Learn.com has been around since 1998, mainly offering software and services to support online learning. They recently announced a new software product called WebRoom, which is designed to enable web conferencing in conjunction with, or independent of, formal coursework. Yesterday I had a discussion and demo with JW Ray, the COO of Learn.com and Dave Castella, the Director of WebRoom Sales.
I started by asking for some context. Is WebRoom intended for collaborative group meetings or for public "one-to-many" events? They told me that the goal is for the product to support both needs equally well. My tour through this first release left me feeling that customers would be better off using it for collaborative meetings at this point. An upgrade release is scheduled for Spring of 2007, promising to add some of the features I feel are important for public webinars. JW says that Learn.com sees itself as a one-vendor resource for enterprise employee management "from pre-hire to retire." They want companies to use the software for initial candidate screening, employee training, employee meetings and development, external communications, and so on. He repeated a phrase I had just heard earlier in the day from a Wainhouse Research analyst... "One throat to choke," meaning that customers shouldn't be subjected to a round-robin of finger pointing between different vendors if software or services are not delivering.
WebRoom was developed in-house as an offshoot of the larger LearnCenter software that has been the company's bread and butter. They have not OEM'd any other conferencing software as part of the package, giving them complete control over release schedules, enhancement priorities, and support.
WebRoom currently requires both presenters and attendees to be on Windows-based PC's. It loads an EXE installation file the first time you attempt to join a meeting and my Internet Explorer 7 browser made me go through about three separate Active/X confirmations to get into the meeting. These were particularly frustrating, as each confirmation threw me back to a previous step, where I had to re-enter the meeting password to continue. Learn.com needs to make this load-and-go process smoother and quicker for attendees.
The main meeting interface is simple and familiar to any web conferencing user. There is a main display area for sharing whiteboard content or live desktop applications. There is an attendee names list with a few controls. And there is a chat box that allows typing messages back and forth. The annotation interface for marking up whiteboards is icon-based and straightforward. You can change the color for your annotations and you can add filled or hollow rectangles and circles, straight lines, freeform pen strokes, text, or a pointing arrow. I made a suggestion that Learn.com change the arrow so it points to the right instead of pointing left. This lets you highlight a bullet point without covering up the text. The arrow also always shows the username of the person who puts it on the screen. A useful feature for collaborative sessions where a number of people may be making points, but distracting in a single-presenter public event.
The attendee list allows some simple audience feedback. An audience member can right-click on his or her name in the list and select from a fixed (non-customizable) list of choices. Currently these are Speed Up/Slow Down and Yes/No. The interface is not apparent, and a latecomer who doesn't get instructions about using the right click would probably never discover the feature. Presenters can see the individual responses in the attendee list and a percentage summary at the bottom of the screen. You cannot display cumulative results to the audience. The upcoming Spring release is supposed to add support for more formal audience polling. It will also add the ability to do private person-to-person chat. Currently, messages are always seen by all attendees. Synchronized web/audio recording will also be added at that time. Right now you can only record the telephone audio. The product does not support VOIP (internet-delivered audio) for meeting attendees. That is scheduled for addition by the end of 2007. Telephone audio may be purchased from Learn.com's partnership with InterCall or you can use your own teleconferencing service. The end of year release should also add support for videoconferencing. There is no live video window in the interface at this time (a fact that doesn't bother me in the least, as I feel this feature gets overused to the detriment of most meetings).
PowerPoint presentations can be imported and saved for use in a meeting, but they are converted to a succession of static images and are shown in sequence in the whiteboard. As such, they may be marked up with annotations, but obviously do not support slide transitions or animations. You can display a PowerPoint slide show from your desktop, but the full-screen scrape and transmit algorithm updates the image every half-second to second, meaning that you lose slide transitions and many smooth-motion animations. I found the screen sharing to work smoothly for most standard applications, with transitions rapidly updated, browser windows scrolled in synch with the presenter's actions, and drop down menus appearing quickly when selected by the presenter. The poll-and-draw mechanism couldn't quite keep up with rapid cursor movements, so as an attendee I saw the cursor jump between different points on the screen. Don't try to make a point by wiggling your cursor next to your subject! As a presenter sharing your desktop you have several options, including show entire desktop, show a particular application, or show everything except a named application. There is no facility for showing anything that appears within a defined rectangle on your screen.
So far it all sounds rather conventional and unexciting, but I haven't come to the sweet spot for Learn.com. WebRoom really shines on all the activities that occur outside the meeting itself. The company's emphasis on portal management for communications activities gives WebRoom an amount of flexibility and user customization that is nothing short of superb. You can customize almost everything that would impact your attendees' use of a meeting room: before, during, and after the live meeting itself.
This starts with defining the information you want to capture about attendees. Learn.com offers a long list of demographic information fields you can elect to use or omit. But you can add any number of custom fields, either as fill-in-the-blank or dropdown answer lists. You can pick and choose from these as required or optional fields to get into a lobby area, preregister for a meeting, attend a meeting, download materials, and so on. If you charge for your events, Learn.com offers a complete payment processing system integrated with the product, using the standard VeriSign gateway for credit card processing.
Scheduling meetings is done through a point and click interface and you can customize notification and reminder emails, choosing embeddable fields to be used in your messages with your choice of text content and delivery schedule.
Reporting is also highly configurable. If you don't see the attendance/registration report you want in the preconfigured list of report options, you can create and store your own report by selecting from all the standard and custom defined fields for users and events.
One of the most distinctive features is the ability to create separate WebRooms for different uses. Each can be configured with its own look and feel, authentication, meeting schedule, and so on. This is like getting multiple licensed accounts from most of the other web conferencing vendors. It's great for parent corporations that want a single license to cover separate use by their children companies. Each company could have its own meeting rooms with appropriate branding. Or you could create a specially branded and authorized WebRoom for a particular client or partner.
WebRooms stay active and available outside of a scheduled meeting time, so authorized users can visit them to check out documents and materials you post on the site, to take tests or answer questions, or even to work with interactive forums and chat rooms using technology supplied by and hosted by Learn.com. That's a huge additional feature that most conferencing providers can't match.
The software can be licensed for on-site installation at your facility behind your firewall or it can be used as a hosted service offering from Learn.com's servers. The licensing models include annual contracts for unlimited use up to a contracted number of total users or simultaneous attendees per meeting. You can also try it out for a single event on a one-month use contract. Learn.com does charge a one-time setup fee that includes integration with your Outlook client (if you choose not to use the internal mail facility in the product).
I'm looking forward to seeing the Spring enhancements that will make WebRoom more useful for public broadcast events. In the meantime, the flexibility for customization, ability to create multiple branded rooms, and pre/post event functionality make WebRoom a serious contender for enterprise conferencing use.
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