BigBlueButton/GreenLight and Moodle/Mahara for (Distance) Learning — Part 1

I am using BigBlueButton since two years, more and more confidently and satisfied: the current versions are very elegant, elaborated but easy to use nevertheless, integration with Moodle is perfect — inside a Moodle classroom you can start a video conference with all users already enrolled: each of them can participate without any additional software needed, running anywhere on mobiles, laptops, desktops.
I want to share my usage scenarios, tried and tested setups and thoughts about using it in classroom and using it for Distance Learning, replacing school attendance with web conferences assisting my learners along their e-learning paths in Moodle.

There are three main parts of this — in order of importance in these times of isolation or quarantine:

So if you are wanting to literally do what I do/did you have to come to the same conclusions as I did (in Part 3), setup your own BBB server and configure usage in Moodle (as in Part 2).
But — in fact most of this can be done with any other product and perhaps you only want to read about my experience and my settings (Part 1).

Distance Learning — teaching and learning in times of quarantine

Interaction is necessary: for your heart & soul, and for success in learning

Teaching in classrooms has many aspects. I am teaching Mathematics, Computer Science and German Language and Literature. Teaching the first two subjects I do a lot of demonstrations (usually at the beginning) followed by self paced action of the learners where my role is to assist or help. This is not the case teaching Language, e.g. when learning to write texts: here an intense exchange between learners and/or me takes place, working together.

All these scenarios change when being distant — and most of them can be simulated by using web conferences. Interaction between students, Interactions between students and me propel learning, remove obstacles and, of course, are part of our common social live.

A e-learning environment consisting of a bunch of online documents clearly is none, call it a library. Interactions start when activities are given, feedback is available. But human interaction still is missing — and this is where conference tools are indispensable.

You do not have to share everything: Conference Calls are very relaxing

When trying our first sessions students usually are very fond of all this: seeing themselves on video, hearing them talk etc. We did this in school, to be prepared.

When using this from home — as we do this now and in the near future — this changes. Switching on your webcam (or use your mobile) means showing yourself but also your environment: “I do not want to shock you by showing what mess my room is” one of my students told me. Others told me they just got up, are not ready to be shown to the public. If you need them being seen: tell them to be prepared!

“The real reason why I prefer home office conference calls to video calls.”

But: this is not necessary at all in many situations. Asking questions or discussing items needs audio but in many cases video can be omitted — telephones have worked for decades without pictures. Our former chancellor Christian Kern posted a picture yesterday, showing him in a leisure suit, no tie, no shoes on a sunny terrace. Why not?

When demonstrating you (and your learners) are looking at the shared screen — an image of each person is neither necessary nor helpful (although seeing a high rate of frowning is a valuable feedback). This has a significant advantage, discussed in Part 2/3: technically streaming video is consuming most of your bandwidth — about 10 times more than audio.

(Video-)conferences with BigBlueButton

So I use BBB Videoconferences in my Moodle Courses as Rooms with recordings with default settings: adding all enrolled users automatically as viewers, waiting for me as moderator. No setup needed, many times I use just an empty pdf as background to draw and write. Participants are encouraged to choose to select “use microphone” when joining, but this can be done at a later time. I tell my students to let camera turned off or on — as they want to. I start recording when all are present and we actually start a learning session — which usually is after some time of waiting and doing some smalltalk.

Public Chat and Shared Notes are very useful for exchanging/gathering information or links e.g. to works from students — Geogebra e.g. allows saving shared to cloud which can be provided here easily.

Rooms for everyone

Videoconferences are scheduled events and students should be prepared when joining. There are several occasions when a group of students could like to collaborate with each other. Therefor I use Greenlight to create rooms for students to be used whenever they want to. At the moment I allow them to join as moderators and every user to start a meeting. This way anyone of them can decide e.g. to share his/her desktop. They even can record their meeting, perhaps using it later in a Web conference.

Settings for teacherless classrooms

To access this In Moodle I use a text box with a link produced by Greenlight for accessing this particular room. I do not set a password.

My classrooms for students produced in Greenlight

Rewind, Replay!

Obviously the ability to record sessions is a valuable tool to provide videos for learners. Perhaps some of them have been absent or some want to revise parts of the session: this can be produced without any effort.

Sometimes I use this, sharing my desktop, without any participants: just for creating videos demonstrating some content. Without any third-party software!

Face-to-Face-Lessons — Why BBB is valuable here too

No Beamer required

Strangely enough this was the real starting point of my interest in web conferencing: the need for sharing my desktop (or application window) to others. When working in a classroom with students equipped with a laptop but in a computer lab too I always used a beamer — sometimes projecting to an electronic whiteboard to show some content, to demonstrate how to do something or to show a result which should be achieved (together with some clues how to do this). Students, sitting at their screen, are expected to use this picture to find their way solving problems. There are some drawbacks with this approach as easy and natural it may seem to be — using an electronic blackboard/whiteboard.

The most disturbing drawback for me was, considering limited resources of schools, beamers with just enough brightness to be seen in a darkened room are used often and/or lamps are old and getting weaker and weaker. Screens of laptops, although just before the eyes of learners, are often of mediocre quality or turned down in brightness — to save battery! The effect of all this was that all such classrooms are darkened most of the time which seems to be no problem for other teachers nor for the students.

Insisting on not being Count Dracula only for whom every little ray of sun would be life-threatening and therefor begging to open the curtains to give some sun to me had no effect: students complained about the projected image being too dark (true), too blurred (largely true), too small (true for at least a third of the most distant places).

Projecting to everyones screen solved all this problems while providing some additional benefits too, like

Recordings for home use

As already mentioned: video-capturing demonstrations are often useful and so I started to record parts of my sessions additionally, producing e-learning content every time.

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