Thursday, January 11, 2007

Virtual Classrooms - do we need specialist tools?

Donald Clark has raised a point about Virtual Classrooms tools as part of a post he made on Vapid Development Tools. "And while we're at it, why bother with all of this fancy virtual classroom stuff when we have messenger, netmeeting and Skype. If you want collaboration, it's already there, usually on your toolbar!"

I agree with the sentiment, the case for VC as distinct tools is much more marginal than it use to be. That was always part of Microsoft's long game - to embed the capabilities for collaboration into their core infrastrastructure. Don't forget that Microsoft bought Placeware (one of those VC tools) to for a core component of its Live Meeting capabilities.

Innovation with messenger/sametime tools and voice over ip services like Skype have accelerated this further, but more importantly made these services highly available with a very low cost of entry, i.e. free or virtually free, especially for the individual user. But there is still a reality gap for those stuck in corporate IT infrastructures. For those of us outside them who are able to use any tool we think will add some value to how we work it is much easier. As a small business we frequently find our options for live collaboration and virtual meetings decrease with corporate clients! A virtual classroom that provides a single integrated capability can still have some value here, but less than it used to.

The other key factor with VC tools is the specialist functionality they have embedded to streamline use of the tool for supporting learning events. This used to (5 years ago) include whiteboard tools and app sharing but now this is common in the collaboration tools. But there's other functionality too. Standard web collaboration tools can be fine for virtual meetings, and webinar tools are fine for large 1 to many events, but running high-quality structured learning with a group of 10-20 people can require additional help to make it work effectively. A good example of this is virtual break-out rooms.

But this kind of functionality will also make its way into the basic web collaboration tools too - if it proves to be really useful. That's why I find the discussion of functionality has become second in this post rather than first. A few years ago it would have been the other round. Now the limitations of the popular web collaboration tools are much less and their reach is much greater. The challenge for the VC vendors is to continue to differentiate their products or to integrate them into other solutions that have sufficient commercial value to give the VC away within an integrated offer. Our guess is that this is where the LMS/e-learning suite vendors will be forced over time, even if (as in Saba's case) it currently represents a significant revenue stream currently.


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