Written by Fred Dixon, CEO of Blindside Networks
Moodle 4.0 has been released with an improved user experience, and, as you may have noticed, the virtual classroom BigBlueButton is now a standard feature. (The name “BigBlueButton” comes from the idea that starting a virtual classroom should be as easy as pressing a single ‘big blue button’.)
That button is now in Moodle. More specifically, the BigBlueButton plugin – the #2 most downloaded plug-in on moodle.org – is now in Moodle’s core. With a few clicks, you can add the BigBlueButton activity to a course, give it the name “My Weekly Lecture”, and you now have a link to an on-demand live virtual classroom.
To join the virtual classroom, students need only to click the ‘Join Session’ link (shown below). There is no additional login required, nor any additional software to install. Students can join the session with a single click.
As a teacher, when entering the BigBlueButton virtual classroom, you have additional moderator capabilities (a ‘moderator’ has elevated capabilities for teaching). As a moderator, you can, for example, activate the multi-user whiteboard, lockdown student functionality (such as restricting private chat), and place students in breakout rooms for collaboration. Once the class finishes, your recording will seamlessly appear in Moodle.
The deep integration and seamless interaction translate to lower overall support costs. BigBlueButton functions like a part of Moodle because it is a part of Moodle.
BigBlueButton was integrated into Moodle because it is a virtual classroom system, not a video conferencing system. There are many video conferencing systems on the market, and all are designed for the needs of businesses, not for the needs of online teaching and learning. The gaps between these systems became very apparent during the pandemic.
A virtual classroom versus a video conferencing system
In February of 2020, when the pandemic closed most of the world’s schools, educators quickly and abruptly moved their live classes online, a movement referred to as “emergency remote teaching.” Schools reached for a familiar tool: the video conferencing system to host their online classes. The results were not great.
Why? While a video conferencing system is suitable for building relationships, the needs of a virtual classroom are not the same as a business meeting. A video conferencing system, by nature, is not designed to support teaching and learning but instead to let others connect. It has no concept of what the teacher is trying to accomplish, which is to deliver instruction to students to help them learn. To fill the gaps, teachers leaned on external tools for tasks such as taking attendance, making content interactive, doing formative assessments, and attempting to determine which students were engaged (or not).
So how does a virtual classroom better support your needs, the teacher, and your students? It starts by understanding them.
Understanding the needs of the teacher and student in a virtual classroom
For educators, the most critical dimensions in your classroom are grouped into four key categories: Management, Relationships, Engagement, and Assessment. More specifically, a well designed virtual classroom should help you answer the following questions:
- How do I set up and manage my virtual classroom for success?
- How do I build relationships that foster trust and positivity with and between students?
- How do I apply my pedagogical skills to engage students to activate their brains for learning?
- How do I assess their progress and give timely feedback?
A virtual classroom should also help your students achieve their learning goals or answer:
- How do I build trust with teachers and peers? (relationship)
- How can I master new skills in an online class? (engagement)
- How do I get help when I am struggling? (assessment)
Relationships are vital to establishing trust, and trust is key to enabling students to feel comfortable fully applying themselves alongside their peers in the online class. The concept is that the more comfortable we are making mistakes with each other and learning from them, the better our brains retain the correct information.
These concepts relate closely to the pedagogic foundation of Moodle itself: Social Constructivism. Martin Dougiamas, Moodle CEO and Founder outlines Social Constructivism in 5 points:
- All of us are potential teachers as well as learners – in a truly collaborative environment, we are both.
- We learn particularly well from the act of creating or expressing something for others to see.
- We learn a lot by just observing the activity of our peers.
- By understanding the contexts of others, we can teach in a more transformational way (constructivism)
- A learning environment needs to be flexible and adaptable so that it can quickly respond to the needs of the participants within it.
We are social beings, and the virtual classroom is a social environment for learning. By having your students work together, such as in breakout rooms, the stronger students act as teachers (point 1) and, in turn, strengthen their mastery of skills by explaining concepts to others in their group (point 2). In a live session, when students observe their peers applying, struggling, and learning new skills, it helps them in their learning journey (point 3).
The more students interact with you and each other, the more of their personalities, backgrounds, and competencies become visible, which helps others teach and learn from them (point 4). Finally, a key advantage of an online class is the ability to switch between different activities quickly – polls, breakout rooms, chat, shared notes, whiteboard, etc. – to respond to the needs of the students (point 5).
How does BigBlueButton help the teacher teach, and the student learn?
Let’s look again at the four critical areas for a teacher and show how BigBlueButton helps:
Management: Setting up my class for success
- Pre-upload slides
- Pre-configure lock settings
- Smart Slides (BigBlueButton can detect polling questions in your slides and give you a single click)
Engagement: Activating my students’ brains for learning
- Breakout rooms
- Multi-user whiteboard
- Emojis/Raise Hand
- Public/Private Chat
- Shared Notes
Relationships: Fostering trust with and between my students
- Sharing of webcams in the main room and breakout rooms
- Restricting the sharing of webcams to just the teacher (this gives a teacher a larger presence in the class)
Assessment: Determining my students who are struggling so I can give timely assistance
- Learning Analytics Dashboard
- Activity completion in Moodle is based on time spent in the virtual classroom (see note below).
For tutorials and videos on how to do the above in BigBlueButton, see https://bigbluebutton.org/videos.
Note: Your Moodle administrator must enable the activity completion in the BigBlueButton plugin settings and test that the Moodle server can receive meeting data from the BigBlueButton server.
Fulfilling the promise of a virtual classroom
BigBlueButton and Moodle are both guided by pedagogy and Social Constructivism. Both focus on helping the teacher teach and the learner learn by understanding their needs in the context of a classroom – physical and virtual.
And most importantly, both are open-source movements that share the same ethos of empowering teachers to improve our world.
BigBlueButton was released in 2007 with the promise of building the next generation of virtual classrooms. The fulfilment of this promise depends on feedback from our most important user: the teacher. If you have suggestions or feedback, you can reach out to Fred Dixon, Product Manager for BigBlueButton, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Moodle LMS 4.0 comes with a free-tier hosting of BigBlueButton, provided by Blindside Networks (the creators of BigBlueButton). The free-tier hosting offers user analytics on participation (via the Learning Analytics Dashboard), 60 minute session limits (max 25 users per session), moderator-only webcams, and seven-day non-downloadable recordings. For more information on hosting options, including setting up your BigBlueButton server (it’s open source), learn more about BigBlueButton’s free-tier hosting.