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Why do synchronous web tools suck?

We are several weeks into the Change open online course. We have an outstanding speaker list. But, unfortunately, we’ve had issues every week with our live online sessions. We’ve looked at WizIQ, Vyew, and Big Blue Button. All have been terrible failures. So we tried FuzeMeeting today. Another horrible crash and burn. It’s getting embarrassing and frustrating as a MOOC organizer. Course participants and facilitators have been very patient, but even that goodwill is wearing thin after our FuzeMeeting experience today.

In the past, I was involved with Elluminate as a community partner. Which meant that I used their platform for about 150 attendees. With Blackboard’s purchase of Elluminate, that arrangement was cancelled. We’ve tried Adobe Connect, but audio quality has been poor in the past. Elluminate was/is what an online platform needs to be: simple, easy to use, with good quality audio. The platforms we’ve tried attempt to do to much or do it in a confusing fashion. With BBB, for example, you have to login, then actually click an extra button to hear audio. It’s a small step, but it has produced a fair bit of confusion. People enter these virtual spaces wit a sense of disorientation. Each small step can be a challenge. FuzeMeeting has a similar additional step – select various audio inputs before you can hear anything. Do these organizations do user testing? Do they know where newcomers become confused? Elluminate was simple, clunky, intuitive, and remains the best synchronous tool I’ve used.

Here is a rule of thumb for determining audio quality with a synchronous class:

1. Is it written in Flash?
2. If the answer to #1 is “yes”, it will suck

Which is why I was almost excited when we started playing with FuzeMeeting – it uses Java for audio (at least, I’m assuming that’s what the java plugin is used for). We’re going to attempt another session later this week in FuzeMeeting, but given our experiences so far, I’m not too optimistic. Which is why it’s good to see that Stephen has initiated a G+ thread on synchronous classroom options. Any suggestions?

19 Comments

  1. Holger Buerger wrote:

    Hi,
    Sorry to hear that you ran into problems. Is sound the major issue or can the applications just simply not hold the load of so many users? I would be happy to help selecting a new vendor.

    Here is a list of some vendors that might be a good choice:

    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AihO61CpQF2hdGtQaUJSbjhvakJFUVI2aUh6cVB2cUE&hl=en_US

    Also – can we have a quick phone call on this.

    Thanks,

    Holger

    Tuesday, October 4, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Permalink
  2. Have you tried Flashmeeting yet? It is Flash as well, but worked like a charm so far in any setting we used it… http://flashmeeting.open.ac.uk/home.html

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011 at 1:34 am | Permalink
  3. Sam Eneman wrote:

    Is Blackboard Collaborate (merged Elluminate & Wimba) out of the picture for you? It uses Elluminate’s underlying architecture. We’ve also used Saba Centra in the past.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011 at 6:05 am | Permalink
  4. Marc Couture wrote:

    Hi,

    We tested several different solutions over the years and recently moved to a hosted Flash-based solution, SVI eSolution’s VIA, based in Quebec. Preparation BEFORE going into synchronous activities, prior training in using the tool and end-user support services are essential conditions to meet before committing to any solution. Using the public Internet will always be at a disadvantage compared to dedicated videoconferencing, quality wise, so expectations have to be well managed from the get-go.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011 at 6:10 am | Permalink
  5. gajett wrote:

    We’ve tried Adobe Connect, but audio quality has been poor in the past.
    You’re really going to judge a product by past performance? How long ago did you use the product? Have there been updates since then? Etc….
    The issues you are having with audio are not necessarily related to flash, java or anything else other than bandwidth – how it’s managed by the app, and what’s available to each of your synchronous users.
    As a long time Connect user, and a user of many of the other things you mentioned, Connect wins hands down. For audio quality, ease of use and overall functionality. Give it a try again.

    –g–

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink
  6. Tim Dalton wrote:

    My first thought would be what are we trying to achieve? Does it just have to happen with one tool? The large number of participants and number of things that could go wrong (from their mic through to high profile server fail) would make me nervous…

    I too have been part of fails with various tools, and while I have had good experiences with BBB and Connect never at the scale you’re working with.

    Could you somehow combine? Audio through Skype which always seems to cope, once you’re in there share a screen somehow else?

    Do all participants need to be on voice? Could you use audio for the main speaker(s), something like CoveritLive for others?

    Or other similar slightly out of box suggestions… Just thinking that spreading the load over a few tools/techs would give a little more graceful failure curve.

    Tim

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  7. David Lewis wrote:

    George,

    It seems your experience with our software was less than acceptable. This is not a common experience. However, as I am an employee at Fuze, this may seem biased.

    I’d like to invite you to a demo to prove it to you.

    Just some food for thought; Our complete platform was built in 7 months. Our solution, while it is the chosen solution for Apollo Group (the largest distance learning program in the world), is built for enterprises. Our video technology is bar-none the best quality on the market (30fps). I don’t think that needs to be proven, it’s all over the web. We are Apple and Verizon’s chosen conferencing solution and are in both company’s commercials.

    With that being said, I don’t think Apple or Disney or Apollo or Harvard would be utilizing our software if Adobe or Elluminate offered a better product.

    I’d encourage you to give us one more chance and do a quick demo. I can almost guarantee that you’ll be impressed and see why we are a more comprehensive and robust solution. Shoot me an email if you agree. Thanks!

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  8. David Lewis wrote:

    P.S. I spoke with Skip Ward and he referred me to you. I’d like to win you over to the Fuze side, so let me know if/how I can help when you try it again.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  9. I’m interested in your rule of thumb re: Flash. I’m no great Flash proponent but I’ve actually found my rule of thumb is:
    1. Does it use Java on the desktop?
    2. If answer to 1 is “yes” then it will be a nightmare to get it working in a university environment and it’s performance may well suck

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink
  10. Tim Owens wrote:

    I know Jim Groom reached out to you on Twitter today, just wanted to reiterate that here. We do a live video session with IRC backchannel every day and I’ve helped Alec Couros stream live video with the same solution. I think we can help you all produce a high-quality session once a week using the tools we’ve already been working with. Let’s chat about it soon if you’d like.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink
  11. Lore wrote:

    During the past 10 (ten) years I have gathered a lot of experience with synchonous tools. A short summary: low cost = low fuctionality = low quality. I have best experiences with SabaCentra, Elluminate, WebEx, Adobe Connect8. They are not the cheapest, but in order to support a worldwide MOOC, as a vendor I would give you a free of charge room for the course!

    Thursday, October 6, 2011 at 2:57 am | Permalink
  12. Frank wrote:

    All the synchronous sessions that I have participated in and hosted in Second Life have been great. It is easy to create your avatar and location links (called SLurls) can be advanced published to get the avatars to the right spot. I invited a group of students to a learning activity a couple weeks ago and they did fine as first-timers in SL. There is voice and press aids galore. There is a chat area for texting while others are talking with voice. I have tried a lot of synchronous tools too; and SL seems to be the most reliable not to mention fun. Luckily, I also have Elluminate since my university has Blackboard.

    Friday, October 7, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  13. Google + hangouts can currently have up to ten in a room with the ability to collaborate on Google Docs. While also NOT perfect, I think the hangouts tool for sync learning will improve greatly over time.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 4:20 am | Permalink
  14. Andrew Chambers wrote:

    I have to vote for a paid solution with dial in access for serious uses. We use Cisco WebEX and it is faultless in our situation with up to 50 or so users. Dial in is so much better than relying on VOIP. Set up can be inside an LMS and even then allow anyone to access via a web link.

    Unless you can control end users computer set up VOIP can be problematic.

    I’m sure any big vendor would be willing to talk about your needs. After all they have a very clear marketing opportunity with a MOOC. Of course your philosophy may not agree on this point.

    But unfortunately at present in this tool space you get what you pay for. These systems need to run hosted on servers for reliability, servers have cost associated…

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink
  15. Hi George,

    Sorry to read that WizIQ did not live up to your expectations. Although we have tried our best (and we keep improving with rapid releases happening every fortnight or so), there are some variables not in our control, that can throw user experience completely off expectations. This reminds me of a blog entry I wrote almost 4 years ago, on the WizIQ blog for web-conferencing systems in general and some specifics of our Moodle module:

    http://wiziq.typepad.com/wiziqcom/2008/01/best-conferenci.html

    Our teacher-training team knows exactly how teachers can use WizIQ optimally. I will be happy to arrange a demo at your convenience.

    Best,
    Jagdeep Singh Pannu
    @WizIQ

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink
  16. @Andrew
    I agree that WebEx is the most reliable high-quality web conferencing service out there. We decided on WebEx for an online school we worked with and developed an integration with their proprietary LMS, which vastly improves functionality and user experience.
    We recently released an integration for WebEx (and Live Meeting) with Moodle. Functionalities include – scheduling, direct access with automatic participant recognition, archive with recorded conferences – from within Moodle.
    Drop me an email if this is of interest to you.

    Jacov
    Jacov_m@drooped.com

    Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 2:31 am | Permalink
  17. Typo in the above: Jacov_m@groopex.com

    Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 2:33 am | Permalink
  18. brainysmurf wrote:

    My experience as a particpant in large-scale webinars/learning events (GoToTraining, etc.) that claim to have about a thousand participants at a time have been very stable on Connect, WebEx and Centra. However, one has to register for the event and receive a unique URL to participate. They generally restrict audio to the hosts and presenters with everyone else in ‘listen only’ mode on VOIP and/or teleconference. Not sure how any of those platforms would work if you wanted more audio interactivity for the participants.

    Monday, October 17, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink
  19. Louis wrote:

    G’day,

    The problem is primarily one of scale. The tools you mention were not really designed for massive participation – more for a closed group (albeit in the hundreds of simultaneous attendees).

    MOOCs are ambitious undertakings that are taking things a few steps forward, so you are pioneering – if thats a small consolation.

    The tool is one part of the equation, but the capacity of the platform also comes into play. G+ hangouts are worth looking into (G has the capacity for sure) but I’m not certain if it is going to make admission any easier as registration is required, as is joining a circle. But I guess it only needs to be done once. And G expects people to use their real names.

    Then there is the limitation on how many participants G will allow per hangout. Again I’m not sure G planned them for massive events either.

    If a vendor offers both the tool and the service (ie cloud) then they need to be careful what they promise and you have every right to feel disappointed. But another option is to license the software and host it on dedicated hardware that has capacity built in. You might need to start thinking of how to put a system together based on a number of vendors and platforms, not just relying on one.

    As far as audio quality – that is variable and is affected as much by the tool/platform as the user’s bandwidth and general line issues (I’m sure you know the types of quality glitches with Skype for example. But ultimately the sound coming out is only as good as the sound going in. Good gear helps.

    Flash is both villain and saviour. It can be a drain on resources and quality but at the same time without flash we wouldn’t have got this far in terms of rich internet apps. But I think it’s time has come unless it goes pure HTML5.

    As for HTML5, it promises much but it falls short with no audio/video streaming (or security of the stream) capability. I believe a good balance can be made with HTML5 delivering the app which uses a flash player for media and something like Wowza or FMS delivering the stream – which can be both on demand or live.

    On the point of synchronous events, we are looking at a new approach that meets half way – asynchronous content delivered (or guided) in a synchronous fashion. Early days yet but I think there is room for this more dualistic approach to online webcasts/talks.

    I hope that has helped. If you’d like to know more please email or twitter @prezage.

    Thanks.

    Louis.

    Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 4:03 am | Permalink