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Ultimate e-learning platforms: Adobe Connect 8 vs. WizIQ

Summary:WizIQ vs. Connect 8: Can the upstart from India take on Adobe's meeting juggernaut?

By Christopher Dawson for ZDNet Education | November 22, 2010 -- 03:15 GMT (19:15 PST)

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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.

Table of Contents

  1. Overview: The e-learning "platform"
  2. The Underdog: WizIQ
  3. Can you say ecosystem? Adobe can
  4. The verdict

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:

  • Blackboard Collaborate (the result of Blackboard's acquisition of Elluminate and Wimba)
  • Cisco/WebEx
  • GoToTraining
  • Saba
  • Electa
  • VMukti

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).

Next: The Underdog: WizIQ »

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.

Next: Can you say ecosystem? Adobe can »

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.

Next: The Verdict »

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.

Topics: Tech & Work, CXO, Enterprise Software

About Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson grew up in Seattle, back in the days of pre-antitrust Microsoft, coffeeshops owned by something other than Starbucks, and really loud, inarticulate music. He escaped to the right coast in the early 90's and received a degree in Information Systems from Johns Hopkins University. While there, he began a career in health a... Full Bio

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Disclosure

Christopher Dawson is the owner and principle consultant for tekedu.net, formerly 6geeks.net, formerly 2D Business Services. Obviously this little company has evolved over the years, first as a side job consulting for local biotechs and ultimately becoming an umbrella for consulting and writing work related to educational technology. He spent 2 years as Vice President of Business Development for WizIQ, Inc., heading up US operations for the Indian company; he still consults for them. He has worked for his local school district as a teacher and technology director, for the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, and for Biogen, Inc. (now Biogen-IDEC, Inc.). He has also consulted with STATNet and Cytyc Corporation and retains close ties with X2 Development Corporation (now part of Follett Software, the supplier of the student information system he administered for several years), including occasional activities that involve some sort of honorarium. However, he promises that if he writes about anything interesting they do, it's because it's interesting and not because they tossed him a few hundred bucks a while back. He regularly purchases and/or recommends Dell hardware. This is because Dell makes good hardware and has truly committed itself to education in innovative ways, particularly with their "Connected Classroom" initiative. It isn't because he has had dealings with the company through his role at WizIQ (which he has) or because they have provided him with long-term loans of a variety of equipment for in-depth testing (which they have). HP gets nods from him, too; they have similarly provided him with equipment on long-term loan and their workstations rock out loud, so they deserve the coverage. He actually buys Apple equipment because they don't send him free stuff and he has a nasty Apple habit that he can't help feeding occasionally. Intel (reference designer for the Classmate PCs he has implemented in his local schools) has provided him with long-term loans of Classmate PCs for testing, as as has Lenovo with its educational offerings. Intel paid all expenses for his attendance at the 2009 Intel Classmate PC Ecosystem Summit which he attended as the sole representative of the technology press. He was invited to attend in 2010 but his wife would have killed him if he spent 3 days in Vegas geeking out and left her home alone with a new baby. And Google? Well, he has more than one Chromebook provided as preview units and runs his consulting business with Google Apps (in fact, he has 5 different domains tied to Google Apps, one of which he actually pays for to use Google Apps for Business). Acer provided him with a 50% discount on an Aspire One netbook in early 2009 after he tested it for 30 days through their educational seed program. He liked the netbook at the time but it has since broken and sits unused in his office. Canonical sent him Ubuntu lanyards, t-shirts, and mousepads for his kids. He stole one of the lanyards and proudly hangs his keys from it and occasionally features his 8-year old wearing an oversized Ubuntu t-shirt on his Facebook profile. Gunnar Optiks sent him a pair of computer glasses to evaluate for a holiday gift guide. He is wearing them now as he types this because they never asked for them back and they rock out loud, too. Seriously - they work brilliantly and make it much easier to spend 20 hours a day staring at an LCD. If they ever asked for them back, he would fork over the $99 and buy a pair.He even convinced his mom to buy him a pair of their sunglasses for his birthday. Microsoft gave him 2 free copies of Office 2010 professional, a desktop clock, and a useless book on Office 2010 when he attended the launch of Office/Sharepoint 2010. He occasionally uses the SharePoint lanyard they gave him instead of the Ubuntu lanyard for his keys, but feels dirty afterwards. Blackboard paid him to be a keynote speaker at their 2012 Developers Conference but then went and bought a bunch of open source companies, bumped him from the program so they could explain why they would do such a thing, and he got to keep the cash, all for covering the event for a day. It was bloody hot and humid in New Orleans, so he earned every cent. Adobe has given him lots of software and more than a couple free lunches at various conferences. Like the Gunnars, he would actually buy a Creative Cloud subscription if his free licenses on CS6/Creative Cloud run out because he couldn't do his job without them and CS6 (yes, I'm going to say it again) rocks out loud. Seriously. $50/month for Creative Cloud is a third of what he'd be willing to pay for it. Which is saying something, because he's actually pretty cheap. Any other companies wishing to send him cool things to evaluate, wear, or otherwise adorn his kids are more than welcome to; he promises to disclose it here if he keeps any of the stuff. And speaking of free stuff, Tuf-Luv has sent him enough free stuff to cover just about every tablet, phone, and laptop he's ever owned. That said, when his dog destroyed one of the cases and the Motorola Xoom inside it survived without a slobber mark, he went out and actually bought a new one. Same goes for an iPad he gave away as part of a contest he ran with WizIQ - he (meaning his corporate Amex) actually bought a Tuff-Luv case because (you guessed it) they rock out loud. He may report on any of these companies as his experiences with them have direct bearing on educational technology, Google, cloud services, etc; positive reports are not necessarily an endorsement and he receives no direct financial compensation from these companies or any others. He's pretty sure that's it. If he thinks of anything else, he'll be sure to tell you all about it here. By the way, he also writes for lots of other publications, but pretty much just about SMB stuff, so it doesn't really much matter. The writing and broadcasting he does for Edukwest (not surprisingly, ed tech-related) usually gets cross-posted to ZDNet, so that's all good too.

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