Developing tools for visual communication
Visual communication and collaboration tools within Blackboard
by Evan Dickerson and Sam Kennedy
The University of the Arts London (UAL) is constituted of five leading art colleges (London College of Communication; London College of Fashion; Camberwell College of Art; Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design; and Chelsea College of Art), hence much of the currency of the University is founded upon visual literacy, interaction, creativity and image-based discourse. The integration of a virtual learning environment (VLE) within the University has been central to the delivery of innovative courses that exploit new technologies and their pedagogies. Since Blackboard was adopted as the institutional VLE in 2001, however, experience has demonstrated the limitations of standard VLEs for "visually focused" institutions such as ours. In response to this situation, the IT Research and Development Unit (ITRDU) was forced to think creatively as to how a standard product could be supplemented to deliver the tools required by UAL's academic community.
There seemed little point in developing an entire VLE from scratch: much of Blackboard's standard functionality worked well and was being successfully used in the delivery of our blended and online courses. Instead, it was decided to supplement Blackboard with tools that would support the integration of visual content, thus moving the VLE markedly away from being a text-only delivery and interaction mechanism.
The integration of add-on functionality was made possible via Blackboard's "Building Blocks Application Programming Interface (API)". This interface enables third-party applications to share information with Blackboard (e.g. user IDs) so that the external application can be used within a Blackboard session. This means that developers need only customise an existing application so that it can "talk" to Blackboard, rather than creating a new application from scratch. This enables rapid implementation and, if done sensitively, an external application can "appear" to users to be part of the standard Blackboard environment.
Applications we have integrated with Blackboard in this way include the "Image Board": a discussion forum which is designed to improve handling of images associated with messages, as well as a number of audiovisual (AV) tools that allow video and audio communications to be conducted via the VLE.
Image Board: integrating still images with threaded discussions
The image board is a discussion forum which is designed to be more "image-friendly" than most typical VLE discussion boards. This makes it useful for image-centric courses and for those who want to share visual resources easily.
It was clear that many of our users recognised the potential of discussion boards; however, there were a number of difficulties with the existing system. First, many users experienced problems grasping the concept of threaded discussions. This was compounded by what many users found to be a confusing navigation interface. The standard interface was also deemed by many to be particularly unintuitive in the way that it deals with attached images: images attached to a discussion post are displayed separately from the posting.
The image board was designed in response to these issues. In this system, thread titles appear in a single menu, separate from the underlying posts. Each thread appears on a separate page, rendering the expandable menus redundant. Image thumbnails are displayed alongside text discussions, which allows the user to reference content visually as well as verbally. Clicking on the thumbnail displays the image at full resolution in a pop-up window.
Association of images with text gives images some wider context so they might be considered and reflected upon by students as appropriate to the situation or needs of the course. Thus, both text and images have the potential to carry increased levels of relevance and meaning for student learning if seen in direct proximity to each other.
The image board is used extensively on programmes such as the MA Drawing at Camberwell and the Graduate Certificate in Design for Visual Communication at London College of Communications. Figure 1 shows how the board has been used on an MA Drawing course to document the stages in the creation of a particular work, as well as the processes used. Uploaded work can be offered to tutors and peers for online comments and critique. Students can also use the tool as a reflective journal on their studio practice or as an online notebook of scanned images or digital photographs. The tool aids visual collaboration within group projects, and some final year students submit images of their work and associated text as a preliminary submission prior to inclusion in degree shows.
Figure 1: Image board: a threaded text discussion with associated images showing stages in production of graphic work, overlaid with an image enlarged from thumbnail to full resolution
AV Tools-desktop videoconferencing: AV Message board, AV Interview room and AV seminar room
We had already supported two successful desktop video pilots using Macromedia's Flash Communication Server. We realized that, by creating a bridge from Blackboard to those applications, we could now address some of the usability concerns that had arisen during the pilots: users would routinely forget the web address for the conferencing application; the system was completely open and staff had no method of managing users; only one instance of each application could run at any time; and no online help was available.
Launched across the University in September 2004, the AV Tools suite consists of three connected areas, each with a specific function: the AV Message Board, the AV Interview Room and the AV Seminar Room.
AV Message Board
The AV Message Board is a text discussion board with a powerful additional feature; if you have a webcam and/or microphone attached to your computer, you can record video and/or audio messages. This makes the AV Message Board ideal for hosting video diaries, presentations or informal discussions.
Our users have used the AV Message Board in a variety of contexts: the "Virtual Newsroom" course team captured real-time video 'minutes' of team meetings for later reference; Camberwell students transferred their video work from a digital video camera directly into the board - video was recorded, saved and encoded onto the server in real-time, then accessible immediately, or on demand at a later date.
Figure 2: Examples of use from the AV Message Board
AV Interview Room
The AV Interview Room accommodates typed text communication and up to three synchronous AV streams. It was designed to hold online interviews with prospective students. Given that a high percentage of our students are from overseas, it is not always possible to interview them face-to-face. An online approach makes particular sense where students are applying to study on an online distance education programme. By interviewing the student online, the course team can determine how the student behaves online as an integral part of the interview process, and can establish whether the online route is appropriate for the individual; if not, they can recommend a face-to-face alternative. The interview room can also be used to host private tutorials with students on online courses, or with students on face-to-face courses who are on work placements.