Implementing an Open Source Conferencing System for Distance Education

Article excerpt

As distance education becomes more popular, the need in educational institutions for inexpensive long-distance voice and teleconferencing services grows. Students need to communicate with each other and with instructors. Additionally, the availability of broadband connections to the Internet for students is increasing and the cost is decreasing. This article reviews a case study of implementing an open source system of an Internet protocol-based private branch exchange (PBX) along with software-based phones that allow students and instructors to communicate via voice or both voice and video. Since the system is based on open-source software, all of the software is free and the hardware requirements are minimal. The Asterisk-based phone system TrixBox was implemented on a VMWare virtual machine as the PBX and the software-based phones X-Lite, Ekiga, and Idefisk were used by the instructors and students. A review of open-source licensing, along with the rationale for choosing the particular software distributions, is given. Additionally the topology of the implementation is reviewed along with the configuration challenges found. Finally, a review of security and policy considerations is given.

Introduction

Organizations all over the world are expanding their Internet presence. Whether educational institutions seeking to broaden their reach and increase revenue by offering online courses, companies trying to offer telecommuting capability, or organizations seeking to provide online access to the handicapped, online collaboration and conferencing is becoming popular across all industry sectors.

Community colleges, notoriously on shoestring budgets, have begun offering online classes for general education and preparatory courses. In order to complete the online coursework, a collaboration tool is needed. E-mail is not real time and does not offer the consistent interactive "feel" online students need, but can be provided with such tools as conference calls, video and text chat. Schools constantly deal with a segment of their students that does not perform well. These students fall behind and their grades seldom recover. Rural school districts could use distance learning tools to help mediocre students shore up course work after school without the students needing to be on campus. Another educational segment, the growing homeschooling community, continues to struggle with the question of socialization. Pundits such as Mike Jerry, expert author at Ezine, teacher organizations, and civic groups and even the popular TV psychologist Dr. Phil, feel that homeschooled children's isolation causes disconnect later in life (Delp, 2006; Jerry, n.d.). The usual and optimal solution is to schedule play times and field trips with other home school groups, but at home there is still a disconnect. Homeschool groups need a solution for families and children to keep in step with each other and provide needed socialization. The handicapped community has always struggled with accessibility to work, school and other social settings. Providing this equal access is often costly, time consuming, and complicated. These organizations require a cost effective and quick solution in a setting where the handicapped need access to various people on a consistent basis and always feel connected to their office or classroom. Finally, universities all over the world are expanding their online course offerings and yet the available tools lag behind. According to an MSNBC report, 3.2 million students took online courses in the fall of 2005. That accounts for one in six higher education students (Pope, 2006). These institutions seldom initially consider the inherent challenges and the tools these students and instructors need. Consequently, the credibility of these universities can be on the line. Although the solution can be complex given the exact needs, the vastly expanding Internet is a mature infrastructure. Solutions that utilize the Web for voice and video calls are becoming more popular. …