TAO/Online tools

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This part of the TAO Handbook attempts to provide basic information on software that may support your work in terms of collaboration. Besides this aspect summarized with the term “tools” the headline also contains the omnipresent catchword “online“ which generally adds up to communication – technically in the first place but therefore enabling remote human interaction.

Taking a look at the simple example of using software to create a text it has been more or less cumbersome to cooperate: different people had to accomplish their part in an asynchronous manner, for example forwarding the respective files in an e-mail to another author after they – hopefully – wrote down all their thoughts. Today some tools have evolved to enable work on a single document (or other item, file) cooperatively and at the same time instead of being only accessible at a single computer screen and keyboard. In addition to these solutions for working on actual items there are more and more ways of communicating remotely: if you think of computers and the global network internet as general purpose machinery a web conference for example can provide you with functionality and methods that are not available or hard to accomplish outside a virtual environment. In fact you may surpass the sole purpose of replacing real-life meetings and may benefit if your solution incorporates features that support your conversation especially if your online meeting room incorporates before mentioned tools to work on items as you are discussing them.

Outline: how to bring your needs in accordance with the software available

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Approaching with the idea in mind that computers really could be of “general purpose” you should first focus on defining your requirements and then go on and find out if there has already been someone who programmed a solution to meet these. You will find a rough guide through that process providing some common concepts and buzzwords as well as questions to work with and pointers to further information. Providing a bird's eye view as well as picturing some examples of todays implementations there are no detailed instructions on how to install online tools within your project as there is no silver bullet[1].

At first you find some words on the requirements both sides (end-user and provider) have to meet in the sections below. In the next chapter on “Online collaboration” you find some hints on useful solutions to work collaboratively; the focus is on text production, if you are looking for solutions for other media as well you will be able to find some yourself. In „Web conferencing“ and ”Virtual classrooms” the focus changes on communication between two or more participants. Concluding some „E-Learning environments“ will be presented, that consolidate the solutions already illustrated in (mostly web-based) platforms.

Therefore a main part of this topic contains a set of properties and according questions to help with the decision on available options and software.

A short remark on wording: the terms software, solution or software solution and tool shall be understood synonymous. As there are lots of different ways to implement a software solution as well as paradigms shifting at a rapid rate (sometimes only to favor marketing objectives) it is not possible to stick to the explanation of principles and precise wording at the same time. Currently for example everything is called “app” and takes place in the “cloud” whereas in other times the same concepts would be described by the terms of “terminal”, “server” and “modularity of programs”.

Ultimately you can think of all solutions information technology provides as a service that enables you to reach your goal; no matter if you use a program installed locally on your computer or you use one installed on your organizations server via a network or if its hosted by a company on the other side of the globe.

Requirements: participants

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Every participating party or single participant will need the following hardware equipment. This is just a short checklist to give an overview, the exact requirements depend on the software in question and should be found in its documentation:

  • A “personal computer” (PC) of some kind is always required.
I.e. a desktop computer or laptop or similar. For some applications even a smartphone is sufficient.
In the majority of cases there is no need for an expensive high-end system. Most today's low-end to medium personal computers will suffice.

If the users shall be able to talk to each other there is additional hardware everyone has to obtain:

  • Speakers or a headset including a microphone…
If the user wants to avoid trouble already by choosing the suitable equipment headphones are recommended to avoid audio feedback loops.
  • … and eventually a video camera, usually a webcam connected via USB.
Often it's possible to participate without using a webcam and being content with an audio connection and video of the others. It is even doubted if having video images of all the participants heads is useful[citation needed].

Dedicated systems like [[w:en:Set-top box|set-top boxes] or conference systems installed in a room that are optimized to fulfill a very specific purpose or to respectively cope with a specific problem and the whole range of possible technical equipment that may support a end-user's participation in his home are not discussed in this handbook. As they may facilitate collaboration and especially online communication they are usually very expensive and more difficult to operate and are therefore no option, at least on the end-user's i.e. participant's side.

Regarding software a general statement as above is not possible. Some solutions already work with an up to date web browser, others require to install plugins within that browser and some work as stand alone applications a user has to install. Most of today's web browser based solutions furthermore require Adobe's Flash technology or a specific version of Java, which sometimes is a stepping stone.

At this point you should also think outside your own box and take into consideration if the solutions in question are capable of running on different platforms i.e. operating systems. Depending on your target group Windows, Mac OS or Linux – to name only the most wide spread ones – may be predominating. As you will hardly seek to reach only a homogeneous group cross-plattform solutions are often most appealing just to avoid locking anyone out. Often browser-based web conferences take the advantage of meeting the criterion of being cross-plattform.

At last internet access providing sufficient bandwidth (up- and downstream) for the personal computer is needed and may be a crucial point in participating successfully and also in a satisfactory way. The following websites provide a service to check your respective connection (further services can be found using the web search of your choice):

At both test sites you will be able to obtain a link to refer to your results lateron. This enables you to sent your results to the technical support person of your choice if you are not able to interpret them by yourself.

Requirements: host or provider

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There are two different kinds of approaches that make a basic difference if you are concerned with providing any online services for your community.

  • A server-client scheme demands that your organization operates a server to which participants can connect. There will be software that needs to be run on host hardware (i.e. the server) and both is probably a cost factor determined by acquisition and maintenance. Most of these solutions benefit from taking away some engagement with technical issues from the participants. Most notably there are web-based solutions in which in the best case only a standard web browser and nothing else is required from the participants. Also such a centralized approach often allows for more means of organizing, structuring and controlling the workspace or meeting room, e.g. dedicated (password protected) directories or rooms for different groups, recording or other ways of documenting meetings.
  • A peer-to-peer (P2P) scheme demands that each participant uses (and therefore has to install) software that is capable of connecting to the others without a central instance. Actually there will be very few pure P2P solutions, often only the actual communication (e.g. sending end receiving audio and video) is realized in a peer-to-peer way and a server is needed to initialize that communication anyway.

Whatever solution you will provide: to enable your community members to use the respective tool you will have to provide some documentation and hints, best online so everyone can refer to it again and again and from every place one can access the internet. Also the specific requirements that have to be met if the solution incorporates a server to which the participants connect should be discussed with a system administrator of yours, who should be already participating in the consultation at an early stage.

Tip: very often there are services already provided for your purposes and organization. Maybe “in-house” or by a partner or even an external provider that wants to support your goals. It is surely worthwhile to investigate in this matter as it will safe you a lot of efforts as someone possibly has already put work and thought in solving a big part of your task.

Overview of E-Learning Tools

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The Top 100- Tools for E-Learning is renewed[2]. Learning tools could used to create or deliver learning content or used for own personal learning. The top tool is Twitter, 2nd ist YouTube and 3rd is Google Docs. Other tools are Skype, Evernote, Prezi, Diigo, EduGlogster, EduGlogster, Edmodo, Wikispaces, Pinterest. More Informations Top 100 Tools for Learning 2012


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  1. Brooks, Frederick P., "No Silver Bullet: Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering," Computer, Vol. 20, No. 4 (April 1987) pp. 10-19., available at http://www.cs.nott.ac.uk/~cah/G51ISS/Documents/NoSilverBullet.html
  2. Top 100 Tools for Learning 2012