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Evaluating Synchronous/Real-time Platforms for Distance Education

Increasingly, people who could benefit from online courses have ever more powerful PCs and ever faster connections to the Internet. At the same time, suppliers of software and services for distance education are providing platforms better suited for education, and easier for both instructors and students to use.

The earliest distance education programs over the Internet depended largely on email and asynchronous communication tools -- like forums or bulletin-boards, which allowed people to connect to read or post whenever was convenient for them. This capability is important for serving people with busy schedules, who are located in many different time zones.

Synchronous/real-time chat was mainly used for informal communication, and, in particular, for "office hours", as a way to encourage and enhance interaction among students and with the professor.

Now, platforms using voice -- either over the Internet or in parallel by ordinary telephone -- can make it possible to provide rich, interactive synchronous, real-time experiences, where everyone connects simultaneously and interacts immediately.  that feel "natural" to non-technical participants. And the contents of these sessions (including text, audio, and graphics/slides) can be saved and posted on the Web for later review, for the benefit of students who couldn't show up live, and also for possible packaging on CD/DVD.

When both voice and text are available, voice dominates -- that's where all the action is. People won't use text -- even though text is better for searching, saving, and editing.

Hence, you should use voice-powered real-time platforms for high-energy, high-impact, for experiences that benefit greatly from interactivity between teacher and students and among students, not for tasks that could be performed at other times and in other ways. And maintain asynchronous discussion platforms as a place to post documents to be read by the entire class, and for students to post their work and comment on one another's work as well as class topics and activities. Course designers and deliverers face the challenge of balancing these very different capabilities to optimize the learning experience of a diverse and widely dispersed student audience.

At the high end, auditorium-style platforms allow hundreds, even thousands of students to attend simultaneously, mimicking a lecture hall experience, but with everyone having a clear view of what is being shown, and with clear sound, and with opportunities to "raise you hand" and ask questions, either directly to the professor or to assistants who are also available online. Some also offer virtual break-out rooms, where smaller groups of students can meet to work together on projects that they then report out to the larger group in the auditorium. Other platforms, with similar capabilities, are designed for more intimate classes with a dozen or two students.

When shopping for such a platform, don't presume that it needs to include every feature on your wishlist. Simple alternatives may fill in the gaps very well.

For example, if the platform you prefer is weak in terms of storing audio archives, good inexpensive software (like Total Recorder from High Criteria, www.highcriteria.com) can record any audio from any platform using a PC, and you then can post the audio file on the Web for anyone to hear later.

Also, don't give too much weight to software features that enable you to forcibly control the discussion. For groups as large as two to three dozen people, protocol (rules of procedure that you establish) works fine for managing the discussion. In running chat sessions at PalTalk, a free voice chat platform, we did not need to use the handy force-style admin tools (whereby the administrator can shut off and turn on microphones). Rather, everyone who wanted to speak clicked on the Request Speak button, which generates a raised hand icon, and waited politely until called upon.
 

Business Considerations

While the needs of distance education and business collaboration/events/training sometimes overlap, their goals are quite different, and hence the business models and pricing for synchronous platforms should also be different. Unfortunately, the vendors often don't make that distinction, and hence while their capabilities may be great, the packages they offer may simply not make sense for distance education.

For instance:

Auditorium Sessions

The technology is just a tool. Learning doesn't happen automatically -- it takes work. And in this environment the "work" involves activities that the students may at first not be familiar with. Often the "devil is in the details." The platform may be powerful and effective in theory. But to implement it properly, you need to set rules for student and teacher activities, you need to provide detailed advice, and set appropriate expectations.

For example:

Horizon Live 

This platform seems very well suited both for office hours and for auditorium-style (for the opening and closing sessions). Using the same application for both purposes would make it easier for students and instructors to get acclimated -- helping them focus on content, rather than technical matters.

To learn about the capabilities of their hosted service and their server product (packaged hardware and software for you to run yourself), click on Products, then Features and/or Pricing. If you just look at their home page, you might get the false impression that all they have to offer is OfficeHoursLive, which has a limitation of 25 participants for two-way audio, and 50 for one-way audio. The ASP (hosted) service and server product have the same very attractive capabilities, but can handle over 300 people.

Their online "wizard" helps students quickly determine if their equipment is compatible and to let them know if they should adjust any of their settings.

Capabilities --

Limitation -- They also have a lot of flexibility to customize the look and feel for your particular application.
 

Other Candidates

WebEx

The WebEx Onstage service can handle 1000 people. It works with Macintosh as well as PCs. It allows:

But this service seems designed and priced for business meetings and business training, as opposed to distance learning (though they do offer education discounts and have education customers.

At this point, they have no voice over IP. Everyone has to connect by phone. (Their voice over IP provider, Lipstream, went under). They claim that they will have voice over IP in a couple months. But even then, they will not be able to mix and match -- you would have to go either all voice over IP or all phone.
Their support people recommend that you use the phone exclusively -- "voice over IP doesn't really work well."  Also, their voice over IP application will be proprietary software of their own, for which you will need their plug-in.

There is no simple way to archive an entire session. They save the polls and the chat text and the slides (but in a proprietary format of theirs which resembles pdf, they say.) But audio would have to be recorded by the customer. While it is possible to put together complete synchronized archives, it's complex to do so (in contrast to HorizonLive, which makes that easy.)

They have very limited polling functionality, and the polling data, using a proprietary format, cannot be exported for use in another polling app. Also, they have no breakout rooms and only very limited Macintosh functionality.

This platform appears to be designed and priced for business, not really for distance ed. (So far, they have no college-level customers to point to as examples.) Their very expensive pricing is based on per user, per minute (now either 35 cents/minute/user or $200/concurrent user/month).

They have many features, but most appear to be unnecessary for distance education, just adding to complexity and cost.

Centra

Centra sounds much better in the marketing descriptions than it looks and feels in demos.

It doesn't work with Netscape (at least not my Communicator 4.75). In demos, the voice cuts in and out. The text chat is not immediately evident -- you have to click on Tools in the tool bar to get into it, and then it opens a separate window that obscures the regular presentation until you resize your windows. And the text chat is barebones, with no threading.

The marketing material indicates that the maximum audience size is 250. But there are probably ways to work around that (e.g., two rooms simultaneously delivering the same presentation).

They offer voice over IP only. You'd have to set up with another provider for telephone.

Strengths:
breakout rooms
polling (but with delays -- the results don't appear until the presenter gives the okay)
whiteboard
handraising
professor can selectively allow particular students to speak (with microphone, voice over IP)
Web pages sharing/co-browsing
purportedly firewall friendly

You can run it on their hosted service or buy their server and run it yourself.

Evoke

Evoke is very telephone-oriented. Normally, you meet in a teleconferencing room. The telephone voice is normally two-way, but the administrator can mute all others and unmute individuals. Individuals can also unmute themselves if they know the command. They also offer streaming (one-way) audio.

Strengths:
works with Macs as well as PCs
purportedly firewall friendly
works with both Netscape and IE
24X7 support by toll-free number
presentations stored, with voice synchronized with other content, but they charge for every time a student accesses the presentation (you don't "own" it to put it to other uses, as is possible with HorizonLive)
text chat

Limitations:
normal limits are 96 people over the phone and up to 2000 over the Internet, but with advance notice they can hook bridges together
polling, but only in their "collaboration" product, which requires everyone to be on the telephone (no streaming audio)
very expensive pricing (per user, per minute)
students can submit questions by text chat, but only the moderator sees them, unless the moderator elects to "publish" them

Placeware

Placeware seems better suited for corporate events than for distance education.
The system requirements are on the high end: 166 Mhz Pentium-based Windows or Sun SPARCstation. No Macintosh. The audience needs 64 MB RAM, and the presenter needs 128 MB. The audience also needs a 56K modem, or faster. And presenters need PowerPoint 97 (2000 recommended).

Strengths:
works with both IE and Netscape
auditorium can hold up to 2500 attendees
on-the-fly polling
archival of presentations with visual and audio content synchronized
lots of features
both phone and Internet for audio
no plug-ins or new software required
powerpoint presentations
purportedly firewall friendly
the color-coded audience feedback
the text submission of questions (separate from chat)
wide range of annotation options for the presenter
wide range of additional services available a la carte

Limitations:
Many people in your target audience probably don't have the latest and greatest equipment.
They do not "formally" support Macintosh
High per-seat, corporate-style pricing (probably negotiable)
the archive is custom-made (typically with a week delay)
no voice over IP (just streaming audio and phone)
none of the chat content (even that done "publicly" to an entire row) is saved

NB -- several vendors (Hewlett-Packard, Knowledgenet, and Click2Learn) are developing distance education platforms based on Placeware.

HP Virtual Classroom

This hosted solution is "built on PlaceWare's PlaceServer engine." The specs are very different than Placeware's. Users need just 28.8 modem (instead of 56K), and it is only "scalable" up to 500 users (instead of 2500).

Strengths:
handraising
online polling
private chats
question management
whiteboard
web page sharing/co-browsing

This might be a viable option, but there are no demos of archived presentations, and there is no simple way to get a live demo. (The pricing is steep -- per user per hour).

Webtrain  offers an environment that is similar to HorizonLive,  but without archiving and without phone (just voice over IP). This platform is intended for small classes and is not appropriate for auditorium style, but it does offer high quality voice and white board. They charge $2/student-hour for their classroom platform. For a guided tour/demo, go to www.webtrain.com/webtrain/webtrain.asp and click on "join Kevin" during business hours.

Epiclearning offers:
polling
white board with annotation
PowerPoint presentations
two-way voice over IP and telephone conference call
text chat
Their classroom size is limited to 200, there might be some way to work around that).

Educata from Catatech.com offers many useful features, but no polling. They have voice over IP, but not phone. They require a high-end PC (Pentium 166 MHz is the minimum; 200 MHz recommended), and do not support Macintosh. Students need to install a 250K plugin. Their Web site does not indicate the limit on the number of students, but their support people indicate that there is no upper limit -- that they can accommodate "hundreds". They do archive the sessions, but not the audio portion -- and since the professor's presentation will be largely audio, you would need to find another way to record the audio and then put the pieces together so they are synchronized for later playback.

According to the marketing descriptions, Interwise has many useful features. But it's simply too complex for students to get set up to use it. You have to download and install a 3.6 Meg program. And you even need Acrobat to view the installation instructions. I gave up after half an hour of trying to connect to their live demo.

The Web site for LearnLinc is overloaded with marketing hype and facts are hard to find. The canned demo has no sound, though the service includes voice over IP and streaming audio. You would need to schedule a live demo to properly evaluate this platform.

Keep An Eye for the Future

Cisco's Collaboration Server apparently derives from their recent acquisition of Webline Communications. At this point it seems like an erector set -- much is possible, but it needs to be customized. Apigent Solutions is one company that is in the process of customizing it with the idea of using it to host distance ed applications.

Observations and Recommendations

Most distance education platform providers bundle realtime chat with asynchronous discussion and other course elements as part of total "solutions". You would probably need to make special arrangements to use the chat alone, without paying for all the other services they provide and which you do not need. And most of these chat applications are barebones, with no threading and no ability to save the content.

Also, it is important to minimize the number of different tools/applications students need to become familiar with. Hence it would be best if you could use the same application for both real-time office hours chat and asynchronous forum-style discussion; or use the same application for office hours chat and for auditorium-style sessions. Less is more.

When selecting a chat platform for office hours, keep in mind:
 

Recommended Chat Solutions

Use HorizonLive for office-hours chat as well as for auditorium-style presentations. The discussion will inevitably become primarily voice rather than text, meaning that you lose the advantages of threading and search. But the full richness of the auditorium solution (the white board, presentations, etc.) would be available to whoever is leading the discussion; and the whole session -- including voice could be saved. This minimizes the tools the students and teachers need to learn, and provides them with an environment that more closely matches what they are used to.

If you must have threaded text chat, then I believe that SiteScape Forum, in the hosted version is the best choice. That's what I use for my own weekly chat sessions and what we used for previous KSG and Sloan/Merrill Lynch distance education pilots. It includes threading, the sessions are automatically saved, the saved files can be downloaded or reposted on another server, and AltaVista search is built into the product. This is HTML-based chat, which works fine without considerations like firewalls. You might also consider using the related asynchronous/forum discussion capabilities of the same product.

Other Options

WebCT includes a barebones chat as part of its packaged education solution. Their main strength is asynchronous discussion and organization of related educational materials. Chat is an afterthought. The chat is recorded, but only the instructor can see the records, which are not portable. It's doubtful if you could use their chat capabilities without signing on for their full package.

Delphi offers free forums and chat rooms. But their java-based chat is not savable and is not archived.

There are many free public chat services (at Yahoo, Excite, etc.), but they either use java or IRC for chat, which means it is difficult if not impossible to save the transcript.

You also could use for both voice and text chat. Their text chat is barebones, but savable. Their voice chat is excellent, and easy to manage, but cannot handle Macintosh. The voice could be saved with a separate application (e.g., Total Recorder from High Criteria) and posted at a Web site for future reference.  Paltalk is far more complicated to get setup than HorizonLive. You have to download and install software. It runs as a separate app, not through a browser. And your chat room does not have a URL for quick connection, rather you have to go through a lengthy process to get to the right room. This is, however, quite viable -- even in its free version; and the paid service is incredibly inexpensive. I've tested this platform in my weekly chat sessions. 



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