These options can be helpful for distance education, providing new ways of communicating and interacting with our students (and between them) when we are not all in the same physical space. Because Moodle does not provide effective synchronous communication tools (the chat activity could overload the server), the aforementioned tools are presented as extensions that can support our courses, giving them a new level of interaction. In distance courses with considerable duration, such communication can be a motivation and a way of providing support to students when we are online at the same time.
Communicating in real-time using text, audio, and video
Google Chat is a service from Google that allows text, audio, and video chat amongst Google Mail users meaning, we'll need a Google account.
The audio conversation is usually called Voice over IP (VoIP), but as bandwidth allowances increase, the use of video is becoming common. With this tool we can:
- Meet with colleagues or students, individually or in groups
- Participate in a distant event (for example, attend a conference)
- Conduct interviews
- Teach how to play an instrument (by using the webcam)
- Teach gestural language (by using the webcam)
I find it really useful to use VoIP in distance courses, not only to give feedback to students and get to know them better, but also to create opportunities for students to interact with each other during group tasks outside of these tutor-students meeting times.
A good time to use this application is in Module 10 – What's good music—a theme that fits well with an online debate about how to define quality criteria for music. Students will be required to work in groups and debate on what they think is good music and how it can be assessed. This discussion will be facilitated by using this tool.
Chat and group chat
The chat option is available in Google Mail, on the sidebar on the left. For a start, we can configure some settings, especially privacy settings, by going to Options | Chat settings…:
In the section Auto-add suggested contacts, we should select the option Only allow people that I've explicitly approved to chat with me and see when I'm online option, as shown in the screenshot below:
We can also disable chat history if we don't want to keep a record of our chat. There is another option during a chat to go "off record", meaning that if the chat history is on, this portion of the conversation (that takes place whilst this option is selected) will not be archived.
We are now ready to start a chat. We can search for contacts in the same Google Mail Chat sidebar, using the search form that is available (Search, add or invite) and double-click on the name of the contact that is displayed, or in the Chat link of the pop-up window that is displayed:
Because the chat is synchronous, it's obvious that the (two or more) people chatting must be online. We can check if a person is online or not by looking at the small icon next to the people we've located, or in our chat list. If they have a grey, round icon on the left of their name, they are offline (or invisible and don't want to be bothered). If the color is green (available), yellow (idle), or red (busy) it's possible to chat to them. In the pop-up, we can also add the person to the chat list below the search form.
After starting the chat, a window similar to the one shown below opens in the lower-right corner of the Google Mail account, and we can start talking:
When we are chatting with someone, we can click on the Video & More | Group Chat option to invite one or more friends to join the conversation:
A new window will appear, in which we can chat with the participants.
Note that if we click on the arrow in the blue bar at the top of our chat window, the window will pop-up from its position in the Google Mail window and we can access it as an independent window.
If we paste a URL from a YouTube video into the chat window, a preview of the video will be integrated directly into our conversation, as shown in the screenshot below:
The easiest way to send files to participants for reading, or supporting discussion or commenting upon is either by using Google Mail, or by uploading them to Moodle or Google Docs and sharing these with the chat participants. This can be useful in many online discussions.
Voice and video chat
Chat, as we saw, is available by default in Google Mail, on the leftmost sidebar. To add audio and voice capabilities to this chat, we have to install a plug-in that is available at http://mail.google.com/videochat, for Windows and Mac users (again, sorry to Linux users).
After installing this plug-in, we can start an audio or video conversation (only one-to-one). If our contacts have a camera or microphone, we can click on the Video & more option again, and the following two options will be available:
In the case of voice chat, a call will be started, and we will also keep the text chat functionality:
In the case of video chat, the same applies. In the upper area, a video of the person that we are chatting with will be displayed, and in the lower corner, if we have a webcam, our video will be displayed:
Image source: Scmoewes (2005). Jimi. Retrieved March 30, 2009,
For distance courses or even in e-learning, Google chat is an option. But if we need more complex functionality, including audio conferencing and desktop sharing, there are other tools that are available. We will now look at one in particular, called Dimdim.
Creating an online real-time classroom
A VoIP tool is great for distance education but it doesn't let you, for example, share your desktop or present a slideshow to all of the students at the same time. Dimdim (http://www.dimdim.com), an online tool for web meetings, has all of this and more, in addition to the audio and video communication possibilities, and it's free for up to 20 meeting attendants. With a tool like this we can:
- Demonstrate how to use a particular software
- Make online presentations to the entire class, with real-time annotations, using Microsoft Powerpoint, PDF files, or by sharing our entire desktop
- Draw and comment on a collaborative whiteboard
In our course, we could use this in several modules, but it would fit well in Module 4 - Music is a language. In this module, students have to create basic rhythms, harmonies, and melodies using free software, so that as a teacher we can discuss some of the basic music theory and use of applications to create music, sharing our desktop, in particular by using applications such as Finale Notepad or Hydrogen.
Setting up a meeting
We can sign up for free and start a meeting in Dimdim by carrying out a few simple steps. Once on the front page, we need to click on the orange button that says Sign up Free to create an account and, when we are ready to start our meeting, click on the green Start Meeting button.
After we click on the Start Meeting button, a settings window is displayed:
In the General tab, we can change our display name, email, and timezone.
In the Features tab, we can for example, define the length of the meeting and the return URL to which attendees should be redirected after they leave the meeting.
When we are done we just need to click the on the Save button, and we will be taken to MyDimdim:
We can now create our meeting by clicking on the Host Meeting button on the left. Again, we will see a settings window:
We can define the Meeting Name and Agenda, and a Meeting Key (which is similar to an enrolment key in Moodle). However, the best way to connect this online room to Moodle is by getting the URL to the room and adding it as a hyperlink in our course. We will see how to do this in a moment.
The Features tab here is similar to the one that we saw previously. In the Phone tab we can find a phone number and passcode that attendees can use to join the conference using a regular phone!
Finally, Dimdim will make a check of our operating system, browser, and Flash plugin, to ensure that our system is capable of hosting the meeting:
If everything's works fine, we will be taken to the main interface of the web meeting:
This interface has five main elements:
- Items and participants – on the left, this allows us to control what is being presented, and the participants in the meeting
- Video Broadcaster – this shows a video of the webcam
- Presentation window – in the center, this shows what is being shared with other participants
- Public Chat - this is a general chat area where any participant can post messages
- Options – in the upper right corner, this allows us to define several settings
When we connect to this online meeting space for the first time, we will need to allow Dimdim to use our webcam and microphone through the Flash Player, by clicking on the Allow button in the following pop-up window:
The first thing we need to do is provide the Meeting URL to students so that they can join the meeting. If we click on Meeting info in the Options menu, we can copy the URL and paste it into Moodle, as a resource or in a forum.
After our students start joining, we can begin the meeting.
Starting a meeting
We have three options for making presentations:
- Share our desktop
- Use a whiteboard (collaboratively or not)
- Upload a Microsoft Powerpoint presentation or a PDF and use it in like a regular classroom
Sharing the desktop
To share our desktop, we will need to install the Screencaster plug-in. When we click on this option, we, as presenter (participants don't need to do this), will be asked to install it:
By using this plug-in, participants will see what's going on our desktop, and we can augment this with chat (text, audio, or video), a functionality that is also included in Dimdim and we will see in a moment.
Using the whiteboard
By using the whiteboard, which is by default collaborative, we can draw with a set of tools that are available on at the right. These allow writing, drawing, stamping, and highlighting.
Uploading a Microsoft Powerpoint presentation or Adobe PDF document
In the Share option in the items block that we can see in the upper-left corner of the Dimdim screen, we can send a document, in Microsoft Powerpoint or Adobe PDF format, and add annotations to it while we are presenting it.
Here is an example of an uploaded PowerPoint file, with the annotations tools shown on the right:
If we wanted, for example, to annotate a picture, the best thing to do is to insert that picture on a PowerPoint file and then share it.
Managing communication and participation
Interacting with students in Dimdim can be achieved in several ways:
- Using the public chat window on the right
- Giving audio privileges to participants
- Using the private chat to talk to individual participants
- Giving presenter privileges to participants
For this, we just need to click on the drop-down arrow next to a participant's name and select one of the options according to what we want to do. Note that simultaneous audio is only available for three users when using a free account.
We can also broadcast our webcam capture, as presenters.
Dimdim has a record functionality that keeps a copy of the meeting (except audio from students and whiteboard activity). We can use the Record button at the top of the presentation window for this. This can also be a way of recording performances that students might be shy to perform directly in front of their peers, or to help them in practicing for important tasks, for example, an interview.
In this article, we have seen two ways of adding real-time communication and interaction to our Moodle course, firstly by using VoIP, and secondly by using a web meeting tool. This interaction can be very useful, particularly for allowing students to communicate with each other and with the teacher. For distance education, synchronous tools solve several problems that come from students being in different locations, allowing us to share desktops, presentations, whiteboards, and chat.
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