The technology behind online learning

In contrast to other IT solutions, online learning is a latecomer. Considering man’s eternal thirst for knowledge, this is unusual. Word processors have been around since the 1960s, and spreadsheets emerged in the late 1970s. Online education did not really take off until 2020 and was just in time to offer a solution to the challenge created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

First Steps

Only at the start of the present century did online education take its first steps. Precursors existed but did not truly pave a straight and level road. In those days, teachers and other educators exchanged information on so-called bulletin boards and forums. These were based on technologies such as phpBB and vBulletin. However, the systems were still relatively “wild and empty”. There was a mass of data but no usable method of managing the information. So, developers went back to their keyboards and tried to create a more practical solution.

Video Tutorials

Around 2005, video sites such as YouTube, Vimeo and JibJab emerged, offering platforms on which education took further steps towards a valid online existence. At about the same time, video tutorials became well established, not only for school subjects but also for hobbies such as drawing, piano playing and cooking.

The next acceleration in the development of online education came with MOOCs (massive open online courses) at the end of the first decade. Although anyone could create and publish courses, most were associated with prestigious schools and universities. They offered online education to a virtually unlimited audience that could come from any part of the world. Yet, even though pupils were able to ask questions and write comments in an area provided for that purpose, the medium was still not truly interactive.

Video Conferencing

The boost that online learning needed came from the latest developments in video conferencing. Software such as ICQ, Windows Live Messenger and Skype had been around for decades but mainly as text, without real-time audio and video elements. One of the main problems was that sound and image were too delayed to allow decent conversations.

Fortunately, this changed thanks to several factors:

  • Numerous communication satellites orbiting the earth
  • Stable connections and improved signal transmission thanks to optical fiber and hybrid fibre-coaxial
  •  Acoustic Echo Cancellation
  • The Multipoint Control Unit
  • The internet and the cloud network
  • Increasingly powerful servers
  •  Artificial intelligence
  • Computers with ever-faster processors and storage devices


Web Conferencing Software for Education

By making a few modifications to video conferencing software, developers could finally offer teachers the long-sought medium to allow active, interactive, and simultaneous teaching. Several pupils could attend at the same time regardless of the distance between them and their teacher. This modern technology fulfils the purpose of improving the three Es of education: efficiency, effectiveness, and entertainment. Of all the web conferencing learning systems that have come into being in recent years, BigBlueButton stands out head and shoulders above the rest.

The Technology behind BigBlueButton

It is open-source software, meaning that the published source code is freely available to everyone. Anyone with the necessary knowledge can and may copy, modify, add to, and distribute the software without incurring copyright or other charges. There is one exception to the “free and without obligation” definition – the BigBlueButton logo and the name are registered trade names. Apart from that, there is no limit to what you can do with this software.

The opposite of open source is proprietary or closed source, where the supplier maintains and adapts the source code.

The beauty of open source is that developers and companies worldwide write additional software to be included in classroom software and video conferencing solutions such as BigBlueButton software. 

Without a language to program the technology, you will not get very far. Initially, BigBlueButton used red5, which enabled collaboration in real-time. Later, HTML5 and WebRTC took over that role. These two are integrated into most browsers and enable audio, video, and screen sharing.

The Technology behind Moodle

BigBlueButton web conferencing software for education and the Moodle environment for collaborative learning work particularly well together. With BigBlueButton, it is easy to directly start a virtual classroom or a webinar from a Moodle course. While it is also possible to use BigBlueButton outside Moodle, most users choose to combine both.

Moodle is also open source and consequently available as a free download. So, if you have the necessary knowledge of the PHP programming language, you can connect it with BigBlueButton through the BigBlueButtonBN plugin.

Not only the PHP language is a prerequisite for the installation of Moodle. You also need a database system such as MySQL. You guessed it: the MySQL management system for relational databases is also open source.

At first, BigBlueButton might give the impression of being a puzzle. Indeed, there are some pieces, but unlike a puzzle, each piece of BigBlueButton is not in a fixed location. Multiple end solutions are possible, and the result is a flexible tool that does what you expect.