Real Time Communications Featured Article

Real Time Communications Goes to School

September 04, 2014

With the start of new school year, real time communication (RTC) is bound to play a larger role in education at all levels.  K-12, college, and non-traditional organizations all benefit from the advantages WebRTC brings into real-world and virtual classrooms to connect and engage students and teachers in one-on-one and group settings.

WebRTC starts with a number of advantages over other video technologies.  It is open source, open standards, and built into Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox browsers.  There's no licensing fees for use or implementation, so anyone with an available server and some time -- both in good supply in higher education -- can turn up the service. 

Dialogic's 2014 WebRTC  impact Survey participants believed education would be the vertical market to benefit the most from WebRTC.  Google has not been shy in promoting and supporting the use of Google Hangouts for educational use, providing it as a part of its Apps for Education suite and creating a number of reference documents for teachers and administrators.

Hangouts provides the ability to both broadcast and archive live video sessions, enabling interactive question and answer in real-time and the ability to replay the session for individuals and other classes at a later time. Presenters are also able to share screens and demonstrate key points and work collaboratively with attendees by using Google apps.

Distance education through WebRTC also becomes affordable and practical for any resource with a PC and video camera.  Many museums have jumped onto Google Hangouts as the way to present seminars to the public and schools, with participants including The National Gallery, Denver Art Museum,  Liberty Science Center, and American Museum of Natural History.  National Geographic and NASA use Hangouts as well for presentations and public interaction.

Real time video conferencing may be the most exciting facet of RTC, but there's plenty of room for pre-scripted shows and talks for broadcast delivery of specific topics. Presentations are archived so students can access them at any time as their schedule permits, allowing for make-up work to be conducted at the student's pace and a reference archive for review at any time.

In its tips for higher education, Google suggests using Hangouts for virtual office hours, so students can meet with instructors either alone or groups without having to travel across campus.  Struggling students can also dive into the Google Helpouts marketplace to find online tutors for everything from math and physics to biology and Spanish, with costs ranging from a "free" first session/question to $30 per hour for more in-depth help through live video.

The Norwegian Red Cross built a program using Telenor Digital's WebRTC service to match up volunteer tutors with students across the country.  Other than a lack of support for Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Apple's Safair, there were "very few" technical issues, but older tutors had to gain experience with chat messaging to be comfortably with interacting with the younger generation of students.

I'd say the biggest challenge in applying and using WebRTC in the classroom is being able to filter through the vast amounts of information available and now accessible online, with more being added on a daily basis.  Students and educators can start using WebRTC by simply firing up the appropriate browser. A secondary issue is a lack of native WebRTC support on Apple platforms. There's a sizeable amount of Apple hardware in K-12 and higher education, so users will have to find some workarounds.

Expect to see more examples and case studies of WebRTC in education as the school year moves forward.  The price is right for delivering video-based and collaboration services directly to the classroom and educators are always on the lookout for new and fresh ways to engage students.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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