Thursday, May 12, 2005

Leigh's LAMS review Part 1.

I've just had a belt at LAMS. Here's what I reckon -

- Those who don't know me though need to keep in mind that I am hyper critical of anything that uses the words Learning and Management in its title. So here goes -

Woah! The install was huge! I needed to manually kicked start the install file from CD, when it did eventually get going it was a pretty hefty install, with loads of stuff that just confused me! MySQL, Java and a bunch of stuff I have a very faint idea about. So, at my wit's end I feel lucky that after 30 minutes of following a wizard along I appear to have successfully installed LAMS and all its extra requirements. (I hate installing software by the way - it is always a bit of a maze for me, no one install is ever the same as the next). On a positive note, LAMS can currently be installed on Windows, Linux and a MAC version this month...

So after getting that far, agreeing to all this stuff and settings that I have no idea about, my browser window has popped up (you know - that program you use to look at the Internet) and a LAMS login page has loaded from somewhere on my computer... not the Internet. I hate logins! Another password I have to remember... stuffit! I'll use the same as I always do, that's now 105 times I have used this password on different things, that's 105 chances of someone discovering my password and gaining access to everything I keep private... does this LAMS really need a password?

But here's the catch. At no point in the install did I set a user name! I put in a bunch of passwords for this and that, but I'll be darned if I can remember putting in a username. So I can't even get in and try it out. So, obviously this LAMS is getting a big thumbs down from me at this point. But I have sent an email to their support, and await some assistance.

While waiting I watch their promo videos to get more of the concept of what it is. I get a bad feeling from them... As with all Learning [activity] Management Systems, they just replicate what we can already do on the Internet anyway... don't they? LAMS promotes itself as a quick and easy way for teachers (or students for that matter) to select activities and drag and drop them onto a plan sheet, then arrange the sequence in which the user will undergo the activities. (Those in teaching today would probably recognise this method as a kind of mind mapping, cut n paste, sketch it out kind of planning method, so would welcome LAMS as a breath of relief from the perplexing and foreign world of computers)
In the video the interface looks remarkably easy, and the students look very engrossed in their activities, but the key question for me is, why use L[a]MS' custom built activities over the types and activities and skills sets a thoughtful person can devise using common ICT tools on the Internet? If I learn the LAMS way of doing things, what use will that be to me when I'm out in the real world? What if I'm already using a range of tools that are similar to the activities that LAMS offers, will I be able to bring those into this LAMS way of doing things? in other words, will I be able to use the chat programs, collaborative writing programs or what ever services I use already, into LAMS? Or do I have to give those tools up at school and start using what LAMS makes available to me?

These questions I think I already know the answer to so I'm tempted to forget looking at LAMS altogether, but its because LAMS is an open source development, and because the interface looks attractive, and that LAMS promotes itself as new and innovative that I'm going to persist with this brief interlude... oh, and most of all because some TALO members want ideas and feedback to these new LAMS to the slaughter.

So, let's check my email to see if LAMS support has gotten back to me...
They have! in less than 10 minutes I have an answer to my query, that’s bloody fantastic support! and don't I feel like a dummy... I did in fact enter a user name in the setup, its just that in my haste to start using LAMS, and because I just glaze over when having to fill in so many fields, I mistakenly saw the user name field as another password field...

So I'm in, and I'm impressed! This is one of the finest bit of FLASH developments I have seen, and I'm excited to see that there is this type of skill in Flash development in Australia. I have had a little toy with the LAMS and it is indeed very easy to use. Such is life when Flash comes to the party. But as is typical to complex Flash applications, when things go wrong with the passing of data between the interface and the server it is a pretty damaging breakage. But its not hard to get around these breakages and back into the flow.

LAMS is indeed a drag and drop and sequencing tool and could have enormous potential for those who are not so comfortable with the real (Internet) world and need very simple tools to get tasks done. The LAMS activities are pretty good, if a little teachy, but with the options available selection a pretty good learning sequence could be structured.

But my questions remain.

I guess if a teacher and or a student did not have the time, opportunity, or inclination to really get behind the wheel of their learning and upskill in their use of the Internet, LAMS would be a very useful thing. It has a dramatically simple and quick interface towards getting collaborative learning activities underway. But at the end of it all, when you are no longer a student or teacher at the place offering you LAMS you are eventually on your own. And that's when you will need to learn new tools all over again to achieve the same outcomes as you achieved in the LAMS world. And in saying that, LAMS could never hope to do it all anyway, so somwhere along the way you will be importing little bits of web based applications to enable collaborative learning to occure - (ICQ, MSN, Skype, Blogs, RSS, eGroups, Wikis, etc). But then, at least LAMS is free and open, so I guess if you did discover that the tools that the world uses just didn't cut it, you could post out CDs to all those you want to collaborate with and help them install LAMS so that you could take advantage of the tools... fingers crossed that don't hate installing software as much as I do.

Of course, all this would not be an issue if LAMS had access to a web server and were aloud to install and offer LAMS as a free service to anyone on the Internet! This option should be possible from what I can tell, and so would greatly improve the potential for LAMS. In short, if LAMS became a web based application that I could use without needing to download and/or install a single bit of software (accept for the Flash player of course) then LAMS would get a huge thumbs up from me. Even better would be if it provided its remarkebly simple interface onto the real world tools. That way I could bring the tools I'm already using into it, and help my students learn more universally used tools... but come to think of, it would be possible to do this from within LAMS as it already, by just linking out to the tools and bypassing the LAMS tools.

Anyway, back to toying around with LAMS. Its kinda fun and does give me ideas for the real world. Its a bit like mind mapping... there's an idea!... I might start using my mind mapping tool to get down all the real world tools I use (including links out to their sites), and just rejig that map every time I need to plan and design learning sequence. I think that's a good idea.. thanks LAMS.

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James Dalziel said...

Dear Leigh,

Thanks for posting your thoughts on LAMS and the kind words on the interface ;-)

A couple of quick comments on your post.

(1) LAMS as web application: Yes, LAMS is available as a web application, so it isn't necessary to install it if you are happy to access it online (instead of from your desktop/laptop). There is a bit on the main page of the CD/website that says:
"To install LAMS and begin using the software, follow the instructions in the Installer section. Alternatively, if you would like to get a LAMS account on an existing trial server (rather than install LAMS for yourself), email Karen Baskett ( requesting a LAMS account."
.... so if you or your colleagues would rather avoid the big install (we did our best to make this easy, but LAMS requires alot of extra parts, so its about as simple as it can be at the moment already), then you can email us for an account on an existing hosted server.

By extension, because LAMS is open source, you could set up your own LAMS server (if you have access to a web server), and then give out accounts on this to your colleagues - that is, anyone can install and host LAMS if they wish. Lots of our LAMS trials (eg, UK, NZ, Aust) are based on a hosted model to make it easier to get started. Services for this are provided by LAMS International Pty Ltd - a services and support company (like Red Hat) set up for those who want them.

(2) Password: Yes, the password was necessary - both for teachers and students, because LAMS keeps a record of sequences you create and run (for teachers) and your progress though a sequence (as a student). To make sure everyone keeps their own stuff to themselves, and doesn't overwrite each other's work, etc, each user needs an account. I agree having lots of passwords is a pain, but in another project (unhelpfully called MAMS) we're working on that one.

(3) LAMS and activity tools: This has been one of the hardest lessons we've learnt in the development of LAMS over the past 3 years. In theory, it would be nice to have an authoring system like LAMS that could just grab tools from anywhere and run a sequence of activities. In practice, the authoring environment needs to know how to launch, set-up, monitor, shutdown, etc each tool - and at the moment, almost no external tools provide relevant "hooks" we need to work with them.

There are two solutions to this - the first, as you already realised, is just to link to tools via a URL. You accept that you can't do any cool LAMS setup/monitoring/etc stuff this way, but at least you get some sort of link between LAMS and external tools (you can always hand configure your external tools).

Second, we've developed a "tools interface" (or contract) for our next version (out in a few months) - which means if you implement the right "hooks" into any external tool, then it can be used in full by LAMS. We hope this will become a major new development area, with lots of people building cool new tools for LAMS (either by extending our existing tools, or creating new ones from scratch). Eg, if you wanted a specific sort of chat tool for a brainstorming task, you could take our existing chat tool, program the extra features for you brainstorm, and then have a new tool - both for your own use, and potentially to share with the whole LAMS community.

(4) What is special about LAMS (that is, why go to the trouble, give there are lots of LMSs around, and lots of individual tools as you note)? I think the thing that really sets LAMS apart is the ability to create a "sequence" (or lesson plan) where everything needed to make this run is contained in a single file (try Export under the File Menu). This means you can share a complete lesson plan, ready to run (or be easily adapted if desired) with colleauges. You can post the sequence file to a forum, or email it to colleagues, etc. Without LAMS, this wouldn't be possible, as we have no way to tell a disparate bunch of tools how to behave to ensure a consistent learner experience - you'd have to do lots of configuration by hand every time. NB: One bug related to Export in the current version (which will be fixed in the next version) - if you upload any files into a sequence through the Share Resources tool (eg, PDF, website, etc), these don't get exported with the file - you need to upload these again by hand when you import the sequence into another system. This is because the Export file is basically just text (XML). In the next version, the Export file will be a zip file, which will contain anything you upload, so it will be no problem moving sequences around.

Hope this helps - look forward to more thoughts.

James Dalziel

Leigh Blackall said...

Hi James,

This is really great feedback, and the more I'm made to think about it, the more I am impressed. You may have noticed that my post about LAMS was entitled Part 1, in anticipation of feedback I intend to run a Part 2.

Regarding the web based version, I did hear that there was one available and I did have a little stab around the site but was looking for a web version and so missed mention of it being available via an email contact. But its great that its available and I will certainly let the Teach and Learn Online community know. I think having a free web version that is very easy to access will be a key to the success of LAMS. As I'm sure you're aware you will gain many more users through this initial shareware type arrangement,
and when users become more confident with it they will find the server space and administrators to support it and start giving back to the source community.

By the way, even though the install was big, I can see why. So considering all the moving parts that LAMS relies on, the install was very good. I think you guys have created an amazing and innovative product in all areas. The thing about me though, is I will look at concepts like yours and try and emulate them with other free and distributed tools. For example, perhaps the concept mapping tool Cmaps could be used to create the lesson plan, with each thought balloon linking out to a communication tool or collaborative
writing space of some sort. But I admit that users would have to be fairly ICT savvy to be able to do this, LAMS makes it simple, and offers student tracking to boot.

But on the point about importing distributed tools into LAMS, I know this type of technology is still a way off, but given the rise of standards, I'm wondering what could in fact soon be possible. Take this project for example - - its pulling RSS into a Flash
App and essentially creating a very very cool news reader. If this type of thing was added into the LAMS tools... well!... my goodness!

Is LAMS developed in Flash? Or is it an assortment of scripting that just uses the Flash Player? Where did you get all your programmers from, and how do you keep them? Will you add your email to the blog, or can I quote it all?

Many thanks, I'm thrilled to be speaking with you.

Leigh Blackall said...

James' answers via email:

Hi Leigh

LAMS uses a Flash based front end for all of the Author and Monitor interfaces, and part of the learner interface (the progress bar and notebook). The rest of the learner interface is HTML/JSP. However, we've written all the Flash code ourselves, so it can all be open
source, and haven't relied on any products from Macromedia you need to pay for. In essence, the Flash front end talks via XML to the Java Server at the backend directly.

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