As much as the coronavirus has wreaked uncertainty around the world, educating students remains something that is very important. The question lies in how to educate while avoiding the gathering of people at a school. The most logical way is to move to a virtual classroom and teach through video chat applications, otherwise known as distance learning.
Some educators have turned to the popular application Zoom to conduct distance learning classes. However, Zoom was built as a general-purpose conferencing tool. Some teachers and students are discovering that it doesn’t always work as well as they would like. It’s not just that it can be buggy, but some schools (and large companies such as the FBI and SpaceX) are banning Zoom outright due to security issues.
Here are 9 essential features to look for when searching for alternatives to Zoom.
Arguably one of the most important features for any live video streaming application is the speed at which the video travels from publisher to subscriber and vice versa. At high latency, the delay between when a teacher says something or motions to draw emphasis to a specific point can lead to confusion. Also having a chat or any kind of back and forth conversation can be nearly impossible with unnatural delays between responses.
A real-time latency of under 500ms is the only way to provide true interactivity. Typing a response or asking a question will be sent as it correctly corresponds to what is on the screen. This will minimize any confused backtracking a teacher would have to make.
In order to run a Zoom meeting, you need to download and install their app. This extra step adds a layer of complexity, as the app is then configured according to the user’s operating system and specific computer setup. This can act as a barrier to entry.
Rather than having to download an app, it can be more useful to run the application directly in the browser through a webapp. A webapp is also more convenient since the client side implementation is handled by the browsers making it easier to maintain.
However, some browser-based webapps still require the user to download a plugin which is again, an additional step. A plugin-free, webapp that runs directly in the browser is the easiest and best functioning solution.
One protocol that works directly in the browser is WebRTC. Based on web standards, WebRTC uses a simple API to connect to the browser. This allows it to work more efficiently and deliver low latency of under 500ms.
Ensuring that students are actually paying attention can be hard enough when teachers are physically in the classroom. Moving that class online creates the potential to exacerbate that problem.
To solve this issue, some distance learning platforms can track if students are actually paying attention or still in attendance. AI will monitor the stream itself to see if the student is staying in front of their computer rather than just connecting to the live stream and then turning around to watch TV. It’s really essential that your streaming platform be flexible and allow for extensibility like tying into machine learning algorithms. Which leads us to the next point.
In addition to adding the ability to monitor a stream, other customization options may be useful as well. There is a wide range of features that education platforms may need so it is important to have a fully customizable solution. Some desired features include:
- Screen Sharing
- VoIP integration
- Visual and audio effects
- Integration with other software e.g. web browsers and search engines, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, Google Docs among others.
Perhaps there are even more specific features that would work better for specific types of educational platforms. One example of a situation like this is the need for music teaching apps to use high fidelity audio so the teacher can properly hear the nuances of the student’s tone. Having the flexibility to create your own custom features can come in handy.
Zoom is a fully hosted solution that can be convenient… until it’s not. One size fits all back-end configurations don’t always fit. Having full control over your application is very important to ensure that you are not locked in a service trap. If the live streaming application you are using changes something about their pricing or restricts data flow, that can negatively affect your application. Having the ability to host to any platform, is a good antidote to this.
Authentication and Security
Security is also very important as you don’t want uninvited people crashing your live stream. Just ask the Norwegian school who had a naked man hack into their stream. Without a password, a classroom live stream can be accessed by anyone. For this reason some schools, including the Clark Country district in Las Vegas, have banned Zoom.
This is another advantage to self-hosting in that you can control the parameters in which the streams are created. If you see any security gaps you can fix them yourself rather than waiting on support to fix the problem for you.
Features such as stream encryption and user authentication guard against unwanted intruders. Not to mention it would also stop bored students from messing around with the video streams. We all know what happens when kids get bored… it isn’t pretty. In fact, “Zoombombing” is becoming an emerging trend where people crash classes.
Students will be logging in from a variety of devices: tablets, smart phones, and laptops. Teachers may use the same variety of devices to publish a stream as well. Accordingly, the ability to support mobile apps or web apps usable across all devices is very important. This includes failover support for older devices that may not support the latest updates.
Web standards based protocols, such as WebRTC, ensure cross-device compatibility that is up to date with modern standards. WebRTC is supported by Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge, and Opera. More importantly, you can use mobile as well as desktop browsers.
Some schools, especially colleges and universities, may have students spread out across large areas. Thus it is important that students from across the globe be able to participate. Not only that, but the live streaming application should have the same performance regardless of where the student is in order to ensure that they do not get left behind by a slow connection.
Which brings us to our next point:
Features such as ABR and transcoding to multiple stream qualities will make sure that the subscribing student is always getting the best quality network according to their connection speed. Students should not be punished for poor connectivity.
With all that is happening in the world right now, maintaining some semblance of normality is important. Educating students is not just a part of normal life, but an essential part of a functioning society.
Making sure that those students have the best possible distance learning experience is imperative. Increasingly people are looking for alternatives to Zoom to meet this demand.