StreamYard: the streaming tool we’ve been waiting for?

So, I am not sure how I became aware of it initially but I have been giving StreamYard a go.

What is StreamYard?

Basically you can Stream live, from your browser, to a number of different platforms (YouTube, Facebook, etc). This is all super easy and cheaper than more traditional methods:

Why might you be interested?

From an education and L&D background, I have used various online classroom/meeting tools over the years. These normally involve some level of friction for the user, be it logins, tracking, plugin installation, etc.

I recently only just realised that LinkedIn has a beta “live” feature – details here. StreamYard is one of the tools you can use to publish to your profile and/or page(s) via this – if you have LinkedIn groups this might be the way to go, being able to broadcast direct to your groups, rather than needing a separate meeting tool (at least for low interaction broadcasts).

The alternative to a browser based model is a tool like https://obsproject.com/ – an open tool but one that requires install and setup. When I have tried to use Twitch in the past I might have tried OBS but must admit I can’t actually remember what I used! Either way it was not as easy as how StreamYard makes things.

StreamYard trial

So, what have I found with StreamYard is that it is very easy to use. I ended up deleting most of what I created in the trial but it is noticeable that there are still hoops to jump through, for example, YouTube requires your phone number to allow you to live stream to your channel. Therefore, StreamYard might be the best tool in its space (considering ease and cost) but the platforms you stream to might still be a problem.

The often ignored realities of talent management (#6): The office as a tool for workers, not a stick to hit them with

The future of work and the hybrid nature of future organisations continues to be of news. I would first caveat the rest of this post by saying it is really about office workers (not those in other workplaces):

My view on what workplaces now need to look like is that the nature of what the office is has to shift.

We have seen some of this already, for example the office as a recruitment and culture tool in being “cool” with pool tables and the like in the pre-Covid world to attract talent. This will continue to some extent, especially for young people who appreciate social experiences as well as the informal learning offices can provide.

Where we are now is in a position where an office can be seen as an enabler. Gone are the days, for those organisations who made the shift to more remote work, of enforced drudgery. Instead we can see the office as being something ‘to be used’ rather than using us.

The office can be an enabler for relationships, interaction, etc but we should now use it in more specific ways than in the past. Many of us will be used to this – for example visiting other offices to meet people, for specific meetings, etc. This now needs to be extended to everyone, including those who traditionally worked 100% at a set location. In the past I have worked in both quiet and noisy open plan offices, office layouts where small teams sit together as well as environments where most people have their own room. None of these are ideal. Indeed the backlash to open plan continues:

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/07/open-plan-office-noise-stress-mental-health-mood-work-employment-employees-welfare

Personally I have struggled with enforced home working more than I perhaps expected. However, I think this is due to the lack on in person interaction and social events. As we shift back to being able to choose where to work (fingers crossed for the Covid situation), a clever talent strategy will enable workers to choose where (not just office/home but anywhere) and when to work but with the benefits of collegiate experiences centred to that.

Indeed if I think about past experience much of this is long running, for example having meetings with suppliers at a coffee shop rather than the office as a break from screentime and the environment. The real challenge for orgs, is time tracking and productivity. Here talent management needs to be smarter in terms of goals and outcomes rather than screen time and time on task. Using the office for two hours of productivity in a meeting may well be more valuable than a 9:5 day of dealing with emails or other task.

Should learning pros shift from sector specific tools? #1 : Visual novels for branched activities and storytelling

This will likely not develop into a series but I am being brave and adding a #1 to this post.

Trying out some visual novels

I recently played a couple of ‘visual novel’ games and they immediately made me think about branching eLearning scenarios. From a little bit of research online, it is clear that there is an identified gap here between current visual novel markets and their potential use. A 2020 paper describing this thus “there are genres with untapped potential for teaching, such as narratively driven…visual novel games” (Oygardslia et al, 2020).

The games I played noticeably achieved a few things, including:

(1) Strong character development through storytelling.

(2) Narrative choices for the player that really impact on the story and resulting scenes (albeit that this is not always obvious until you play through multiple times, look online for the different options, etc.).

(3) Motivation for the player to continue due to cliff-hangers and other drama devices, managing to create a desire to find out “what is going to happen next”.

These attributes are of course not unique to visual novels (aka ‘narrative games’). For example, I am currently playing Assassins Creed Valhalla (as mentioned in a previous post) and this game has strong character development and a compelling story to keep you playing – it even specifically separates the game into “story arcs” (effectively chapters in traditional written storytelling). Where traditional games, and particularly rich 3D open worlds like Valhalla, struggle is how much narrative choices can impact the game. Valhalla, for example, gives you choices for the conversations of your character but few actually impact outcomes or the game’s story. It is not obvious to the player of Valhalla which conversations impact things either, hence a number of explainer articles online such as this one.

An example Assassins Creed Valhalla narrative choice from a EuroGamer article.

If a quick Google is anything to go by, there has been relatively limited interest in visual novels (specifically) within the wider interest of gamification and how games may, or may not, educate.

Gamification has, of course, been a bit of a buzz term but I would agree with quite a lot of this post regarding explaining that the real reason that gamification has become a focus is because of concerns around motivation. The other half of the puzzle here really is the storytelling element which has also had a lot of interest in L&D (see here for an example article). This is of course nothing new in so much as video based and drama based learning have long played on the benefits of storytelling and emotional response.

There are though a few articles discussing the attempts to use visual novels, for example this one on an example use case in education.

Scale of visual novels as a medium

As with most categorisations in gaming, what makes a ‘visual novel’ is debatable. However, games categorised as such amount to 4,588 items on the hugely popular Steam Store. Perhaps inevitably a large subsection of these are tagged as “dating” sims or even “adult”. There are also the usual visual gaming splits between anime style graphics, more western style cartoon, more realistic 3D models, etc. The quality of these graphics of course impact the experience but at the same time it was nice for me to play a few things with real character development – rather than the stock Microsoft, Articulate and other cut out “characters” we see in so many webinars, eLearning modules, etc.

Reading this, you might presume these games, often free-to-play or low cost, are terrible. However, reviews on Steam are an interesting read for learning professionals – for example people fearing “click-fest type” games are instead “genuinely surprised” thanks, again, to the storytelling. How often have ‘click next’ eLearning courses ever really surprised you?

One authoring tool, Ren.Py, has a seperate directory of free games you can try. Interestingly, this directory does give you the word count of the game (something I have previously suggested would be possible for the wider gaming industry).

But branching is hard

Such games are, of course, complex – at least with regards to the branching and storytelling. In the past I have worked for organisations that have outsourced such storytelling into bespoke eLearning. However, today, the basics of branching is relatively straightforward in many eLearning tools.

However, if you play a few visual novels it soon becomes clear how shallow some eLearning branching is. And I include some of what I have worked on in the past in that statement.

If we want to avoid branching due to the complexity then what we are working towards is a different categorisation: “A kinetic novel is a linear type of visual novel where there is a linear storyline with no player choice or gameplay.”.

Authoring tools

There are numerous options in this space, here are a few I have looked at…

A few years back I had a bit of a play with Twine. Twine is primarily text based so might not be appropriate for all situations.

There are some tools marketed for education including ones which shift to a 3D model, like this from CoSpaces, rather than the more scene style of other visual novel tools.

PCGamer considers some of the options in this article. In addition, there are some useful threads on Reddit, both in instructional design and gaming channels [warning not all are safe for work if you go looking]. For example it was here that I realised that many tools are combining RenPy with 3D model assets from DAZ. RenPy’s tutorial, built within the tool, is actually very good and shows how well it can work:

Screenshot from RenPy tutorial.

Challenges

A big problem for those working in corporate environments has always been the restrictions in place with regards to technology. This is why the more recent publishing tools tend to be helpful in being browser based, gone are the days where companies have needed to keep supporting old tech (including Flash) or insisting on everything being in a SCORM package.

Renpy.org requires local .exe files so is likely a non-starter for many corporate environments. Indeed the open source authoring tool but is sponsored by companies that will help you get published elsewhere, such as on games stores. Other options such as TyranoBuilder offer export to browser functionality (although Tyrano is an example with an upfront software cost so I haven’t tried it) which might be more suitable for corporates.

Therefore getting the tool installed and the games out to users to install will be a blocker for some organisations. The mobile app publication option might be a solution for some though.

Nothing new?

In many ways the learning that could be designed in RenPy and other tools is similar to narrative based eLearning in other tools and just as reliant on the quality of writing and story based learning.

This is of course nothing new, indeed conferences for eLearning and games based learning are long running:

What should we use?

With time to learn them, these authoring tools become very powerful. However, the challenges of installation and publication would likely block many corporates/organisations from using them.

Personally, I am going to try and go deeper into Ren.Py in part as it is basically teaching you some Python language through a simple interface which I suspect might be of help in the future. In addition the option to publish to Android and iOS might offer some solutions to the desktop publication problems.

For now, the ease at which Articulate and other tools have made branching become something anyone can do (rather than expensive bespoke eLearning like it used to be) is probably the way that makes sense. However, the cost of developing on a free tool like Ren.Py is likely much lower than a fully blown interactive video experience. Therefore, there are no doubt use cases out there.

More on educational games : the example of mission1point5

Using mobile gaming technology, Mission 1.5 educates people about climate solutions and asks them to vote on the actions that they want to see happen.

https://www.mission1point5.org/about

This new climate change related online activity is an interesting idea, combining a series of what are basically multiple choice questions (that give the user options for what their government should do to meet the 1.5 degree challenge) with calls to action for individual and national-level behaviour change.

Responses from your selected country will be aggregated and submitted to your government as your “vote”…

What will we do with the results?

Your vote, and those from your country, will be compiled and presented to your government to encourage bolder climate action. Votes will also be counted in a global tally. So stay tuned for the results!

https://www.mission1point5.org/about

Presumably this vote piece is only prearranged with the 12 countries (plus the EU) that are listed. In addition the game mechanics themselves are a little odd given your choice for each point is really between two items as one is clearly a ‘red herring’. The onscreen results from the ‘quiz’ record 10, 700 or 1000 points depending on your answer to a question and combine into a total score for tackling the 1.5 challenge across multiple areas such as “farms and foods”, “transport”, etc.

Example question from the “Farms & Food” topic.
A section’s “vote” (which acts like a summary/debrief of the ‘correct’ answers for each section).
Overall scoring in keeping temperature change down.

Does it educate?

The first quote included above specifically states the resource “educates people”. Obviously I could write a lot here about what educating someone actually means versus learning something, etc. What I will try to focus on is if someone is likely to learn anything from the activity. The answer, of course, will be “it depends”.

If we take the cattle example, in the above screenshot, there is a lot of pre-requisite knowledge required – for example a reading level to comprehend “livestock” and “plant-based diet”, albeit with mobile-style friendly graphics as visual clues. Beyond reading ability, there is no real information on the different option and what they mean – thus the light touch to any kind of knowledge content could be confusing and if you really wanted/needed to learn something from this you would likely have to do some research away from the resource. This is not helped by the text being image based and, therefore, you can not simply select text and ask your browser to search the web for more information.

Therefore, I am tempted to say this resource might be quite useful for a school to run through in a group, i.e. with a teacher/facilitator in place to use it to foster discussion, rather than as a learning resource per se.

How could it be improved?

10, 700 and 1000 don’t obviously relate to the 1.5 degree temperature and it is not very clear from the onscreen graphics how many ‘points’ are needed as a minimum for your choices to meet your country’s requirements. Indeed there is a contradiction between not wanting to add to temperature but also needing a high score. It would be better if the scoring was somehow reversed – e.g. starting with your high carbon total and then cutting it with a % target to reach 1.5 from a high score.

There is also a risk here from oversimplifying as, presumably, the carbon impact of some choices would be more in some countries than others (this complexity might be built in but I doubt it).

The “none of the above” option on the vote really does not work either as a form of learning summary nor as a mockup of the democratic action. Particularly if the intention of the resource is for actual democratic input…

Reliable information on public opinion on climate action

This is given, in a related YouTube video’s description, as a reason for the website’s vote element:

Mission 1.5 YouTube introduction

However, it is clearly a limited activity with just three (well two) options to consider per question and then the user being very heavily prompted to select the ‘best’ option for each section’s three questions as the vote. I must admit I voted a few “none of the above” responses in a Brewster’s Millions style mood.

Summary

Overall this feels like one of those examples of where someone wants to try to achieve educational outcomes but they have limited content, a desire to reduce instruction (but to the point of irrelevance) and really only manage to leverage the gaming expertise involved (which seems considerable from the “about” page) to graphics/UI and little else. It also highlights the incredible difficulty in building content for a global audience with no personalisation or clear target audience.

“The more things change, the more they remain the same” MoodleMoot Ireland and UK Online 2021

Last week I attended the IE&UK MoodleMoot which was, of course, held online this year.

My feelings about the presentations will sound something like a follow-up to my “not all innovation is created equal” post which itself was triggered by the global MoodleMoot last year. Why? Well, while Covid loomed large over this year’s event the ‘transformation’ taking place all sounded very familiar.

The change

The opening keynote pointed out the scale of change in the last year, and the scale of global challenges beyond Covid too. The growth in online learning in the last year set out via a particularly striking metric:

Whilst this might be expected given the Covid situation it is perhaps still impressive that that many people have launched Moodle sites during the period. Whilst Moodle offers a low cost solution there are, of course, plenty of other options out there so that growth is still impressive IMO. It is perhaps also worth pointing out that the growth will be across multiple types of organisations whilst this MoodleMoot was primarily university focused in terms of the presentations (and I would imagine the audience too).

I did have to agree with some of the keynote points, for example Martin Dougiamas stressed that too much of the pivot/transformation has simply been video based learning sessions, webinars, etc. He also, I think, agreed with me that it has really been a time of reinvention, not a revolution, for him and others who have been in the industry a while. Overall, the lessons learned in the last 20-odd years are clearly inconsistently applied in the world of online learning.

The same

As with the global MoodleMoot much of what was being discussed has not really changed in the last 10+ years. This might be a sign that digital learning is now mature in further and higher education (and elsewhere), or it might just be that the agenda for the event did not really get beyond the basics as many presentations were by people being pushed online by Covid. In fact, away from those ‘this is how we responded to Covid’ type sessions, the agenda was quite sponsor heavy – it is perhaps difficult to sell presenting at user conferences if it doesn’t involve a day out of the office?

In no particular order here are some items I took away from the event, as always accuracy is reliant on my memory and note taking, and (as I have said) a lot of these points are far from ‘new new’:

  1. Moodle is only part of the solution. The opening keynote stressed Moodle’s role is to build a learning system, it is not a learning system in itself. This is probably not the way Moodle has been sold to many educators but should be remembered. The great desire in education institutions has always been to have ‘a size fits all’ solution but Moodle has 200+ plugins and, of course, most people will be reliant on various other tools (from Microsoft to Articulate and beyond). I have grouped some of the other related content/conversations to this as #12 below, not to mention different learning/teaching approaches (see #2).
  2. Social construction. The keynote also reinforced the point that Moodle was designed for social learning. We heard some presentations where the transformation has been little more than moving from Moodle as a file store to Moodle as it was intended to be used (i.e. as a platform with active discussions, activities, etc). Better late than never I guess but it also really depends on what else you are using this matters or not (see #12).
  3. Moodle 4.0’s promise of improved visuals and UX could probably have been from any point in the system’s version history. Obviously these changes are continuous, and needed, but 4.0 probably shouldn’t be oversold given this conversation is certainly a ‘deja vu’ topic. Fingers crossed 4.0 is a big leap forward though.
  4. Brickfield’s accessibility checker. This tool sounds really useful but long overdue given Blackboard, for example, has had Ally for a while (this could be seen as a comment on commercial vs OS development – however, Brickfield’s full offer is still commercial as a plugin/partner). Related to #1, you would likely need to invest here to extend Moodle into a full offering that meets modern accessibility requirements.
  5. eAssessment. Whilst I would have thought most universities had an online LMS/VLE pre-covid they may not have ‘pushed the button’ on online assessment before being forced to in the last year. Catalyst did a good presentation on the need to consider various things before launching eAssessment, including making sure the load on servers is not a problem – something I suffered the pain of with Blackboard hosting back in about 2010. Obviously we often rely on trial and error in tech but in high stakes assessments this is not really an option. Catalyst were selling their hosting and load testing services but you can argue for a move away from this simultaneous style assessment to other models.
    • Gradescope, now part of the TurnItIn group, looked good as a way of getting written exams and non essay exams into a digital tool – this in part tackles some age old questions such as how to deal with diagrams and maths in eAssessment. However, at the same time, a lot of what was being talked about (rubrics, etc) is, again, not really new. Related to #1, you would likely need to invest here to extend Moodle into a full offering if you are in an assessment heavy sector.
    • Poodll also showed some nice functionality in this area, although they advertise as focused on language learning I would say their tools could be used wider – for example, with the rise of voice operation over typing you could author questions in different ways.
  6. Plugin evaluation. UCL presented a few sessions, including one on their new-ish plugin evaluation process. This was all fairly straightforward and I would imagine many orgs have something similar, either for Moodle, Blackboard building blocks, etc. etc.
    • Of other plugins and themes mentioned, the Moove theme sounded great for simplifying the user interface – it was mentioned by Hibernia College (interestingly they have 17[!] in their Digital Development team).
    • Hibernia also mentioned the MyFeedback [?] plugin which sounded good for one of the problems I have with Moodle – namely the need to better aggregate, for the student, a view of their gradebook across modules/courses.
  7. Studygroup pre-arrival course and course development processes. This is a course that can be licenced for institutions to help international students know more about their new location pre-arrival, including some of the cultural differences they might want to be aware. As with pre-start date induction materials in workplace learning this looked a good idea.
    • In terms of the design process discussed (Aims > Pedagogy > Limitations > Content Development > Content Transfer > Test Systems > Amendments) it all made sense and not a bad model for others to use.
    • Bolton Uni did a session later on developing a Masters course during lockdown, the most interesting bit for me, again, was their approach (Pedagogy > Design and Structure > Validate > Upskill Staff > Deliver, Support and Track > Enhance). Bolton admitted they were “new kids on the block” for online learning development but this seemed to be working for them (I presented on something similar in 2011).
    • I liked an example from Nottingham of a different type of learning activity, namely an attempt to create an escape room type experience made up of video, puzzle quizzes and other Moodle elements. Overall, this was a nice example of thinking ‘outside the box’ when faced with the Covid challenge.
  8. Global search engine. Another UCL session, this showed their results in comparing three global search tools (Azure, Elastic and Solr?). The presentation was good in showing the different findings in terms of the indexing impact and the search results across the three tools. Content management and discovery have long been problems in learning platforms and a solution to this really should be in the core code. Indeed I have found such a search tool useful within Totara in the past, not least as the logs are illuminating in what your users are looking for.
  9. Upgrades. UCL also presented on a move to continuous release upgrades. This was an interesting one given the problems VLE upgrades have long caused. Higher Ed having long relied on the ‘big’ summer upgrade. However, this also goes against the desire for permanent online learning and avoiding downtime. The UCL session got into some of the management of code and cloud vs local data integration. Overall, one for hosting teams but also highlights the issues for teams like UCL to be managing this versus using external hosting services.
  10. Moodleboard development from DCU. More the kind of thing I like from user conferences – how to do something new. In this case it was ‘boards’ via a tool developed as a new plugin that does some of what popular external tools (like Padlet) can do but all internal to Moodle and keeping the data your own.
  11. Tile format for courses. A lot of the presentations either mentioned this specifically or were clearly using it. Very interesting from a “the same” perspective as, in many ways, it goes back to the same logic as the old WebCT UI just with a more modern look. Some of the examples looked good – for example the Royal College of Midwives managing to move their 3 day residential programme to an online course looked like a real achievement.
  12. What data where in the ecosystem. An OU session looked at the new options related to user profile fields in release 3.11. Overall this really felt like it came back to the age old question of what systems you have, where the data needs to be, etc. There are clear use cases here, for example creating additional fields that could then be used in different ways – for example the old Blackboard community system allowed you to filter what users of that system saw. Examples of what this would allow included employer sponsored students being able to see their company content. Other use cases include changing what a fully online student sees in their dashboard versus a blended or campus-based student, etc. by their profile fields. As someone who has completed an online MSc this is the kind of functionality universities could get a lot better at to personalise and filter out the noise.
    • Dundalk presented about moving their student support hub online, I would imagine many institutions would have offered this for a while but how they do it, and what is on Moodle versus other parts of an ecosystem, no doubt varies. Indeed having to navigate a university student record system, VLE/LMS, intranet, website, library and elsewhere for information (rather a simple single Google-style interface) is a well documented challenge for online education providers and a great example of service providers often carving customer experience up by their departments rather than what a customer needs. Indeed Dundalk mentioned a major drive for the move was student feedback that their Moodle was a logical place for more than just modules and programmes.
    • For many, a key part of their ecosystem will now be webinar and virtual classroom tools so it was good to see BigBlueButton still being plugged in the face of Teams and Zoom becoming so dominate (at least in my experience).
  13. Academic staff upskilling and PD. Most of the sessions touched on this and no matter how many learning technologists, templates and other aides are in place most academic institutions presenting still seemed to have the model of tutors being the end user and that they ‘own’ the digital space. There are, of course, debates to be had over the rights and wrongs of this.
    • It was interesting to see Birkbeck deciding to go back to the drawing board for how to go fully online (decisions > policy [including adopting basic standards for Moodle and ABC Learning Design] > roles).
    • Gallway showed some nice use of using H5P to teach academics how to use H5P – there seemed to be some clever setup tricks in their approach that would be good to see shared in a way that others could use. However, it seemed like it would need quite a lot of setup – indeed the presenter mentioned it was being used for small groups (of 5) as would be in a face-to-face workshop, rather than something that could be used more widely at a larger scale[?].
  14. Data analytics was considered in a few presentations, including with regards to search (#8) and in terms of the wider ecosystem (#12).
    • Intelliboard presented on how to use data for early intervention, proactive advising and more. Much of this sounded very familiar to what I got excited about with Starfish’s solution at BBWorld in 2009.
    • Chicester showed some interesting work in rationalising module evaluation to cut the number of templates to allow comparison across departments/schools and how they have used templates and question banks to do this. There were some nice displays of data with the chart.js plugin [?] but overall it was a little mind blowing that a university would have, until recently, been doing this on paper and not in a consistent way.
    • There was also some data analysis and consideration of machine learning models from a Hungarian institution that looked interesting for what it might mean for the metrics being used.
    • Another session from Intelliboard was good in showing the research and data related to online learning and how there are many things we do know, for example the correlation between perceived instructor competence and if the instructor is seen as caring about the student [i.e. we give a perception of competence to people we like!]. Homophily, the perception of time (i.e. you need to answer student queries quickly), etc. were also considered in this.
  15. Video sharing from OneDrive. This was a practical and super simple presentation – I would hope no one who would attend this event actually uploads directly to Moodle and would imagine most organisations will have a video platform to use (which is probably preferable to the OneDrive examples shared).

The future

I am well aware that we all take our own things from such events – for example, there were more developer/technical focused sessions during the conference which are not related to my area of expertise but would have been of use for others and I did not get to attend everything due to other events, emails, etc.

Therefore, I appreciate me complaining about basic Moodle operations is unfair given this is new to many. What is more worrying is that the beginners and basic stuff in some of the sessions originate from higher education institutions that are really behind the sector overall and will be continuing to waste tuition fees and government money in various areas.

The real change going forward might be with Moodle’s model itself. The creation of Moodle US alongside the monetization via Moodle Workplace and Mobile are interesting changes for what is theoretically still an OS project. Of course it is also a fair point to say one shouldn’t criticise the project if not contributing financially or via time (such as in testing or development).

My main takeaways

  1. We need to challenge ourselves to not just learn from the last 20-odd years but also apply those lessons.
  2. There were a few plugins and themes for me to look into (those I have taken time to highlight above).
  3. Moodle 4.0 is a huge opportunity but probably one not to get too excited about.