Web Conferencing Showdown: BlackBoard vs. Everybody

Many of you might already be familiar with Elluminate, a web conferencing system we have had in the College for the past 4 years. If you aren’t, web conferencing is a term that describes a system which makes it possible to hold live course sessions or meetings over the internet. Typically these systems include live voice, video, and text chat, along with an interactive whiteboard, and remote desktop access.

Sadly, Elluminate was bought by a company called Blackboard, and then Blackboard was subsequently bought by a private equity firm called Providence. As part of the acquisitions, Blackboard has decided to make some substantial changes to Elluminate, and re-brand it as “Blackboard Collaborate.” In light of this, UF has decided to review other systems in the web conferencing market.

A committee convened by Academic Technology and the Associate Provost’s office have chosen to pilot 4 alternatives to Blackboard Collaborate, in hopes we might be able to get more bang for our collective buck. These systems include: Big Blue Button, Adobe Connect, Webex, and Unity.

Over the next couple of months the COE will begin piloting Big Blue Button, an open source system that seamlessly integrates into Moodle and Sakai, along with Unity, a small company with the capacity to do custom development for the unique needs presented by the diverse UF constituency.

In case you’re interested, we have a demo site for Big Blue Button available here. Feel free to click around and let us know if you have any feedback, or would like to test it our with a group.

New UF COE Teaching Tools: Turnitin, Kaltura, and CometChat

The use of open source software that is maintained and developed within the COE allows us to quickly add new tools for teaching and learning. For the past couple of years, we have been able to roll out new features nearly every term, and this fall is no different. We look forward to showing off some of the new tools we have recently implemented and, as always, welcome and appreciate your input.

red and gray Turnitin logo

Turnitin Plagiarism Detector

Turnitin is the leading academic plagiarism detector, utilized by teachers and students to avoid plagiarism and ensure academic integrity. Now you can use Turnitin in your online or blended course, without you or your students ever needing to leave the course site. As a teacher, you can add a “Turnitin assignment” to your course, and student submissions will automatically pass through Turnitin’s filters, where they will be checked against other published works as well as other submissions within the course for authenticity.

All of the features of the normal Turnitin system are available, but you and your students won’t have to manage another password, or go to a different site to grade or submit online assignments. The grades for Turnitin Assignments will show up by default in the Moodle grade book, and you can even add feedback on submissions right on the submitted document.

For more details on how to use Turnitin in your online or blended course, feel free to download the complete documentation, or contact us at onlinesupport@coe.ufl.edu.

Kaltura Video IntegrationKaltura "creating together" logo

Kaltura is a difficult product to describe, because it does so many things. We have used Kaltura for almost 2 years now to distribute video content for the COE, but we have recently integrated it with Moodle. Now you can quickly and easily add video resources to your online or blended courses, without leaving your course.

You can greatly enhance your presence in online courses by capturing video directly into your course. To do so, simply ‘Turn editing on,’ and click ‘Add a resource…Video’. This will bring up options to either upload a video from your computer, or capture directly from your webcam. You can even allow students to add videos as assignment submissions using the ‘Video’ assignment type.

For more details on how to incorporate videos into your online or blended course, feel free to contact us at onlinesupport@coe.ufl.edu.

CometChat window

CometChat Real-Time Communication

CometChat has been available on our Community site for a few months now. We’re excited that it will also be available in Moodle starting this fall. With CometChat, you and your students can type chat, video chat, and even share documents and files without ever having to leave Purlieu.

On the Community side, anyone you add as a “friend” will show up in the blue bar at the bottom of the screen while you are blogging or sharing bookmarks. On the Courses side, anyone who shares a current course with you or your students will be available to chat whenever they come online. You can even start a “Chatroom” and invite students to join you to collaborate on a document or discuss an assignment. Think of it like a really simplified version of Elluminate that is available anytime.

For more details on how to use CometChat, feel free to contact us at onlinesupport@coe.ufl.edu.

Blackboard Collaborate v. Big Blue Button

After previewing the next iteration of Blackboard’s Collaborate product which has replaced Elluminate, I was encouraged. Blackboard has capitalized on the feature set in Elluminate by adding a greatly enhanced user interface, borrowed heavily from Elluminate’s pretty cousin, Wimba.

However, Blackboard Collaborate 11 still includes certain shortcomings other applications have resolved. As yet, there is no native output of transportable recordings (you still have to use Publish), there is no internal noise cancellation, and you still have to fire up Java on a desktop to enter a meeting. The subtext of that last item is that a mobile version still looks to be far out on the horizon.

Blackboard eats thingsThis doesn’t take into account Blackboard’s recent acquisition by private equity firm, Providence. As others have suggested, it’s hard to ignore the idea that Blackboard will be beholden to new expectations related to profit margin and ROI.

Knowing that I am a bit of an outlier when it comes to the open source/closed source debate, I’ll just throw this out there:

I think this is a really great opportunity for UF to think very strategically about how to move forward with the selection of an Elluminate replacement.

The way I see it, there are really 2 use cases for Elluminate at present:

  1. The creation and dissemination of course content (viewed either synchronously or otherwise) with some participant interaction; this case realistically breaks down into 2 sub-sets:
    • Content delivered in a live classroom environment
    • Content created on the desktop
  2. Real-time communication in a less structured format than a traditional face-to-face course
I think Elluminate really seeks to meet both of these use cases, and is much better suited for the first of these. However, products like MediaSite and OpenCast Matterhorn are much better suited for delivering the live “classroom experience” than Elluminate. What these lack is the ability to do desktop lecture capture and support participant interaction.
The use of Matterhorn, which looks to be quite a stable open source project now, could subvert the need for MediaSite in lecture halls, replacing the $10K+/- proprietary capture hardware with $1K boxes running open software. The integration with BBB seeks to provide a simplified user experience for desktop lecture capture, along with the simple user experience that is the underlying ethos of the BBB project.
Perhaps more important than the above is a very simple fact: there is a tremendous amount of intellectual capital available at UF. I think it’s high time we start putting our heads together, aligning our needs, and allocating our resources. This is a perfect opportunity to engage in a large-scale development effort to take what’s already out there, build it up to suit our needs, and plug it in to all the places it needs to work.
No doubt that when taken at face value, the feature set and user interface of Blackboard Collaborate 11 are very good. But if we only consider these elements when making a decision, we’ll be re-convening to try to come to a decision again in 18-24 months. I’d rather spend that time admiring a product we collectively conceived, and continue to make it better.

Where to go next with web conferencing?

As chair of the Synchronous Learning & Collaboration Administrators Group (SLCAG) at UF, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about where synchronous communication is going on the web. In academic settings, web or video conferencing often seeks to re-create the classroom experience in a mediated context. Obviously, this subverts McLuhan’s “medium is the message” aphorism, but it also draws attention to the need for connection in human-to-human-to-computer interaction.digital hand and human hand touching

It wasn’t long after the first phone calls were made that people wanted to add video to make us seem closer. Bell labs debuted the first videophones at the 1964 World’s Fair, yet the technology never really took hold until the past 10 years. Now there’s an expectation that what you hear WILL ALSO BE what you see.

So, pragmatically speaking, what does this mean for education? Is it really worth trying to re-create a classroom in a synchronous digital environment?

We’ve all sat passively through online webinars, relishing in the fact the presenter has no idea whether we are playing Angry Birds or wearing pants. I’ve even heard instructional technologists suggest that the only viable web conferencing utilities are those that completely take over a user’s desktop, locking out any other application functionality. When I hear such a suggestion I immediately wonder whether that person could possibly have anything interesting enough to say to warrant such overt narcissism. ~Doubtful.

Many of us have also taken part in computer-mediated realtime communication that was both intimate and productive. In those cases, was it the technology that effected the productivity? Or was it merely the semblance of intimacy and mutual accountability that allowed the time to be “productive?”

Our new education.ufl.edu, according to Google Analytics

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a website redesign for the UF College of Education. We’re pretty proud of the results from the front-end, subjective perspective. But – more importantly – we’re happy with what Google Analytics tells us about traffic to the site.

We have been excited by a lot of the data we have pulled during and since the web redesign process. The most recent fun things I have noticed is the striking difference between traffic to our site since the redesign. For example, the following table represents traffic to the site based on the time periods listed in the top row. The periods represent 13 months prior to the the website redesign, and the time since the new site was launched, respectively.

Time Period January 1, 2010 – January 31, 2011 February 1, 2011 – February 28, 2011
Average daily visits 371.2 visits/day 1333.1 visits/day
Average time on the site 00:01:35
Average unique page views 1.44 pages/visit 4.79 pages/visit
Most visits in a single day 695 (Wednesday, January 6, 2010) 2,362 (Tuesday, February 1, 2011)
Fewest visits in a single day 116 (Saturday, December 25, 2010) 687 (Saturday, February 19, 2011)
Percentage of visitors who arrived through search engines 14.3% 35.4%
Percentage of visitors from Gainesville, FL 51.0% 33.1%

CUNY Academic Commons

Back in June 2009 at the Sloan Emerging Technology Conference in semi-sunny SanFran, I got to see a presentation by Dr. George Otte, University Director of Academic Technology for CUNY. He talked about the Academic Commons at CUNY as a digital hub for the disparate faculty who are scattered around 23 colleges in the 5 Burroughs.

BuddyPress homepage

The site is developed around BuddyPress, and was just in its pre-launch stage in summer 2009. But now it seems like it has grown up in a very big way.


Upcoming UF Seminar on Distance Learning

Thanks to Dr. Mark Rieger, Associate Dean and Professor, UF IFAS for the following invitation.

Dr. Janet Poley will give a presentation entitled “eLearning: Wave of the Future or the New Normal?” at 2:00 pm on Wednesday, September 15 in G001 McCarty as part of a series of seminars on distance education offered by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS.) The presentation will be live streamed here and will be available as a recording at that URL afterward. If you would like to arrange a meeting with Dr. Poley on the morning of the 15th, please contact Suzi Welch in Dean Rieger’s office.

Janet Poley is CEO and President of the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC).

HTML5 and Self Reflection

Tonight I saw one of the more interesting applications of new technology I’ve come across in a while. This site, used to promote a new album by the band Arcade Fire, does something really interesting: it places you, the viewer, in the role of selecting a backdrop for the video. The video relies on the new capabilities afforded web and video designers by HTML5, to represent an intense experience of subjectively running through the streets of one’s youth.

Arcade Fire Cover Art

Having grown up on a farm with little development nearby, MY video was a little confounding. In my youth, 4307 S Goldenrod Road in Orlando, FL, was a rather blank slate for boredom and introspective fantasy. I longed for a neighbor nearer than 2 miles away. And now our old farm has been replaced by a maze of streets, small houses, and retention ponds.

Perhaps more so than any old home movie, this video…um…concept?, really made me think about where I was then and where I am now. If you feel like looking back in time, and forward into the future of web technology, go have a gander.

Search Engine Optimized

I just shed a little tear. After slowly convincing myself and others that one of the most tangible benefits of offering a ‘Community’ for learners in the UF COE was the fact we would eventually start showing up in searches, I finally got my confirmation.


How ’bout dem apples? I had to add the “uf coe” to get my stuff to bubble to the top. But I chalk that up to having a rather common name, shared with a rather unique senator and a petulant movie character.

This is just the beginning. The more tweaking we do to our applications, and the closer we adhere to Google’s “recommendations” for SEO, the better our return will be. According to the Goog, the community.education.ufl.edu domain currently shows up in 182 unique query strings.

How many hits does it take to get to the center of the Google bot?

Up and running…

apple and mirrorI’ve got to say, I’m pretty excited Purlieu has come together in such a way. While I still see plenty of room for improvement, I think online learning in the UF CoE has entered a new era.

I find myself lazily clicking around and being surprised that everything just works. I know that’s a bit preemptive, but it’s comforting for now.

Students and faculty have a whole new set of tools to apply to learning collaboratively. Now the pressure is on the Distance Learning office to help our learners help each other.

This probably should have been scrawled on my bathroom mirror, and not here. But c’est la vie.

building knowledge with 1s and 0s