world of global education. eWorks’ customisation of Moodle – TVC – offers a wide range of additional features specific to managing vocational education and training (VET). eWorks’ TVC clients frequently ask how to best deliver video content to their learners using Moodle. There are a number of reasons why we continue to recommend the two major players in web-based video streaming – YouTube and Vimeo.

YouTube and Vimeo – how it works

Both YouTube and Vimeo offer a wealth of opportunities for learning, sharing and collaborating via learning management systems. Displaying and streaming videos in a Moodle course page is easy to do, by simply copying the YouTube or Vimeo share address on the page of the video you wish to add as course content and then hyperlinking the share address, to text or an image in a Moodle label resource. The selected video will then be displayed within the Moodle Course page.

Where you are producing your own video, you first upload this to your own Vimeo or YouTube Account. Once your file has finished uploading to either platform it is re-encoded into different versions of varying quality in order to optimise playback performance over different internet connection speeds. You then follow the simple steps above to display your video in your course page. This is where the value in using these systems comes into play and provides a superior experience for your learners, in comparison to locally hosted content.

Video and privacy

Where your organisation requires a degree of restriction to content, this is achieved through the combination of the password protected Moodle course with either:

  • Hide this video from Vimeo.com (Plus + PRO only) – This video can be embedded on other sites (such as an LMS) but can’t be viewed on vimeo.com.
  • YouTube’s option to either ‘unlist’ your video (i.e. it is not included in searches) or make it private (only those you nominate can view the video).

Free guide to using YouTube and Vimeo

For further information, JISC digital media have written an excellent guide to using YouTube and Vimeo for education.

Need a hand setting up your Moodle?

Contact eWorks for some friendly advice.

Learning spatial awareness: virtual reality and 360-degree video

Howard Errey is a psychologist with an interest in innovation. He works as a Senior Coordinator, Digital Learning, for the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University and blogs here. Here Howard shares a fascinating journey into the world of virtual reality and 360 video to offer an immersive learning experience.

The Problem

At RMIT we have a common problem in a number of subject areas. Educators in areas such as Property Construction and Project Management, and Architecture and Design, need to provide building site experience for large numbers of students – in some cases hundreds per class. The practicalities of turning up to a major building site with large numbers of students for reasons such as safety, make these site visits increasingly difficult to organise.

Credit: droidcom Berlin 2015 by droidcom Global

There have been National VET projects in the past that made admirable progress with such problems. Stefan Schutt and his team at Victoria University set up some great 3D design projects at The Lab with former National VET E-learning Strategy and Australian Flexible Learning Framework funding. Back in those days SecondLife was all the rage and it gave an immersive learning experience with a sense of fun. It is great to see that The Lab (and its wordpress site), which provides computer training including 3d modelling for young people with Autism Spectrum disorders, is still going so strong.

What RMIT have been doing

With staff from our E-learning Innovation Incubator, we approached the problem with 2 hypotheses:

  1. that we could easily create 3D virtual reality objects for an immersive experience, and
  2. that using 360-degree photography and video would make a useful addition to that experience.

Firstly, with the availability of Oculus Rift (OR) developer kits, it seemed obvious that 3D objects could be built that recreate realistic experiences. In 2014 we employed students from the RMIT Centre for Games Design Research to show staff how to build objects in 3D software engines such as Unreal. This generated a lot of enthusiasm. The challenge we discovered was enabling staff enough time and computing power to make this easy.

In 2015 we tried a different approach. At that time students in these subject areas learned to build 3D designs in Google Sketchup and Revit. We decided that it would be pretty cool if we could make it easy to take a design from one of these programs and turn it into a 360 immersive experience in the OR. We again employed a student from the games lab, who this time developed a series of workflow documents and videos. Using IrisVR, 3D designs can be dragged and dropped into the program which turns them into a 360-degree version. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds (this software is still in early development) but it is now something students can do with their work. The next challenge is providing powerful enough hardware, perhaps in the library, where students can have the computing power.

What about Cardboard?

Given the challenges of design for the OR and the low cost, why not just use Google Cardboard? As a baseline this makes a lot of sense as development costs of learning objects (similar to Google Expeditions) are also low and potentially fast (more on this below). OR has a number of advantages, however, will be widely available at a low price point soon, and shows potential such as distance collaboration in shared virtual spaces, so it needs to be kept on the radar. In particular, whereas in Cardboard you view from fixed points, OR has the potential for the experience of moving through 3D simulated environments.

There is a great thing about Google Cardboard. By getting teaching staff and students to physically put together the goggles, with their hands, from a pre-cut kit you can purchase for under $10, a number of remarkable things occur. Firstly, there is a sense of self mastery in making something that is reasonably easy. It continues to pleasantly surprise me the shared delight that arises, when a group of staff or students get hold of cardboard, put it together and then share what they experience. Secondly it provides a small but powerful innovation experience. Something changes in the brain. Compiling something new from different small parts (a cardboard ‘box’, lenses and your phone) is a small scale model of rapid prototyping). On a larger scale, Cardboard models how Google Apps in Education works – not as a complete (or expensive) system such as an LMS, but rather showing that you can put together different small parts (in particular the Add Ons in the Google Apps ecosystem) to make something new. It is both a small example as well as a metaphor that anchors Google ‘thinking’ as well as innovation in the mind. They’re not stupid over at Google.

Credit: cardboardx by howard61

360 Degrees

This is where recent developments have also made creating objects easy. With our project we thought that creating 360-degree photos and videos of building sites would be a simple and a low-cost entry to creating immersive experiences.

For 360-degree still images, the Google 360 app on your phone lets you point your phone around an environment and it automatically stitches together the spherical image. A nice example is here. For video we initially looked at GoPro cameras. There were a few solutions we saw online, in particular 3D printing a mount that holds six cameras filming simultaneously. The challenge is to then stitch together the six videos, which seemed complex and expensive, and the GoPro stitching solution was not yet available.

In the meantime, the latest Ricoh Theta S camera was released during the project. This camera provides an experience similar to the Flipcam video camera, in that it simplifies a single function seamlessly into one device. The Flipcam was so good that Cisco bought it and closed it down because the live streaming potential presented such a threat to their core business model, but that’s another story. With two opposing bulb shaped lenses, the Theta S creates 360-degree video at the press of a button. Plug it into the computer and upload it into YouTube, which converts it to a 360 format ready for viewing in Cardboard. The whole process takes about 15 minutes. Our first example, a walk around the office, is here, which we recommend viewing in Chrome. You can click and drag the mouse on the screen to move around the spherical view as the video plays. Although the Theta S camera is high resolution, we learned that the resolution is spread around the 360 degrees, which does not make it super clear. It is still an awesome, useable starting point for learning how to work with 360 video and, at under $500, well worth the experiment for what you will learn.

What we learned

  • It is worth persisting with the OR. While technically challenging it provides the current conceptual lead for developments in 3D immersion.
  • Think students first. If we can manage to build something, they can, provided we design and scaffold the learning.
  • Create a minimum accessible standard of experience and technology for students. I can hear Bronwyn over at E-Standards for Training nodding in agreement!
  • 360-degree video is a privacy nightmare, which can be overcome with planning and awareness. The issue is that everyone in any given area gets filmed.
  • You need a selfie stick! With 360 video you need a way of carrying it around without your face and body getting in the way. Carrying it at a consistent height is also an issue easily solved by dangling a piece of string to the floor. Who would have thought I would be involved in an innovation project with selfie sticks!
  • Work with your IT department. You need a place to store and manage large video (and other) files. Make sure the computers have the specs you need. At present we are hoping RMIT turns on YouTube as part of our Google Apps in Education, for its 360-degree hosting and streaming capability.
  • Work with your marketing department. They may have their own interest in the photo and video media or 3D objects you create, as well as access to potential resources.
  • In general work across your organisation rather than in your silo. We involved teaching staff and students across four schools within the College of Design and Social Context, IT and marketing as mentioned. It can be like herding cats to get diversely placed people into the one conversation but well worth it when you get there, for the interest and solutions that can arise.
  • One thing we didn’t learn – how to edit 360-degree video without paying someone a lot of money. No doubt we will address this in the future. Let us know if you have any suggestions!

This blog post is published under a Creative Commons Attribution (cc-by) licence.

Engaging learners with interactive video

Matt Mason, eWorks Accredited ConsultantMatt Mason is an award winning instructional designer and the newest addition to the talented team of accredited consultants at eWorks. If you’re Interested in using interactive videos to engage your learners, Matt’s summary of the best tools available to create this powerful type of video will help you get started.

Video is a powerful learning tool…

yet it is often underutilised. Did you know that Youtube has more than one billion unique users each month and over six billion hours of video is watched during this time? The popularity of YouTube and other video sites, such as Vimeo and TED Talks, highlights how much people are engaged when consuming knowledge through video. Video provides a multi-sensory resource, where people can learn by listening, watching and sometimes reading. And now the use of video in learning is even more powerful, with the use of interactive video providing another way for users to engage and learn.

Interactive video increases the learning experience…

by providing learners with the opportunity to interact with the video content. One way that videos can be made interactive is to give learners the option to choose the small chunk of content they want to watch, then choose a path to take based on the scenario provided in the video. Quizzes can even be embedded into the video, allowing for a knowledge check to occur before progressing further. In addition to all of this, the videos play natively in modern browsers and across devices, including tablets and handhelds.

So what are the tools required to create the interactive videos?

Below is my run down on four of the best applications that I have tested so far (in no particular order):

1. Klynt

Klynt is a very straight forward, easy to use application. Users can upload a selection of their videos and, using the mind map like storyboard, can connect the videos together. Hyperlinks can then be applied to the primary screen, which links to the other videos. An example of this can be seen in the Klynt Demo. Klynt has a responsive HTML5 player that can be embedded in a browser or other applications. It also has the ability to add detailed analytics to measure the effectiveness of your video project.

Of the three applications, Klynt has the most affordable pricing option, with a free 14 day trial demo version, a lite edition for a one-time fee of $199, and the pro edition for a one-time fee of $599. Klynt also has the least amount of features, compared to the other two programs. If you are interested in checking out Klynt, you can view their range of tutorials.

2. Rapt Media

Rapt Media also has an easy to use drag-and-drop authoring platform. As with Klynt, Rapt Media allows you to link between videos, allowing users to choose their own path. A great example of this is Deloitte’s interactive recruitment video. Rapt Media has a one-click publishing function, allowing you to publish your video to multiple devices easily. Rapt Media is also cloud-based, giving you easy access to your interactive video files from any internet-enabled device.

While Rapt Media has a slicker interface and output than Klynt, it does come at a cost, with one quote I received for an entry level account starting at $550/month. There is, however, a free account from which you can start building and testing your videos. If you are interested in checking out Rapt Media, view their range of how-tos and tips.

Credits: Amphibious Landing Exercise 2013 by dvids

3. HapYak

HapYak has a large amount of features but it is not as easy to use as Klynt or Rapt Media. It also differs by linking to video files stored elsewhere, rather than uploading the video files to the application. This tool allows you to link to video files hosted on streaming sites (such as YouTube) or hosted on your own website.

It has a range of tools including the ability to build video chapters, hyperlinks in videos and the ability to draw on the video – to point out important details to learners. My favourite function of this tool is the quiz function. Multiple choice quizzes can be built into the video to pop-up over the video screen at pre-determined times, to provide an opportunity to assess understanding of the video content. The quiz results can also be integrated with an LMS. A great example of this can be seen in chapter two of Brightcove’s interactive video (nb. you will need to request a demo).

Hap Yak is also a cheaper option than Rapt Media, with a free plan (up to five interactive videos) and a professional plan of $100/month. If you are interested in checking out HapYak, view their Getting Started Guide.

4. ChatMapper

ChatMapper is an easy to use tool for creating branching dialogues and other non-linear training resources. It is built using an intuitive tree graph, with different nodes showing the branches of the dialogue. This tool can be used in the creation of interactive scenario based videos, where the users make decisions at various points. Each node can be set to branch off to another video file, or a specific time in the existing video file.

ChatMapper is a freemium product. It has a free version with limited functionality. Paid licensing options ($65 and $495) are also available. A fully functional publisher licence (incorporating 3D avatars) is also available. You can see full details of the features and pricing on the ChatMapper website.

It’s time to get started!

Interactive video is an excellent way to engage your learners and make learning enjoyable. And it can also be fun and interesting for you, the designer. So enjoy playing with interactive video, and drop me a line to let me know which application you prefer and why.