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  1. 1. 16th Telecommunications forum TELFOR 2008 Serbia, Belgrade, November 25-27, 2008. Virtual-Classroom Free Software – The Comparative Analysis Bojan Milosavljević, Zoran Nikolić, Bratislav Mikarić and traditional classroom training sessions may incur Abstract — In this paper the desirable features for web prohibitive travel costs and/or scheduling conflicts. Usingconferencing and virtual classroom software are established a virtual classroom provides various benefits:as relevant criteria for comparative analysis that is performed • Bring together participants from differentfor the selected virtual-classroom free software. geographical locations. Keywords — web conferencing, virtual classroom, • No expenses for travel, hotel & training facilities.synchronous e-learning, free software, LMS integration, • Suitable for training deliverables on short noticecomparative analysis, WizIQ, VMukti, Dimdim, (i.e. short modules for a small topic).Openmeetings, Vyew. • All types of digital media can be integrated (videos, podcasts, screen capture, animations, Powerpoint presentations etc). I. INTRODUCTION • Interaction between participants & instructor viaW EB conferencing software, in its specific form of a virtual classroom, should provide online distancelearning instructional process for integrated set of application sharing. • Participants can work with software on systems that are not locally available.synchronous communication tools. These tools should Selecting the integrated set of tools when establishing aregain the look-and-feel of a traditional classroom and virtual classroom and considering all the relevant issues,face-to-face learning into the online distance learning could be rather a complex and tedious task, due to theenvironment, the feature also required by the accreditation number of existing e-learning technology vendors [3], [4],standards for higher education distance learning study integration and localization issues, and the variations inprograms [1]. Virtual classroom software elements, their features. In addition to commercial vendors of webcarefully selected among available products from various conferencing and virtual classroom software with approvedvendors, and used properly on the basis of synchronous quality of service and set of tools, like Adobe’s Connectlearning instructional theory, could even further improve Pro or Elluminate’s Elluminate Live!, as well as Citrix’straditional face-to-face classroom-based learning. These GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar, there emerged their freeimprovements are related to common benefits of and open source counterparts on the market as well. Thisinformation technology and digital multimedia usage, paper is the research in a form of comparative analysis onbeing for instance the possibilities for recording an entire the available features of web conferencing free software onconference session and playback it when necessary, as well the market. The desirable features for web conferencingas reusing capabilities and expressiveness enhancements of and virtual classroom software are established as relevantinstructional content, achieved by deployment of digital criteria for this analysis in Section II. In Section III, freemultimedia templates, illustrations, animations, simulations software solutions for virtual classroom are selected andand serious games activities in the so-called scenario-based compared regarding the relevant features specified.learning [2]. In a virtual classroom, various communication channels II. THE DESIRABLE FEATURES AS RELEVANT CRITERIAare available for the live interaction between theparticipants and trainer. These involve voice, instant A. Common performance featuresmessaging, status icons, question & answer chat and The basic notion of a virtual classroom (VC) iswebcam (optionally, for live video). associated with existence of integrated set of tools for Many organizations work in a dispersed environment synchronous communication (usually text-based, in some form of chat) among all participants – learners and one or more presenters, as well as for synchronous instructional Bojan Milosavljević, Faculty of industrial management in Kruševac,Majke Jugovića 4, 37000 Kruševac, Serbia (phone: 381-64-2263309; content presentation in oral and visual forms, controlledfax: 381-37-420231; e-mail: bmilosavljevic@gmail.com). by presenters. This means that transition of slides, along Zoran Nikolić, Faculty of industrial management in Kruševac, Serbia; with oral (audio) comments from the presenters, are(e-mail: mznikolic@ptt.rs). Bratislav Mikarić, Higher education school of professional studies in performed live, in “real time” to all of concurrent learners.business & industrial management, Kosančićeva 4, 37000 Kruševac, In some (even commercial) systems for web conferencingSerbia; (e-mail: bmikaric@gmail.com). audio signal is obtained by simultaneous teleconference 882
  2. 2. (ongoing at the same time as web conference in question). performance and outcomes, as seen from participants’Participants need to call regular conference phone calls points of view.and pay extra fees for them in order to obtain audio B. Extra performance featurespresence and sound from other conference participants. Additionally, there could be a very diverse set of tools Apart from set of tools to perform successfully the veryincorporated in this basic form of the virtual classroom conferencing session, there are some extra features thatenvironment. Nevertheless, certain tools to enhance VCs need to be considered when selecting the most suitable VCcan still be referred to as standard ones according to system for certain needs.current offer on the market. If computer technology is expected to be extensively In addition to standard public chat (messages viewable taught through VC utilities, an institution should consider aby all participants), private chat is also a common tool, VC system incorporating desktop sharing and controlallowing for exchange of messages being viewed among facility. These tools usually require additional softwareselected participants only. add-ins and also suitable Internet connection upload A video signal from presenter’s web camera has also speeds for smooth transfer (over 10 kB/sec) on the desktopbecome a standard feature of VCs, along with possibilities presenter side. This means that either some reliablefor seeing also the signals from learner’s webcams. wireless Internet or ADSL connections with download A list of participants is common thing in this integrated speeds over 768 kbit/sec are needed (currently uploadset of tools, often along with participant status indication speeds are eight times slower than download speeds fortools (for instance, enabling users to report about a ADSL connections in Serbia). Fortunately, there are freecompletion of certain actions initiated by presenters). software desktop sharing and control utilities available [5]. A synchronous presentation should imply that there are Each vendor of free software VC system offering desktop sharing support recommends its favorite free softwarepossibilities for presenters to upload and store content desktop sharing solution, but other solutions could befor presentations in more or less structured form of a successfully applied as well.digital repository. Especially in educational institutions, VCs are just one Another VC common tool is certainly a whiteboard, of distance learning activities, being part of more generalsimulating the real-world one, allowing for live picturing integration into the (educational) learning managementof instructional content by presenters and learners as well, systems – (e) LMSs, also called the virtual learningequipped with highlighting (annotation and pointer) environment (VLE) or course management systems (CMStools (also applicable for the synchronous presentation – not to be confused with web content managementcontent). Some improved auxiliary tools integrated into systems) [3]. LMS is a web based system that allows forwhiteboards include math editors, standard shapes, text the addition, deployment and tracking of learning contenttools, free form drawing etc. used for training purposes. Typically an LMS includes Learners may also be allowed to take over the functionality for course catalogs (search/browsepresenter role, namely highlighting and audio tools, to functionality), launching courses, registering new students,express their points of view or questions on a subject. tracking current/completed student progress and Although not so common, especially among free assessments. Most of the learning management systems aresoftware tools, the recording session and repeated play developed to be independent of any contentfeatures are very desirable, as key improvements to development/authoring packages. A corporate LMStraditional face-to-face classroom-based learning. The usually does not incorporate any course authoringfeature also associated with entire conference session is the functionalities, but rather focuses on managing learningsession scheduling. This feature is usually performed by content. On the contrary, educational (institutions) LMSsautomatically sending e-mail messages to predefined set of (VLEs) usually integrate into “basic” (corporate context)prospective participants, containing information about the LMSs more or less course authoring tools, along with a so-subject, date and time of a meeting. Instructions regarding called learning content management system (LCMS).the way to access a session (usually the URL link), along While LMSs mainly focuses on learners and recordwith client system requirements – above all hardware and keeping, LCMSs manage the content of courses. Typically,Internet connection specifications, but also software course content is stored as learning objects in a learningdependencies (add-ins) as well – often followed by the object repository database. The objects are described andlinks to the connection test facility, are also included in tagged so these objects can be recalled and reused by thesuch messages. Conference schedule data are also same course designers and others. From the aboveavailable at web site dedicated to the VC system. descriptions it is obvious that many LMSs are taking on Another useful tool integrated for getting feedback from the features of LCMSs and vice-versa.participants is (synchronous) poll. During the conference No matter the mutual differences and featureitself, polls could offer insights into average previous and overlapping, the above-mentioned management systemsgained knowledge of participants, thus directing require an integration module to integrate with VCpresenters’ present and future instructional efforts, or into systems, usually designed as independent systemscommon thoughts and practices on a certain subject, even regarding anticipated context of usage and technology toregarding the very ongoing conferencing session be applied. This integration module should associate 883
  3. 3. relevant (at least session scheduling) data from the systems There are very few (if any reliable) Java hosting providersto be integrated. If signing in (and one signing up) is in Serbia and there is at least one web hosting providerrequired for all VC participants (not just for the ([10]) offering Tomcat extensions for Java hosting on-presenters), the integration (and the entire VC session as demand for free, if paid for standard low-cost open sourcewell) is less smooth and intuitive, as well as more complex. hosting plan (Linux & PHP & MySQL). Java hostingThe entire integration process is possible only if LMS technology is very version-dependent (so specific versionssupports modularity and VC system provides the public of Java support are required for Java hosted webapplication programming interface (API). Since free applications to be operational) and Java hosting providerssoftware is considered in this analysis, the integration are very reluctant in modifying their Java web serverpossibilities are considered for free open source VLEs configuration.(namely Moodle [6], ATutor [7] and Sakai [8]). Taking into consideration the above-mentioned in-house Having on the one hand VC software coming from solution feasibility issues, the hosted service seems to bemainly English-speaking countries, and on the other hand more (if not the only) acceptable solution for a greatthe requirements for teaching students in native and / or number of institutions in Serbia. The limitation on themultiple languages, institutions often have to consider number of participants is always imposed along withvendors supporting internationalization, localization and acceptable quality and features of virtual-classroom freecustomization of user interface. hosted services. The selected solutions from the next Other extra desirable features could refer to even wider section prove that limitation is not so restrictive that anutilization context of VC systems, including social institution would not be able to organize the instructionalnetworking tools for advertising and knowledge process accordingly.exchange, as well as support for being paid by learnersfor teaching services. While support for paid teaching III. VIRTUAL CLASSROOM FREE SOFTWAREservices could be implemented elsewhere (on the LMSlevel, for instance), the VC with integrated social A. Selected free software for“in-house“ implementationnetworking tools could really attract even more people, The VC free software for “in-house” implementation isother than already enrolled students, thus certainly less available than the hosted service implementation.improving the reputation of a teacher and an institution as Nevertheless, there are at least three completelywell. downloadable solutions that could be analyzed: Dimdim (version 3) [11], Openmeetings [12] and VMukti [13]. All C. Feasibility issues of them have common features functionalities, can use There are two variants of free software VC MySQL open source database and support customizationimplementation, namely as a software (i.e. complete (branding). The first two of them are built on the same freesoftware application, usually open source, is available and open source software prerequisites, being Red5 Openshould be implemented entirely on the servers controlled source Flash server [9] and OpenOffice [14] PPT to Flashby an institution itself, as “on-site”, “in-house” solution) and PDF converter. The third one is built on .NETand as a service (hosted solution – software is installed on framework and is limited to be ported on the Windows IISproprietary web systems and its usage is free under certain web server only and viewed by Internet Explorer 6 only,limitations). although it does not require any other software Open source software VCs to be implemented as in- prerequisites (except a database). Features comparison ofhouse solution requires Internet connections with upload this software is performed in the Table 1.speeds of at least 1Mbit/sec and greater number ofconcurrent participants raises this limit further. Apart from TABLE 1: IN-HOUSE SOLUTIONS - FEATURES COMPARISONeducational institutions connected to the Academic Features Dimdim Openm VMuktinetwork of Serbia, there are very few institutions being public / private chat yes / yes yes / no yes / yescapable to reach sufficient Internet connection speed and video signals from all yes no yeshosting expertise to host their “in-house” solutions and user status indication yes no yesthus control the entire system. Otherwise, an institution has upload & store content pdf, swf... pdf, swf... pdf, swfto employ a commercial Web hosting provider. Open whiteboard & annotat. yes yes yessource software in-house solutions have unique set of math editor yes no yessoftware dependencies, being web applications built learners as presenters yes yes, no yesmainly in Java technology (namely Red5 open source session recording yes yes yesFlash server [9]) and auxiliary applications out of the session scheduling yes yes yesstandard plan of Web hosting providers. That imposes polls yes yes yesmore (about ten times) expensive so-called virtual private localization (languages) no yes noserver (VPS) hosting plans and also more hosting expertise paid teaching service no no nowithin an institution (an Internet provider provides suitable desktop sharing built in add. inst. add. inst.hardware, Internet connection, operating system and collaboration yes 4 us maxremote server administration utility only). Java technology learners need not log in yes yes yescannot be considered as standard low-cost hosting plan. 884
  4. 4. Although Openmeetings does not support private chat exam and polls, video, audio and desktop sharing,and session control by learners, sessions can be arranged intermixing various file types in a single workbook etc.as private rooms and 4x4 meetings (4 users when everyonespeaks and views with each other) with whiteboard content IV. CONCLUSIVE REMARKSshared among all users. Some users experienced echoes This research has proved that virtual classroom free andwhen used speakers instead of headphones and pretty open source software, implemented either as in-house or asexcessive jitter when having five users and more. MS hosted service, has emerged as considerable alternative toOffice files and images could be uploaded and presented the commercial ones. Development is still very dynamic(converted on the fly to pdf or swf). and improvements and new features are constantly All of these products have integration module support performed. The dilemma is not: free or commercialfor Moodle VLE [15]. Recently, Openmeetings integration software, but well-designed, efficient or ill-designed,with ATutor was created [12]. Being based on the same unsuitable software. Sometimes relatively small additionalJava technology, Sakai has integrated reduced-featured fee could benefit a great improvement. The objective is tovirtual classroom module named Agora [8]. get the most in quality and desirable features for available B. Selected VC free hosted services budget and from the right balance between outsourced and internal services, and focus on human resources. The following VC free hosted service are selected:WizIQ [16], Dimdim (version 4 as hosted service) [11] and REFERENCESVyew [17]. Their comparative features are listed in the [1] Standardi za akreditaciju studijskih programa prvog i drugogTable 2. Vyew is the only one that still does not have any nivoa, Nacionalni Savet za visoko obrazovanje, Sl. glasnikintegration capabilities. None of these VC free hosted Republike Srbije br. 106 od 24. novembra 2006.services has custom branding feature enabled. [2] R. Jimenez (August 8, 2008), Using Reusable Flash Engines to Increase Speed and Reduce Cost, The Elearning Guild’s online forums (archive available to the Member Plus membership) TABLE 2: FREE HOSTED SERVICES - FEATURES COMPARISON Available: Features Dimdim WizIQ Vyew http://www.elearningguild.com/olf/olfarchives/index.cfm?action=vi ewonly&id=464 max number of users 20 50 20 [3] D. McIntosh (last updated on July 22, 2008), Vendors of Learning public / private chat yes / yes yes / no yes / yes Management and E-learning Products. video signals from all yes yes yes Available: http://www.trimeritus.com/vendors.pdf. user status indication yes yes yes [4] Web Conferencing: Product listings and reviews of Internet Conferencing, Screen Sharing, Instant Messaging, and Chat upload & store content pdf, swf... pdf, swf... pdf, swf Software whiteboard & annotat. yes yes yes Available: http://www.thinkofit.com/webconf/realtime.htm#general math editor yes yes yes [5] Open Alternative’s blog (August 7, 2008), Free screen sharing alternatives - a list. learners as presenters yes yes yes Available: http://www.openalternatives.org/site/2008/08/free- session recording yes yes in devel. screen-sharing-alternatives-a-list/ session scheduling yes yes yes [6] Moodle - A Free, Open Source Course Management System for Online Learning polls yes in devel. yes Available: http://moodle.org localization (languages) no no no [7] ATutor Learning Content Management System: Information paid teaching service no yes no Available: http://www.atutor.ca [8] Sakai Project: Home desktop sharing built in add. inst. built in Available: http://www.sakaiproject.org/portal VLE integration moodle moodle none [9] Red5 Open Source Flash Server collaboration yes no yes Available: http://osflash.org/red5 [10] HOSTIREX web hosting provider (private communication - learners need not log in yes no yes customer support) Available: www.hostirex.com WizIQ is the VC free hosted service with features of [11] Dimdim: Free Web Meeting, Free Web Conferencing… Available: http://www.dimdim.comsocial networking regarding detailed data about teachers’ [12] Openmeetings: Google Codecompetencies in the community, advertisement of their Available: http://code.google.com/p/openmeetingsservices and paid teaching service facilities and also offers [13] VMukti.com Video Conference Software Free VOIP Available: http://www.vmukti.comthe greatest number of maximum users allowed for free. [14] OpenOffice.org: The Free and Open Productivity SuiteDesktop sharing is very smooth and intuitive, integrated in Available: http://www.openoffice.orgthe whiteboard, though additional desktop-sharing [15] Moodle: Modules and pluginssoftware install is required for a desktop presenter only. Available: http://moodle.org/mod/data/view.php?id=6009 [16] WizIQ Dashboard Dimdim hosted version is very mature software product Available: http://www.wiziq.com/homebased on commercial secured resources, with great video, [17] Vyew.com - Vyew - FREE Anytime Collaboration and Liveaudio and desktop sharing fluency, and it is definitely a Conferencing Available: http://www.vyew.com/sitegood solution for up to 20 users. Vyew is still without some useful features like sessionrecording and VLE integration (in development), but has agreat potential in collaboration features, great math editor, 885