OpensTeam Whiteboard with a browser-integrated and SVG-based view functionality – A web content management tool for Computer Supported Cooperative Learning

The chair of Computers and Society at the University of Paderborn has been engaged in the domain of group-oriented computer supported learning for more than a decade. The present abstract outlines one of its most recent developments, which is a multi-author-whiteboard integrating an SVG-based view on knowledge spaces.

The (shared) whiteboard which is used here is part of the Paderborn opensTeam system. From a technical point of view, the system can be briefly characterized as a document management system with wide-ranging functionalities concerning the storage, manipulation and the arrangement of data. Besides a web-server, a mail-server and an IRC-server, it offers a large variety of additional functions which support cooperative learning and working processes. To give a complete overview of the application domains of the system would be beyond the scope of this article. The main principles of the architecture as well as the conceptual and theoretical framework have been presented in a number of publications (see e. g. Keil-Slawik/Selke 1998, Hampel 2002 or Hampel & Keil-Slawik 2003).

By using the opensTeam approach, we aim to meet the everyday requirements of e-learning. The system provides an open-source architecture that allows individual learners as well as groups of learners and teachers to create, structure and store the learning material and make it accessible for other learners. Based on the metaphor of the shared knowledge space and the primary media functions, data, documents as well as discussion groups can be manipulated, arranged and deposited in folders and areas. In addition, a flexible rights and access management allows all possible administration levels corresponding to the respective cooperative situation, ranging from the complete self-administration organized by the learners themselves to a rather totalitarian approach controlled by a supervising administrator.

Nevertheless, the opensteam server can only present the described functionalities in an abstract folder and list structure which allows a semantic arrangement of the material, but not a graphical or two-dimensional representation. In order to provide the spatial structuring of knowledge as a central aspect of our approach to individual and cooperative learning processes, the shared whiteboard client has been developed as an additional feature to the opensteam system.

The shared whiteboard client combines the functionalities of a drawing program with those of a multi-author- and document management system. Via an interface which offers a visual presentation of an opensTeam area, members of a group can create, change and manipulate areas simultaneously. As a direct access point to the server architecture, all changes within an area can be directly effected in the whiteboard. (e.g. rights and access management). Not only all common features of a conventional drawing program are supported, but the whiteboard integrates a pointer function and a chat system as well.

Despite all those advantages of the graphical manipulation, the environments are only accessible via the whiteboard client and can only be presented in the whiteboard itself. Furthermore, the persistency of the areas created in cooperation was also not guaranteed given the fact that every user (having the necessary rights) could change or even destroy the work.

To overcome these shortcomings, a new class has been added to the shared whiteboard which allows to transfer all its elements (graphical elements, text-fields, scrollbars, etc.) into an SVG file and to store it as back-up file on the local computer or as a browser-accessible area directly on the server. This functionality integrates a “view functionality” and makes the installation of the shared whiteboard redundant: a persistent representation of a graphically structured area can be published in a web interface.

A class has been implemented in the whiteboard client (programmed in java), which transfers the data created in java and eventually yet stored on the server (coordinates, images, all kinds of graphical elements etc.) into a string and inserts it into a well-formed SVG file. To realize this, an SVG-based view functionality has been added to the whiteboard which allows to create a file in any folder of the local computer or to upload a file onto the steam server.

By executing the storage function, a copy of the area is stored. All elements of the area (including icons or background elements) are uploaded as well and are accessible offline. The other data are kept on the server, but can be accessed via links in the SVG, which avoids long downloads (the steam system does not have a limitation on file sizes).

By using the upload function, an object is created on the server containing an SVG. At the same time, an attribute for the respective area is deposited on the server which allows to publish the object in a stylesheet and to present it in the web interface. The SVG can be accessed at any time via an unambiguous object-ID. The corresponding images and files are also stored as objects on the server and linked to the SVG in order to guarantee the whole functionality.

An evaluation of a course which has used the SVG-Whiteboard client as part of the lecture clearly indicates that the further development must concentrate on web-content management functionalities. New functions will be added to the whiteboard which shall simplify the generation of a totally graphical navigation space for a browser (web interface).

The aim of the development is, however, to provide the immediate creation of areas in an SVG-file without taking the detour via the whiteboard. This shall allow as many users as possible to participate without difficulties/restrictions.

The main focus of the article is on the technical implementation and functionality of the SVG-based view on the whiteboard.