Last night, I posted some general, really positive thoughts about virtual classroom technology after using WizIQ's product to tutor students remotely. I was thrilled, they were thrilled, and, most importantly, they understood the physics by the time we were done. Good stuff all around, but I encountered some significant audio/video issues that deserve some more time.
At the end of every class session, teachers and students have the ability to provide feedback to WizIQ regarding the quality of the experience, so given the static and lag that I encountered (my broadcast video was way out of sync with my broadcast audio, meaning that I largely ended up leading our session by IM and whiteboard; fortunately I could see and hear them in sync), I explained what happened.
This morning, I had a follow up email from tech support. This is part of their normal procedures for WizIQ accounts, not the usual PR treatment for journalists. As Harman Singh, Founder & CEO of WizIQ explained to me, the India-based company has easy access to relatively inexpensive tech support and can provide feedback quickly to its customers.
Interestingly, the tech support email contained a diagnosis of the problem (very low bandwidth on the student's end, most likely caused by high traffic on a shared connection) and tips for diagnosing future similar problems on the fly. Presenters have access to all participant's bandwidth information, including latency, during the presentation, so I could have broadcast in low-quality, low-resolution audio and video and at least mitigated the issues somewhat (I had chosen the default medium-quality broadcast).
The real take-home message here, though, is that bad bandwidth has to go if we want to enable the next generation of e-learning applications. Some of us are screaming with bandwidth. Some of us just get by with basic DSL. Others still have dialup or spotty mobile connections. To make the virtual classroom truly achieve everything of which it's capable, high-bandwidth connections must be ubiquitous and affordable.
The technology is here to allow learning in new, engaging, unprecedented ways for students regardless of time, location, or socioeconomic status. When the bottleneck is crappy bandwidth in a university dorm room, something is very wrong indeed. Unfortunately, that crappy bandwidth affects a much broader cross-section of our population than students with heavy bandwidth shaping killing their multimedia connections.
More to come on virtual classrooms in general and WizIQ in particular...stay tuned!