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Digital education

What’s under the bonnet of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra – HTML5 video capture that’s what

4 November 2015
Image of SOCSI E-Learning TEam

by Christopher John (guest blogger)

This week, we have another blog post by Christopher John. Chris is the E-learning Team Leader, based in the Cardiff School of Social Sciences. Chris and the SOCSI eLearning Team have been testing out the newest version on Blackboard Collaborate – Collaborate Ultra, and have kindly written about their experiences. This version should be generally available for University staff in September 2016. For further information about our current version of Collaborate, please read “New Year – New Technologies“, “Introducing Learn Plus (Panopto) and Blackboard Collaborate” and “First Steps with Blackboard Collaborate“.

In a previous job I spent quite a lot of time developing learning technology that included video capture, it wasn’t difficult, using plugins such as Flash or Java, products could quickly be created with video capture at the heart of them.

Times have changed and not altogether recently, Flash and Java are still prevalent in learning technology, but a vendor’s reliance on plugin-based technology for product delivery can seriously impact on its chances of success.  When I heard there was a new HTML5 version of Blackboard Collaborate, named Ultra, I was very keen to take a peek under the bonnet and see how they achieved the video capture feature of the product.

The Answer is native HTML5 video capture using WebRTC.

Blackboard Collaborate Ultra Screenshot
Figure 1: Blackboard Collaborate Ultra

What is WebRTC?

Without getting too heavily into the technology, WebRTC is a collection of JavaScript APIs that include the ability to access a user’s camera and microphone directly through the browser, then capture or transmit the data to another browser, all without plugins.  It is still experimental technology and not yet universally supported but can be used across Chrome, Firefox and Opera browsers and is supported by Android and iOS operating systems.  Ultra uses a Flash backup where WebRTC is not supported.

What does it mean for Collaborate users?

The range of features in Ultra is admittedly (currently) less than Blackboard Classic but access to both versions will allow you to tailor your delivery option to the needs of your target audience.  For example, workplace-based learners often struggle to install Java, needed for Classic, without the support of their IT department, Ultra would get round the need for this.

WebRTC impact

WebRTC is still an evolving technology but being JavaScript-based could be integrated into existing learning technologies to support more content-rich user experiences or to improve accessibility for sign language users.  It’s great to see a company like Blackboard investing in WebRTC and hopefully this will lead to wider support in the future.  It wasn’t that long ago that Internet Explorer didn’t support HTML video at all.

Screenshot of spelling using sign language
Figure 2:

Build your own HTML5 video capture applications

Want to get your hands dirty and dive into the code?  HTML5 rocks has some great WebRTC tutorials and I have created a demo application named CameraCaptureJS which will help get you started.

Social Sciences eLearning team
Figure 3: CameraCaptureJS (Social Sciences eLearning team)

CameraCaptureJS will (Where WebRTC supported) display the feed from your web camera (Desktop or Mobile) and for Firefox users includes an added bonus of being able to record and playback video using another piece of experimental JavaScript technology named the MediaRecorder API.

I have posted the code for CameraCaptureJS on GitHub, feel free to pull apart, build new applications.

Useful websites

For further information, please feel free to contact:

Christopher John
eLearning Team Leader, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University