Articles

Op-Ed

The Dual Challenge of eLearning Software Providers

By Todd Greene
April 29, 2020

Timing is everything. While the coronavirus-fueled global lockdown has created huge challenges for education, we’re incredibly fortunate that the crisis has occurred at a time when the availability of internet-connected devices is rapidly increasing, and prices are quickly dropping globally. Supplementing that existing trend, communities in many places around the world are now rushing to provide connectivity and devices to those less fortunate. While internet access is still not universal, consider our ability to teach remotely just 10 years ago.

However, big challenges remain to deliver a reliable, scalable, remote teaching experience. Many new creative eLearning applications are helping. But underlying these new approaches, the software must be built to handle millions of simultaneous students without failing. So, eLearning software companies have a dual challenge: design a compelling eLearning experience and ensure the experience will work at the scale of a massive multiplayer online game like Fortnite or Zoom teleconferencing.

Software Providers Must Meet the Needs of a Rapidly Scaling Education System

Within two weeks of school closures, we at PubNub experienced fast growth of “remote user interaction” traffic coming from our eLearning customers, some expanding almost instantly by over 450%. Many (unsurprisingly) have continued to grow since. Building “Remote Interaction” software requires many of the same “realtime technologies” previously only available in multiplayer games or high-speed stock trading systems. As people who have built these systems can attest, the time, cost, and difficulty to build and scale that realtime technology can be enormous. But it doesn’t have to be.

eLearning products built on a realtime communication platform can deliver truly interactive experiences that work at scale, across any kind of internet-connected device. Instead of simply showing classroom videos, teachers can engage students online with virtual whiteboards, live webcasts, slideshows, and realtime quizzes. Shared, multi-user documents can be used to enhance collaboration and improve workgroup productivity with digital teamwork on projects, documents, and tasks. And teachers can provide students realtime feedback.

The Challenges Ahead

Delivering these experiences at large scale is only part of the challenge. Students are operating on different devices (iPhone, Androids, Chromebooks, Mac, Windows). That complexity is made worse by the students’ wildly varying internet connection speed, capacity, and reliability. Like any teaching environment, fairness is paramount, so eLearning products should be designed to make sure that better-connected students don’t have an unfair advantage. That’s why it’s critical that eLearning companies ensure they make careful choices when deciding on the technology infrastructure they use to power their products:

Can it enable engaging remote interactions?

Does the technology platform allow you to connect users together in realtime, and power those engaging “live” teaching experiences necessary? Will it work on every possible kind of student device and Internet connection? How will it work when a student’s connection drops or is intermittent? Can it scale to millions of simultaneous students?

Does it work in my region and is it reliable?

Often, platforms are only running in certain geographical regions. If your teaching experience is in Asia, make sure the vendor has infrastructure running there. Same goes for any other global region. Ensure the infrastructure provider can “failover” to different regions if access to a specific data center becomes unavailable.

Is it secure?

As we’ve seen with the recent “Zoom-bombing” trend, security is paramount even in eLearning. Does the infrastructure your software is built upon provide encryption, access control? Is it compliant with data privacy regulations like data residency, GDPR, CCPA, and other regional requirements?

How does this fit into your long-term strategy?

Like every software company, eLearning companies have a long roadmap of compelling features and experiences they want to offer. Ensure that the realtime communication platform can provide these features for your future roadmap, and ask to understand the future roadmap for the infrastructure provider as well. Make sure their plan maps to your own roadmap.

eLearning was already a fast growing market (pre-virus estimates projected global spending at $37.8B by 2020), and clearly those estimates will now have to be completely discarded. While this crisis will indeed end, this rapid (forced) adoption of eLearning has introduced a billion people to the concept. As sociological studies have shown, when people are required to make temporary changes to their behavior, then often stick to those new norms even when the requirement is removed. So let’s build for the long term, and hope for a speedy recovery back to normalcy and our daily way of life.

About the Author

Todd Greene is the CEO and co-founder of PubNub, a realtime communication platform that powers thousands of leading apps globally. Todd started his career as a management consultant at PwC, and soon after, transitioned to the world of Silicon Valley startups. With a focus on unlocking new markets with internet-based software, Todd has found success launching and leading companies delivering business, consumer, and tech infrastructure products.

Featured Image: Jr Korpa, Unsplash.

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