Tag: DimDim

Friday, August 26th, 2011

A Few Words About: Online Applications, Free or Not

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A Few Words AboutAs I was writing the two previous posts on online applications, I discovered that one I just learned about was no longer available.  Earlier this summer, I was about to back up my life’s work to an online storage service, when I realized that their pricing had gone from $10/month to $49/month.  Last winter, the Moodle community was stunned by the sudden shut-down of the web meeting service, DimDim.

How can this be?  Why is this happening?

Well, you see, these online applications are typically in business to make money, just like you.  They offer free services as a sort of “free sample”.  If you like it, you’ll buy more.  What happens is that not enough people buy to justify giving away any more samples.  Perhaps the free-sample people take up more time and support resources than the people who pay for their accounts.  Or, maybe the application is so awesome that some bigger company decides it would be a competitive advantage to own that code.  They buy out CoolOnlineEditor.com.  This is great for the college kid who wrote the code, but not so great for those of us who were using his online services.  In some instances, a big, evil company comes along and buys out the really good application just so the rest of us cannot use it. Sad, but true.

For online services such as quick image editing, PDF printing, and screen casts, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have to find another service. That shouldn’t slow you down too much.

If you use a social media service to aggregate your Twitter, Facebook, email, IM, etc…and that’s the only place you store your usernames and passwords, you’ll spend a lot of time recovering that information.  Then you’ll have to spend some time finding and learning another application.  This is annoying, but not too serious.

If the free (or inexpensive) photo gallery (or other document storage) system you use shuts down, this is just a pain in the neck if you have a copy of everything.  If you don’t have a back-up, well, that’s catastrophic. Of course, big name sites (like Kodak and Google) are not as likely to shut down and leave you hanging as WeRCheap4Storage.com, but they do have a right to change their policies.

What is the risk?

Anything and everything online is at risk (although some risks are so low you might as well worry about a meteor strike). With downloaded software (resident on your computer), the worst thing that can happen is that it is no longer supported. Online, any service can:

  • Stop taking registrations
  • Discontinue features
  • Start charging for features that were free or raise prices
  • Disappear altogether (shut down the site) for any number of reasons.  This is the worst because it can be without warning.

The more effort you put into building the content or customizing the online application, the more you stand to lose.  A blog with 100 posts is far more difficult to rebuild than an online gallery of the photos you have duplicates of on your hard drive.  The more you stand to lose, the more you should do to prevent any negative impacts on you.

What can you do?

For any and all of it, back up anything you can.  Keep it stored where you can easily recover it and restore functionality as quickly as possible.

For the more content-rich applications, the ones you depend on heavily, and/or those that will take you a lot of time to set up or customize to your needs, do your homework before investing that time.  Read reviews at CNET, PC Magazine, PCWorld, SourceForge, industry-specific publications, and of course, online searches for specific functionality.  Choose a stable application (one that has good reviews from users and IT experts alike and has been around “a while”) and back up your content regardless of how good they are!

Platforms such as Moodle, Joomla, WordPress, and Drupal are probably here to stay, but is your host?  Even though I know my sites are backed up and protected as much as humanely possible, I still back up the content, copies of which I keep copies on my local drives.  I would never risk a free hosting service unless it was associated with an organization I had plenty of confidence in.

We live in a rapidly changing world, which is both good and bad.  Nowadays, there is such a thing as a “free lunch” – for a time anyway.

The lesson is: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  The more dependent you are on an application, the more important it is that you a) make sure you have a recovery plan if that application shuts down and b) investigate the options so that your choice of application is based on something other than “it’s free”.

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Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Five Things to Consider When Choosing Online Collaboration Features For eLearning

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Probably by the time I finish this post, there will be another breakthrough in human instant communication.  I can barely keep up!  What I am sure of is that eLearning design needs to evolve to stay in step with what its students feel comfortable using and doing.  Sharing is definitely something people feel comfortable with these days. 

Whether you’re creating eLearning for a business or for a school, collaboration is one of the things that will make your eLearning GREAT.

If you believe, as I do, that learning happens in a lot of ways, and that people learn better when they share information, you’ll agree that some number of collaborative features must be included in all eLearning courses.  How much and what type should you use? Some require code integration and some require paid subscriptions; some are asynchronous and others are synchronous.  Even though most collaborative features require little or no authoring, let’s look at the options in terms of the Five Basic Things

Will collaboration add value to the students’ learning experience? Probably.  Not every course or every group of students can participate in web meetings or chats.  They might be spread across time zones or experience bandwidth issues.  Forums that allow replies and ratings are asynchronous, yet allow users to share their thoughts and ideas extensively.  Moodle.org is an excellent example of this.  Wikipedia, the greatest wiki of them all, is another example of how people can collaborate to build a body of knowledge.  The Moodle activity, wiki, is easy to add to a course and if you require students to add to it as part of their assignments, in no time at all you’ll have a useful reference for everyone.  You could use the Moodle glossary activity in the same manner.

Do I have the skill? Skill is less of an issue with collaborative features than time is.  It takes time to manage and monitor entries in forums, wikis, and glossaries.  Even if you allow students to post without approval (which is how I would do it), you (or the instructor) still needs to read them.  After all, you are part of the course, too. Web meetings can be time consuming because like any good meeting, you need to prepare in advance.  You need an agenda and purpose, and you need to stick to the time limits.  You also have to know how to use the web meeting software.  That isn’t always as easy as it seems!  Chats – at least in Moodle – are pretty simple to use.  Again, if the chat is used for learning, there should be some prearranged topics or questions, not just random conversation.

What are the options?  There are many web meeting applications that are easy to use; some work within Moodle and some do not.  DimDim has a plugin that creates a Moodle activity right in your course.  You can add DimDim meetings as easily as you can add a forum; once scheduled, they will automatically show up on the Moodle calendar and in the Upcoming Events block.  Other popular web meeting applications include Yugma, Elluminate and Wimba, GoToMeeting, WebEx, and of course Skype, which has online meetings as part of its “extras”.  Another Moodle activity plugin is Big Blue Button, an open source web conferencing tool.  I haven’t had a chance to use it; it sounds like there are some bugs to work out but it seems promising!

How much functionality do you need from this tool? Before you choose, you should consider:

  • Do your students have the ability to participate in synchronous activities (web meetings and live chats)? 
  • Do you want to have recorded transcripts for your course archives?  Moodle chats are automatically saved, but most web meetings are not.  That usually costs extra. 
  • Chats can put a huge load on any server.  Many people typing and submitting at one time can slow down a site; even crash it.  This is not a concern with forums, wikis, and glossaries.
  • Is it important to you to integrate these features with your LMS or is it acceptable to use them outside of that application?  Integration is nice for the students because they have only one site to log into.  But integration (for web meetings) usually costs extra.

Will this tool work within my LMS? With the exception of web meetings, all of these tools are part of the standard Moodle installation.  I imagine they are also part of other LMS, but you’ll have to check with your administrator to be sure.  Always make sure you have enough bandwidth and other server capacity before you schedule web meetings and chats.

In my next post I’ll share some tips on how to use these features to create an interactive and collaborative environment, without breaking the bank, without bringing your server to its knees, and without piling on work for yourself (the instructor).

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Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Moodle Hosting: Why every business using Moodle needs a Moodle Partner

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This summer I have been on my soapbox, helping my clients (both current and prospective) convince their clients of the soundness of hosting their Moodle sites with a certified Partner/Moodle host.  I am not a Moodle Partner, nor do I want to become one, so I have nothing invested in my recommendation except doing a good deed.  And, of course, I don’t want to create content on sites that are not hosted by Moodle Partners

Why? 

The reasons your business should host its Moodle site with a certified Moodle Partner: 

  • They know Moodle and everything in the Moodle universe.
  • Partners not only know how to run cron jobs and back-up the database, but they do it.  I am told that these tasks, with any web application, can be tricky, time-consuming, and dangerous.  Luckily, I’ll never have to worry about them.
  • Partners provide the proper bandwidth and storage (although these do vary amongst the Partners) to run Moodle.  A $7.95/month hosting plan at HappyMamaHost.com isn’t going to be sufficient.
  • Partners know Moodle; what it can do, what it can’t do, and what it might do in the future.
  • Partners know what third-party modules are out there, what problems they solve, and how to install them so they’ll work on your site.  You won’t have to spend dozens of hours searching for a solution that might not exist or might be well-known in the community. 
  • Using Moodle for business usually requires a little extra support, such as single sign-on capability, e-commerce functionality, and perhaps a greater level of security for privacy reasons.  No one will be able to integrate these applications better or faster (which is usually cheaper) than a Partner.
  • HappyMamaHost.com doesn’t help you with any of the above, at least not for free. 

A few examples of why this Moodle knowledge, expertise, and technical support matters: 

  • Last winter, Moodle sites around the globe were upgraded for security reasons.  All admins were required to create new passwords, with some serious specifications.  If your site is hosted by a Partner, chances are this upgrade was done for you.  If your site is hosted at HappyMamaHost.com, chances are you weren’t even aware of the security risk.  It’s guaranteed that they didn’t do the upgrade for you. 
  • If you have a WordPress site, you’ll notice that annoying little button that says “Version 3.01 is available; please upgrade now”.  You probably also know that upgrading without first backing things up can be very risky.  Not all of your plug-ins will work.  Some content might be lost.  The same is true for Moodle, but HappyMamaHost.com will surely have that same little button this winter on Moodle installations “Moodle 2.0 is available; please upgrade now”.  That will be disastrous if you don’t know how to do a major upgrade!   
  • I spoke of impossibly slow load times due to bandwidth issues in Getting Started with Moodle.  Storage requirements (for your actual course content) can become quite large, too, if you have more than a course or two.  By the time you upgrade to greater bandwidth and more GB of storage with HappyMamaHost.com, you might exceed the cost of hosting with a Partner. 
  • I have one client who must have web meeting functionality in his Moodle courses.  I have many others who are considering it.  I poked around and compared prices, options, and Moodle integration ability.  I was still not sure, so I asked my Partners.  They gave me the real run-down on which applications required coding and which installed as easy as 1-2-3.  We settled on DimDim.  All I had to do was ask “hey, can you install some sort of web meeting application on the site?” 

If you’re still not convinced that it is penny wise, pound foolish to not host with a Partner, what else can I do to change your mind?  I am willing to jump up and down…

One caveat: I would like to say that I worked with one web host (in Eastern Europe) who didn’t know Moodle at all, wasn’t a Partner, but still maintained a well-run Moodle site.  I’m sure there are others like him around the world, and I don’t want to be disparaging of their service or efforts.  I’m also sure that they are not the mass-sellers of discounted hosting plans, which is really what I want you to steer clear of.

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