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First Impressions of Lyceum
B823 Version 1.2 (Beta)
Introduction: This is very much first impressions and has been hastily updated to cover version 1.2 - a version configured for the Associate Lecturers being trained for B823. Hasty to avoid others making all the same mistakes we have made. Version 1.1 was initially loaded and is still referred to because it has some features not in version 1.2 and because we had problems in upgrading which others need to avoid - hopefully during the next month the whole section on reinstalling problems will become redundant.
Heritage: Lyceum has been under development initially as part of the Stadium project by KMI. We have found conference articles going back several years which show there is a firm basis for the development - they include screen dumps from the prototypes and an impressive specification. Have a look at http://kmi.open.ac.uk/lyceum/overview.html to see the scope of the concept.
Requirements: We always approach such developments from a user pull rather than technology push so we have put considerable thought into what the requirements are for a conferencing tool which would genuinely aid the learning process for our customers, make a tutors life easier and reduce the need for face-to-face tutorials. This is based on 20 years of teaching on many courses as well as the current spread of M206 (largely electronic), B889 and T843. The outcome of the thought forms a separate document Requirements for Online Conferencing
Advantages of Lyceum in particular over Microsoft NetMeeting. It may seem strange to start off mentioning NetMeeting but it is an issue which has to be addressed as it seems to offer similar functionality and most Tutors and Students will have loaded it with Internet Explorer 4.01 or Internet Explorer 5 (IE5). We evaluated it for a similar activities a year ago, well before there was any mention of Lyceum. It is worth looking at our report on Using NetMeeting for Tutoring where we tried to find ways of working round its shortcomings for Tutorials. It also gives independent insight on how to utilise these new tools. To cut a long long story short both the version of NetMeeting (2.11) currently provided with IE5 and the new 3.01 are limited to one to one voice (with optional video) out of 32 so one is constrained much more to Whiteboards, and shared applications.
Strengths of Lyceum: The overall strength of Lyceum is the multiway audio, however version 1.2 currently lacks the some of the "tools" of NetMeeting. This is hopefully due to a conservative approach to the trials as another strength of Lyceum is that it has a flexible interface which can be easily updated by a web download. There is evidence that a wide suite of tools have already been developed. For example Version 1.1 had an additional Web Browser "Tool" which we tried and found to function well - it would be exceedingly useful in some models of teaching - for example leading students through prepared material previously uploaded to a web site. See our paper Publishing Powerpoint Presentations on the Web for how we put material on our web site for M206, B889 and T843. FirstClass 5.5 has the ability to provide web space but it is blocked to ALs but there are plenty of free ISPs providing web space - see our Guide to Selecting an ISP and Web Site Tutorial.
Installing: The program come in two parts, a CD section which needed two and a half sides of instructions, much of it on how to get round features of the current loader program - such as having to avoid reboots when requested. The second part had to be downloaded from the web as fresh tools are released or when bugs need to be fixed. The download of version 1.1 totaled 2.5 Mbytes and took close to 15 minutes on a fast link, version 1.2 seemed appreciably smaller and only took 7.5 minutes online. The instructions say nothing about having to wait for the various buttons and screens which can take up to 10 minutes to appear - be patient! It installs a new Browser "Plug-in" installer so that the downloads can not be saved to disk to be virus checked and probably bypass "on-access" checking. One should therefore run an "on-demand" check of the drive immediately after every download has been completed. It also loads a new Java Compiler for the Browser which may be a serious problem with those using internet banking where an update is needed to the Java compiler to avoid security problems - these are presumably overwritten. The specific problem I refer to is referenced on entry to the Barclays internet banking site and involves a mandatory 5.4 Mbyte download from Microsoft to upgrade the Java system if you use the IE 5 browser as we do.
Uninstalling: There is no Uninstall facility in the program group in either of our versions (although others report it is available). Lyceum is a program making extensive changes to core parts of the system like the Java package and taking up 30 Mbytes in several directories (plus .dll files?) and needs a simple way to get rid of it. The advice is to uninstall via Control Panel -> Add/Remove Programs which will, on testing removed most parts of Lyceum but may not restore the previous status. We had that problem with the Word Viewer made available on the eTMA site which meant we had to reload Office 97 several times. Fortunately we have installed it on a new removable drive but how many students have that or will pay £70 for a drive and spend 5 hours partitioning, formatting and loading it up?
Reinstalling version 1.2: The limited information available stated that the download was intended to be an easy route to updating so we started by going back to the download site and using the web install plug-in as specified. This appeared to work but after rebooting the machine and starting Lyceum we got a complete lockup before the opening screen had fully loaded (no graphics). The cursor was frozen and Ctrl-Alt-Delete failed to bring up the task manager. Further Ctrl-Alt-Deletes did cause a restart but the program had clearly run amok and Scandisk (the utility which is run automatically to check disk integrity after a shutdown failure) reported that the 2 FAT32s were different and recommended using the least obviously damaged. FAT stands for File Allocation Table which meant that the main directory for the hard drive had been damaged. It also reported that there were 24 Mbytes of "broken links" - so big we assumed it could only be a temporary file such as the memory swop file. Never had I been so glad that I had insisted on not loading beta software onto our main drive as we stood to loose 5 or 6 hours of work rather than risk 4 years of activity. Yes we do backup - read the Backup Philosophy for our System but in practice one is into a major rebuild of the software and lose little annoying things like the spell checker updates. A second try failed without such serious damage despite another illegal shutdown.
Enough was enough and we called the OU help desk for the first time that I recall - this was a problem they needed to be alerted about immediately. They confirmed that their trial update, carried out the same way by reloading over the existing version, had failed but without such serious damage and they had then uninstalled all the software and reinstalled from the CD. It was time to uninstall and we removed all the components which were shown in the add/remove programs list in the Control Panel. This did not clear the C:/Program Files/Lyceum folder but there was now a more obvious uninstall program - Unwise.exe which removed some more components and we finished by dumping the whole folder in the Recycle Bin - all very cavalier but we had little to lose by now and it worked. There are now full uninstalling instructions available in the FAQs at http://lyceum.open.ac.uk/helps/FAQs/lyceum and we are assured that our problems were from only initially installing a very early version. We also loaded Winsock 2 from the Microsoft site as the help line suggested - a 950 kbyte download. (This would not be a permissible option on any university or firms networked machine nor would the suggestion to disable network card drivers when using a modem so the Lyceum beta is restricted to home use)
Speed: When the application is finally run it is ponderous - it takes over 30 seconds to load on our machine, which is well matched to the OU Business school specification. In contrast the Microsoft bloatware applications Word and Powerpoint took 25% of the time to load and even the massive Internet Explorer 5.0 only took 50% of the time. What matters of course is the speed in operation although in practice they are often closely correlated, especially so on machines which are short of RAM. The team have addressed the problem of speed by specifying a more powerfull machine - they now recommend a 266 Mhz Pentium with 64 Mbytes of RAM - we hope this is a short term measure. If not, the processor suggested still seems low for Tutors who do not need technology constraints adding to their workload.
Modems and ISPs: We tried different ISPs and also used the line quality program available at ftp://lyceum.open.ac.uk/Udpqos2.exe. which confirmed a long held suspicion that Freeserve has an edge even over the OU's own links. We will test further and check at peak times. It also confirmed that the system can work with a low end Pentium with 48 Mbytes of RAM including use of the Concept map in parallel with voice replay. We however have an external Modem and the story could be very different with internal PCI modems, most of which use the main processor. Many machines come with these cut price modems built in. We have written a guide on Maximising Modem Performance for the Internet in the Howto Technical Articles series
Quality of Voice-over-IP: Many have tried for the Holy Grail of Voice-over-IP, not only as a cheap alternative to long distance telephone calls, but also for support desks to allow communication with clients whilst they are online. No major support service has yet implemented it because they do not believe it can provides a satisfactory experience for the end user due to bandwidth limitations over a standard consumers telephone line. (See, for example, PC week 27th July 1999 page 16 "Bandwidth shortcomings delay voice-over-IP support option"). At peak times on a Monday evening some of the discussions we listened to had sections of broken up voice from some participants but it was usable - like a mobile in a bad reception area. This could also have been that the microphone was too close as it improved at lower levels. Lyceum has an automatic volume control which should reduce these effects but does not seem very effective at present. Tests at 0630 in the morning in the Loopback mode gave very satisfactory voice after some tuning of the Audio volume levels - there are links in the FAQ which explain how to do this if you are an occasional user.
Displays: As we will be using it most of the time on a mobile we tried it on different screen resolutions and it seemed OK on 640x 480 as well as 800x600. We have little video ram so on 1024 x 768 the screens on our system are almost unreadable because colours compatible with 256 colour displays had not been used. The entry screen will probably have to be changed before being used for students as it shows a series of scantily dressed Greek Gods (or is it the development team?) round a VDU and will be regarded by the more extreme as sexist.
Security: There is a shortfall here to be addressed before the software is widely distributed. Within minutes of logging off I could find the ID and passwords used in clear text. FirstClass has the same problem but in that case you do not have to save the password if you are on a machine without physical security. The password was preset in version 1.2 but just as easy to find - for the developers benefit I will note that it has more numeric than alphabetic characters and the sum of the numeric characters is a prime number.
Initial Assessment of Utility: We have had a session lasting almost an hour with no dropped connections and adeqaute audio throughout and have had a chance to test out the various tools. Changing between the various "Tools", of which only the Screen Grabber and Concept Mapper, are available took long periods - we did not time them but subjectively itwould be barely acceptable during a teaching session on our machine. This session has fed back into our document Requirements for Online Conferencing . The conclusion we came to was that Lyceum goes a long way towards providing the facilities we perceive are required but we make several suggestions for minor "tuning" of importance for practical use. Many of the more major suggestions cover enhancements which, it would seem, been present in various development versions. All have come from a perspective of the practical needs of users rather than being interesting technically - there is a specific reason for every one.
Conclusions: Lyceum has considerable potential and little competition. From a technical point of view issues including security, robustness, speed and flexibility still need to be addressed. Considering functionality Version 1.2 needs significant enhancement to be useful as a teaching tool - it remains to be seen how many changes can be made in the downloadable sections and how much is more fundamental. It is a courageous but correct approach to make it available as a pilot in time for constructive feedback and changes to be incorporated before it is used with the OU's real customers.
Most recent revision: 4th August, 1999