A few of years ago, it seemed like mobile applications, the expected “next big thing” at the time, would just never take off. Everyone was excited, people were creating apps and expecting huge adoption, telco companies were projecting an explosion of data usage on phones but none of this was really happening with the users. Why? well now, with hindsight, we know that the problem was the far-from-perfect user experience on mobile apps : they were slow, had unfriendly interfaces, and average phone screens were barely larger than stamps. Don’t get me wrong, these apps were not crappy, some of them were actually very good. But something about them limited the market to motivated users, or specific business applications. But the holy grail of exponential market adoption was out of their reach.
Then Apple launched the iPhone with amazing applications and great interface. Within a couple months mobile apps were everywhere.
We all know that for a product to be adopted, it needs to have a great quality. What the mobile apps story tells us is that great is not enough for exponential market growth. The product needs to be amazing, a total no brainer for adoption.
I believe online live learning is like mobile apps a few years ago, just before the iPhone launch. Everyone have been excited about it for the past years. Everyone, except end users. And the main reason for that is that user experience is not amazing. Yet.
The promises of online live learning are plenty. Being able to learn with a live teacher from your laptop is outright awesome. No transportation time, more flexibility, accessing specialists anywhere you live, the reasons why online learning should take off are plenty.
Unfortunately, the user experience in virtual classrooms so far isn’t there yet. The sound quality is a first issue. Though it can be excellent at times and even though it is steadily improving, it still isn’t good enough. When bandwiths are low, classes experience is affected by the audio quality. It’s a problem enough for a phone call to have the sound chopping up, but for a live class, which requires students to concentrate on what they’re learning, it can get really frustrating. If the students are expected to pay roughly 15-30 dollars an hour for their classes, which entitles them to a very high expectation on the delivered service, it’s no wonder why offline or static elearning are still the rule. Hopefully the latest improvements in Flash’s technology enabling P2P audio (like Skype) paves the way to real good audio.
Interfaces, stability, ease of use also have to improve. Products have not been simplified enough so that anyone can use them without reading through a FAQ. They feel unstable, making it hard for users to build confidence in the overall service. “The experience is the product”, as Peter Merholz puts it. So if your interface feels shaky, you’re sending out a message that so is your business – not the best way to create traction. Many virtual classrooms also lack tools specific to teaching, because they are poorly designed or designed for webconferencing, which is different from teaching. For example, even though math is one of the main topics students are looking tutoring for, very few virtual classroom provide any tools specific to maths, like equation editors or function graphers. Also, teachers want to use their teaching content as a library they can fetch documents from during the class. Most virtual classrooms just let you transfer documents to students, but not coview them, let alone modify them in a collaborative scenario. Why not use google maps to teach geography? or co-view youtube videos?
Most virtual classrooms don’t provide the “wow” effect that could ignite the mass market. Sure, virtual classrooms work. You can definitely teach and learn using them, and a lot of businesses do operate virtual classroom operations and reap the benefits of online learning. But that’s not enough to get the PEOPLE, the mass market, I mean everyone, casual teachers, marketing consultants, accountants, music teachers, poker teachers, astrologists, stay-at-home moms, industry experts, to want to use them. One of the consequences of having so much great technology out there today is that users have developed very high expectations for products (which is actually a great thing). For that market to fully ignite, the user experience needs to be outright awesome. Online learning shouldn’t feel like a potential substitution for offline, it should feel way better, which it can and deserves to be. Only then will users start evangelizing the online experience around them, bringing the market to a tipping point (Google Ads don’t make markets take off, word-of-mouth does).
The question now is why has the industry been unable to deliver this kind of experience? The first reasons are technical. Virtual classroom are more complex to develop than average web applications. A lot of technologies involved have been immature until recently, like live synchronisation and in-browser voip. Luckily, these technologies have improved rapidly, and we’re now almost at truly high quality standard.
Another difficulty is that synchronized interaction between users in virtual classrooms makes designing interfaces difficult. This a totally new way of using an application so many things need to be reinvented. Again, it’s just a matter of time before these interface become not only functional, but truly gratifying to use.
Another reason why experience isn’t better is that most market players aren’t focusing their effort on the issue. Only a few are developing in house virtual classrooms. Many have decided to go with third party solutions, which are made for web conferencing and that are, even for this purpose, very perfectible products. The live learning industry has been busy trying to extract value from the market instead of trying to create value to the end user. This could be a viable strategy in a existing market (even though I doubt so), but in a market that has yet to take off, it’s counterproductive.
Fortunately, it will not take the full mass market to take off for people to start making profitable businesses with online live teaching. Small teaching institutions and businesses, B2B training institutions, with dedicated salesforce and a tailored service with great support can already reap the benefits of this market. My point is that online teaching, for the time being, has to be sold rather than just being bought : just like any new, disruptive technology (yes there was a time when people didn’t queue in front of Apple stores to by Macs : even Steve Jobs had to hire sales reps). Of course, it won’t make sense for these businesses to redevelop virtual classrooms on their own. So there is a huge opportunity in providing a service to help them get to market.
So, when will the experience of learning online with live teachers be satisfactory enough for the mass market to reach a tipping point? I believe not far away from now. The technologies are just a step away from allowing truly great experiences. Winners will be those who will have focused on meeting the high expectations of users, and who will have the combination of skills to do so. They will have to be on the cutting edge of the technologies that virtual classrooms are built upon, have a user experience oriented product development with a clear focus on the specifics of teaching and pedagogy rather than just webconferencing. Among them, of course, business models and execution will make the difference. But until then, focus should be on getting users so excited about learning and teaching online that it’s the only thing they want to tweet about.