While online learning is more and more becoming a part of our lives, the technology used to deliver online lessons is often lagging behind. Take the virtual classroom for example.

I’ve tried many (free) virtual classroom applications over the years, but none really convinced me.

What is a virtual classroom?

It’s an application (mostly run within a browser) that facilitates online conferences or conversations with streaming audio and video. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Apparently, even in the year 2012 running a stable audio/video conference or group session in a browser across a variety of different devices and operating systems proves to be rather difficult.

I’d like to talk a bit today about \options, problems, and possible solutions to the Virtual Classroom issue.

The Standard Setting

I first came into contact with Virtual Classrooms through online teaching platforms such as Myngle, EduFire or WiziQ. The way it works is that for listing your courses on their platforms you get to use their Virtual Classrooms during your lessons (for a commission).

In the three examples quoted above, the Virtual Classroom software is proprietary. It’s far from open, in other words. Edufire, for example, used Adobe Connect last time I checked. Myngle and WiziQ have something of their own. The software needs to be licensed. Whether teachers pay for the licensing directly or through teaching platform commissions, someone’s got to pay – which wouldn’t be that bad if the classrooms were actually worth paying for!

Everyone’s trying their best, I know, and I don’t want to go around blaming people, but sometimes it seems to me that although there are millions of students and teachers learning together online, we still don’t have a technology that makes group learning convenient and stable enough to take it seriously. In my own teaching practice I stopped using Virtual Classrooms altogether because of these shortcomings.

More Open Alternatives

Besides the aforementioned teaching platforms and their licensed Virtual Classrooms, there are other more open solutions. Here are two examples:

blueteach.com

vyew.com

Within a few seconds anyone can quickly start a classroom, connect webcam, microphone and invite people. As far as I’m concerned there are no commissions involved (although you can pay for premium features such as being able to hold larger classes, etc) and the applications are relatively stable.

If it weren’t for one thing…

Yes. Flash.

Flash, My Problem Child

The late Steve Jobs caused a sensation two years ago when he claimed that “Flash is no longer necessary”. Up to this day, many Apple devices still don’t support it.

Regardless of Jobs’ reasons, it’s a fact that all of the above mentioned classrooms will not run on an iPhone or iPad! Correct me if I’m wrong, but apart from Adobe Connect which was converted into an iOS app, all the others won’t work. UPDATE: WiziQ apparently also now offers an app.

Now, even if we ignore Apple’s distate for Flash, it’s not much rosier for PC/Android users.

Why?

While Flash works well for running little animations, banners, games, etc. it’s a total catastrophe when it comes to running fullfledged applications like Virtual Classrooms within a browser. (By the way: If you want to find out if something is Flash-based, right-click on it. It will tell you, if it is.)

With all the flash-based virtual classrooms that I mentioned above I experienced hiccups on different devices in different circumstances. All it takes is for the screen to freeze and the flash-plugin to crash. Ever seen this little fellow here?

I don’t want to bash Flash in general. It’s great for little apps. But as a productivity tool is rather … counter-productive.

The last thing a teacher needs is for his classroom to crash while in a lesson. A teacher needs to focus on communicating with people. If the screen freezes or he gets locked out of his own session (yes, that actually happens!) then there are serious issues that can’t be fixed by updating or adding more features on the mess which is already there.

Instead, I believe we need to wipe the slate before live online learning in a Virtual Classroom can be taken seriously. The novelty factor of e-learning has worn off. The fact that it work somehow is not enough.

As great as Flash is for other things, in the real of online learning we need something else, entirely!

The Virtual Classroom Of The Future

To better understand what needs to be done it can be helpful to look at the evolution of whiteboard technology.

They came in all shapes. The first ones were Java-Applets (rather unstable), then came the Flash variety (more stable) and now we have tools like Google Draw and Conceptboard, which use HTML-5 if I’m not mistaken. Even if this new generation is not perfect, either, it’s a lot better than what came before and as anyone who has ever used Google Docs before knows, it’s stable enough to be relied on as a working tool, plus they run on all mobile Apple devices, too.

Now, I ask: where is the Virtual Classroom of the Future that is not Flash-based? Is it even possible?

Conceptboard has just added live streaming video/audio to its features via tokbox, and while that too runs on Flash, at least it’s only the webcam/microphone component and if it crashes, the whiteboard continues.

I think this more modular approach is a step into the right direction. Instead of putting all your eggs into one basket (and making a mess when something goes wrong) having different (relatively independent) modules in a virtual classroom environment may just be the solution…

What are your experiences with Virtual Classrooms? Are they stable enough or not nearly so? I’d love to hear from you.

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