Last week, I used WizIQ to interact with some old students of mine and provide "distance tutoring." Despite a few technical problems (more on those later), it became completely clear to me that tools like WizIQ are going to become indispensable tools for the classroom, extended day learning, college lecture halls, and, of course, distance education.
While many such tools exist, WizIQ and Adobe Connect 8 have unique value propositions and particularly compelling features. They both also happen to be largely powered by Flash, making an apples to apples comparison possible. To that end, I put them head to head and over the next few pages will present the pros and cons of each, with the hopes of helping schools and educators make an informed decision about the prospects and potential of two very powerful e-learning environments.
Some of you may be already deeply immersed in e-learning; others may not have even considered something like Connect or Elluminate for use in your school. Use the table of contents below to jump to pages and sections that are most relevant to you, your interests, and your needs. Also, check out the gallery to see more shots of WizIQ and Connect 8 in action.
Overview: The e-learning "platform"
Before I dive into two impressive examples of e-learning platforms, it's probably worth a few words about the idea of a "platform" and the competitive space for schools looking to make even early forays into web-enhanced learning environments.
WizIQ and Connect are only two of a handful of web-based instructional delivery systems. Others include:
E-learning platforms also include Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Moodle, Sakai, and Blackboard, but for our purposes, we'll focus on applications that support a true virtual classroom environment with synchronous communication tools. Video conferencing, shared whiteboards, shared desktops, real-time chat, real-time collaboration, presenter control, etc., all characterize the sorts of e-learning platforms with which this article is concerned. In fact, many such systems actually integrate with an LMS as a back end to create robust course offerings either fully online or simply accessible anytime, anywhere (including in a physical classroom).
The Underdog: WizIQ
WizIQ was designed from the ground up as a virtual classroom-style educational solution, and it shows. The SaaS web application is based around the idea of a class and teachers can either schedule classes well in advance, including setup of content libraries and audio-visual tools, or can set up an ad hoc class within moments, inviting attendees or simply providing a public link for the class.
Students are invited via email and can receive reminders prior to their classes beginning, if the classes are designed to be synchronous. Instructors can also pre-record their classes and allow students to access the content on-demand. In the same way, virtual classes conducted synchronously can be recorded for retrieval later.
Notice as well that instructors can set a fee for a course. This is where things start to get interesting.
WizIQ is a slick environment. Features work well and the interface is straightforward. Virtual classrooms are presented in Flash, so most browsers that support Flash will get students and instructors into a class. Great, right? WizIQ goes beyond the expected feature set, though, and can also act as a broker of sorts for students seeking particular courses and teachers offering the content, whether for free or for sale.
Is the content always of the highest quality? There is a rudimentary rating and feedback system where potential students can see what past students have said about particular classes or instructors, but, for now, as WizIQ is still maturing, it's best to view many of these classes-for-sale with a critical eye. That being said, there are WizIQ communities that learners can join as they look for classes and instructors who meet their needs. It was easy to find well-regarded classes in English-language instruction, the SAT, India's equivalent of the SAT, and several other areas of instruction, many of which clearly reflect WizIQ's international following and utilization.
One set of courses in particular caught my eye: George Machlan runs what he calls "St. George's Academy of Dragon Slaying & English." He actually reached out to me via email and described himself as "head test pilot of this wonderful platform," noting that he "believe[s] there is nothing that this supercool, supersonic, high-speed and low drag VC (virtual classroom) cannot do." Mr. Machlan has aligned himself with the Edupunk movement and his platform of choice for building learning communities is WizIQ.
While a self-described edupunk may not be the ringing endorsement for which many educators might be looking, his work on WizIQ, like that of many other instructors (whether mainstream K-12, corporate training, higher-ed, or non-traditional instructors like Machlan) suggests that the WizIQ platform truly has the potential to be not only disruptive across educational fields but genuinely useful to students and teachers of all backgrounds and interests.
Here's the real kicker, though. For individual instructors, it's free. That's right. Free.
Instructors who verify that they work for an academic institution get some additional features for free, while 3 different tiers of Premium memberships add more capabilities and monetization features. All of the features associated with the various tiers can be found here, but the key message is that all of the virtual classroom features are available across both free and paid accounts.
The "Academic Free" account would be more than adequate for virtually any classroom teacher who wanted a virtual classroom but didn't have access to a VC learning environment through his or her school. The interactive/shared whiteboard, video/audio/text chat and controls, content library (users can upload video, PowerPoint slide decks that are automatically converted to Flash objects, custom Flash widgets, PDFs, Word documents, etc.), online test creation/administration, and the ability to record sessions are all there.
Instructors looking to make money on their courses would be better served by the paid accounts, but monthly fees are reasonable.
Schools and training businesses looking to use WizIQ across their organizations can purchase WizIQ for Organizations accounts. Again, these accounts are tiered based on numbers of teachers and students, but all can be co-branded with the organization and can (for an additional fee) be integrated with Moodle or another content management system via WizIQ's API.
"But how does it work," you ask? In a nutshell, quite well. The technical issues I encountered the other night were bandwidth-dependent and subsequent tests yielded snappy performance and good AV quality. A decent headset with noise/feedback canceling technology is very helpful, but the key to WizIQ is decent bandwidth. I'm not talking fiber pipes, but heavy packet filtering, shared bandwidth, or a slow proxy will degrade the experience considerably.
Connect 8: Can you say ecosystem? Adobe can
I've been through plenty of demos for Adobe's Connect meeting software, for both versions 7.5 and 8. I've also sat on the participant end of many Connect sessions, since it's a popular choice for sales and analyst relations types who want to trot out fancy dog and pony shows for bloggers. This was the first time, though, that I'd had the opportunity to actually take a deep dive into Connect with my own test account.
Which led me to one conclusion: I wish I had a real account. That I could use forever.
Unfortunately, an Adobe Connect meeting room is not one of those things you just go out and get. Connect is designed to be used by organizations to handle their conferencing needs and translates extremely well to the educational market. Individuals who want to take advantage of many of Connect's features can buy meeting space from the hosted Acrobat.com suite, but there aren't a lot of teachers who can pony up almost $40 a month to be able to run a virtual classroom with 20 students (the maximum number of participants for this service). Acrobat.com is really directed at small business users; Connect Pro is the solution for schools (and just about any other enterprise you can imagine).
And unlike WizIQ, there are no free options. There aren't even really any cheap options. According to Adobe PR,
Prices range from $1,149 for 5 users with 100 seat capacity to $50k and up for 2000 Concurrent seats and up if more are needed. And everywhere in between. In other words, the packages are customized depending on the situation.
In many universities, large deployments of such systems are becoming commonplace. Connect can be hosted by Adobe, hosted on premise, and hosted by cloud partners, but most higher education institutions are finding on-premise hosting to be the most cost-effective. But what about K-12 institutions who could use this for everything from tutoring, to distance education offerings, to night-time office hours, to credit recovery?
There is hope for secondary schools. Those 5 users in the pricing information above could be departments. Thus, a math department could schedule the use of one of the 5 user accounts such that every teacher in the department can hold office hours one or two nights a week, run a credit recovery course, and conduct 2-3 web-enhanced classes a week, for example. Looking at it this way, the WizIQ for Organizations pricing becomes a bit more comparable.
Why, though, would schools (either K-12 or post-secondary) want to invest however many thousands of dollars in Connect when there are so many competing financial priorities (and cheaper competitors)? Because the Adobe ecosystem around Connect 8 is so compelling that it's remarkably hard to ignore, as is the Connect interface itself, which just begs for new ways for students and teachers to collaborate.
First, the UI. Connect is Flash-based, just like WizIQ, and performance is good on any relatively modern computer. However, the presenter interface (as well as the interface that gets surfaced to attendees) is highly customizable. Organized into modules called pods, the UI can display everything from an attendee's webcam to virtual breakout room assignments for attendees (yes, that means that Connect 8 supports the creation of virtual breakout rooms for small group collaboration).
These pods can be moved around onscreen as needed by either the presenter or the attendee to accommodate varying screen sizes. They can also be automatically rearranged during the meeting by choosing from preset or custom layouts.
When a meeting begins (as with WizIQ, it can be scheduled and set up in advance or set up ad hoc with email invites going to all attendees), the presenter immediately has the choice to share his or her screen, document, or whiteboard. Again, as with WizIQ, it's a simple matter to turn over controls of the whiteboard to attendees, elevate any attendee to presenter status, or communicate via chat with the whole group or individual participants.
In fact, the interface isn't that different from WizIQ's, aside from being a bit more polished. However, the dynamic pod layouts are a surprisingly important differentiator for drawing attendees' attention to different aspects of a class/meeting.
Connect does have very granular controls for bandwidth management, though. While WizIQ can show the status of an attendee's Internet connection, Connect allows a meeting to be dialed down in several ways to accommodate slower connections.
Again, like WizIQ, Connect can integrate with learning management systems. However, the LMS integration is not an added cost and is relatively seamless for any SCORM- or AICC-compliant learning management systems. Connect contains both a training module that can manage course requirements and sequencing and ad hoc polling that can communicate with an LMS as a back end.
The other key differentiator here is Adobe's content creation ecosystem. Both Captivate and Presenter (the latter is Windows only) end Death By PowerPoint as we know it. Both can transform existing slide decks into rich, interactive presentations and Captivate can integrate a variety of content, screens, and animations, making it especially well-suited for training and professional development. Presenter is an add-on to PowerPoint and is a ribbon-based tool, while Captivate is standalone.
As usual, neither tool is cheap, but both make the creation of e-learning content simple and engaging. Presenter is suitable for a PowerPoint power user, while Captivate is most appropriate for an e-learning professional. They both output Flash content that integrates directly into Connect.
So which is better? I wish I could avoid my typical objective fence-sitting and just tell you that WizIQ is better or Connect is the one for you, but I can't. Connect and its software ecosystem are incredibly powerful tools, but, like the Macs that so many of us love, there are no real entry-level SKUs. Investing in Adobe means investing in Adobe.
WizIQ, on the other hand, meets the needs of countless educators who simply need a virtual classroom for their students. The free part is an undeniable draw and, frankly, WizIQ is the only viable, easily accessible choice for teachers who lack an institutionally supported platform. It works well, it's easy, it's free or inexpensive depending upon how you use/deploy it, and teachers can actually make money from it if they choose to make their content available to a wider audience of learners (check in with your administrators and unions before you go selling your considerable teaching skill online, please!).
If I had to be stuck on a desert island with only one virtual classroom/e-learning platform, it would be Connect 8, but only if I could have Captivate (or the Adobe E-Learning Suite) to go with it. Connect's power lies largely in the ecosystem of creative tools that sits behind it, as well as the massive scalability of the server technologies. If I'm going to be stuck on a desert island, I'm going to build quite a following. And I'm going to have plenty of time on my hands to create really rich content.
Connect Pro is wildly out of reach for a massive cross-section of teachers, whether in K12 schools, smaller colleges, or of the edupunk variety. Even for schools that can afford it, it's probably overkill if faculty can't or won't fully embrace it. It's also the sort of tool that needs institutional IT support for some of its most useful behind-the-scenes features (LDAP integration, for example) which puts it even further out of reach in schools where such support is lacking.
WizIQ is hardly a poor second choice in this case. Rather, it's a great tool for connecting teachers and learners and shares many of the powerful collaboration features of Connect and its other competitors. It's also a tool that motivated teachers can explore and embrace on their own as the virtual classroom space grows and matures. Where Connect Pro provides the greatest value to larger institutions, WizIQ is an equalizing and disruptive force, bring powerful technology to those who would otherwise not be able to access it.