Localising e-content | digitalLEARNING Magazine
July 2006

Localising e-content

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In an attempt to address the relative absence of interactive online learning environment in Indian languages, Vartalaap was conceived, which supports instant messaging in Indian languages to cater to the communication needs of people in their local language. The Vartalaap Virtual Classroom system enables a teacher or subject-expert to  conduct live interactive consultancy sessions with a group of  students over a computer network. The system can integrate with text-to- speech systems in Indian languages to augment usability and can be a very useful support tool in academic environments especially in distance education to assist teachers to reach a wider group of  students, who may be physically in different locations, thus making interactive online education possible.

Web based education and e-learning are the trends of the day. The education scenario in India is on the threshold of a significant change in the way education is delivered. There are many educational institutions that offer higher  education courses via distance education. Students of distance education  courses typically receive study materials and assignment handouts via post,  and send back completed assignments via post to the distance education  centre. The students have limited facility for interaction with peers and expert  teachers for clearing doubts and getting feedback on assignments and this  diminishes the learning outcome. The Vartalaap Virtual Classroom System is a  computer-based solution designed to cater to the need for real-time communication between teachers and students for tutorial sessions.

What is Vartalaap Virtual Classroom?
The Vartalaap Virtual Classroom System is a   computer-based  solution over a computer network that creates an environment modeled closely on a real-world classroom. Teachers and students come together in such an environment for having live interactive  discussions for sharing knowledge in any subject. Teachers and students  communicate in real-time via instant messaging, and the expert can use tools  like the virtual whiteboard and presentation window for explaining a subject  matter. The teacher can moderate classroom communication and thereby   enforce general discipline among the participants in a virtual classroom  session.

System Components
Vartalaap has client-server architecture. Vartalaap clients run the Virtual Classroom Desktop. Many front-end clients can connect to a Vartalaap Server over a TCP/IP network. A teacher connects as one of  the clients and initiates a virtual classroom session. Students connect  as other clients into the same session. The Vartalaap Server manages all  communication between the clients.
The server can manage several virtual classroom sessions, each with its own  group of registered participants. Vartalaap client and Server are designed to run on all operating systems that support Java.  Virtual Classroom Desktop A Vartalaap Client displays the virtual classroom desktop which consists of  several tools – instant messaging windows, presentation window,  virtual whiteboard, file transfer tool, and classroom control panel all  composed in a user friendly intuitive graphical interface. A teacher initiates  a virtual classroom session and students pre-registered for the  session are permitted to join the session.  Instant Messaging Windows  Live communication between the
teacher and students in a virtual classroom session is supported by  instant text messaging facility. Each participant in a virtual classroom  session has a write-enabled message window through which he/she can  send text messages in real-time to other members in the session. A readonly  message window displays all user messages exchanged in a session  in chronological order. The user has the option to filter messages in the  view message window by user name. Students and teachers can use the  instant text messaging facility for live
question-answer discussions in a session. The system allows several  forms of communication such as oneto- many (default mode) wherein a  message sent by one member are received by all others in the session,  and more restricted forms such as one-to-one communication and  conferencing for group communication. Students can use the conferencing facility for group  discussions. The system provides controls for a teacher to dynamically  control the messaging facility access rights of all other members in  a session. Vartalaap supports instant text messaging in Indian languages in  addition to English. The multilingual facility will be very useful for  providing access to education to a wider group of students many of whom may be in rural areas where  local language is the primary medium  of communication. Presentation Window In a traditional face-to-face classroom session, a teacher  will present and explain some subject matter  through slides or  by writing on a  blackboard or whiteboard. In Vartalaap, these  functions are  supported via the  presentation
window and the virtual whiteboard.  The presentation  window is used for displaying subject content  such as slides or a document in a  virtual classroom  session. Currently the system allows presentation of any  content compiled as a  set of images or  plain text files. The teacher controls  what to show in the common presentation window. The teacher can  control the flow of the presentation such as walkthrough the presentation  step-by-step and all student views are synchronised with the teacher’s  presentation window view. The teacher can highlight and make annotations in the content during the  presentation. The highlights and annotation markings internally do not affect the original content.  Vartalaap provides the facility for a teacher to package courseware  resources and upload to the server for use in a virtual classroom session.  The courseware is automatically downloaded to Vartalaap client machines when members join a session.

Virtual Whiteboard
The virtual whiteboard is used for writing text and making drawings – freeform and/or structured drawings like circle, rectangle, ellipse, etc. in a  session. By default, only the teacher has privilege to write or draw things  in the virtual whiteboard.

Classroom Control Panel
The classroom Control Panel displays the names of all users connected in a virtual classroom session. All members view the classroom control  panel, but teacher and student roles have different functions enabled in  the panel. The classroom control panel provides controls to enable/disable a user’s  access to the virtual whiteboard,  presentation window and text messaging facility. The teacher can  also terminate any member’s session.  If a student wishes to have access  to any communication facility, he/  she is required to use the hand-raising facility to notify the teacher. The teacher’s classroom  control panel gets instant notification  of hand raising requests from students and the teacher can  selectively allow access to the  different facilities. Polling is another interesting feature,  wherein a teacher/moderator can raise  a question for all the students/  participants to answer. The poll can answer such as yes-or-no or true-orfalse  or it can elicit a descriptive text reply. Timeout and word limits can be  set for the reply to poll. The poll results are presented in a separate window. A teacher can use polling  feature for various purposes such as to gauge the level of understanding of subject matter during a session,  conduct a quick short quiz or obtain student feedback on any issue.

Vartalaap supports instant text messaging in Indianlanguages in addition to English. The multilingual facility willbe very useful for providing access to education to a widergroup of students many of whom may be in rural areaswhere local language is the primary medium of communication

Other Vartalaap Services
The system supports file transfer  between users during a session. This may be used by students to send assignment solutions to the teacher.  The system provides classroom  management functions like class module creation, session scheduling, and registration of class participants.  Vartalaap maintains a user profile for every registered user. The profile  contains user’s contact details, login  details and virtual classes’ registration information. The system provides a Bulletin Board  for publishing classroom session schedules and general notices from the Vartalaap system administrator.  Vartalaap supports logging and replay  of virtual classroom sessions. A member interested in a particular session can replay it, if he/she has  missed participating in the session.  The logging facility for virtual classroom sessions records all  communication that occurred in the  presentation window, whiteboard and messaging facility in a session. The  replay facility can replay all recorded session communication in same order,  with pause/resume controls. Vartalaap virtual classroom desktop
can also interface with text-to-speech  systems so that text messages received can be read out to a user.  The user can selectively enable this facility for messages received from  specific users so as to draw attention when a particular user has responded. 

Vartalaap Server
Vartalaap clients communicate with the Vartalaap backend Server using TCP/IP protocol. IRC protocol is used for text messaging and custom extensions have been defined to  handle other communications in the virtual classroom.  Vartalaap backend services are provided by a group of collaborating  servers namely Communication Server, Profile Server, Log Server and  File Transfer Server. Communication server is responsible for handling user communication. Profile Server manages user profiles.  Log Server manages session logging and services session replay requests.  File Transfer server is responsible  for coordinating various file uploads and downloads in the system. User  profiles, classroom session information, and session logs are
stored in a relational database.  Vartalaap virtual classroom system can be viewed as a lightweight  synchronous e-learning facility. It is well suited for use as a supplementary  education facility for conducting online tutorials especially in distance  education. It can also be used for online counseling. It works well over  low bandwidth network. It supports use of Indian languages for text communication, therefore can be used by a wider group of teachers and  learners.  

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