Every so often, I get a call from a vendor asking me to take a look at their webinar software. So I wasn’t too surprised when I answered the phone and found myself talking to Jodi Ray, the Senior Business Development Manager at Blue Sky eLearn, who had a similar request.
My initial reaction was curiosity… Why hadn’t I heard of this product already? I thought I was pretty good at staying on top of offerings in our industry. Jodi quickly explained that Blue Sky is not a webinar/webcast vendor. Instead, they offer a platform that works with several of the big name webinar products to provide complementary functionality. I was intrigued and thought I would share my findings with you.
I need to start with the fact that Blue Sky eLearn is primarily a Learning Management System (or LMS) vendor. Their Path LMS platform is built to do much more than just act as a wrapper for simple one-off webinars. It handles all the things that professional online educational systems need to encompass… Testing, assessments, certification, SCORM content, course definitions with prerequisites and linear progression through multiple classes, and all the rest. That’s not my bailiwick, and I am not the right person to evaluate or comment on LMS functionality. So I won’t.
Instead, I focused on how Path and its component utilities could benefit more straightforward webinar use cases. Jodi steered me towards some capabilities that sounded exciting. The ability to create a community of users with access to live webinars and recorded content. The ability to collect admission fees for viewing live or recorded webinars. The ability to create blocks of individual content pieces under an “umbrella access” to let people navigate through related materials. And the ability to take over the registration and reporting process to offer convenience that your webinar vendor might not provide.
The first thing I verified was which webinar products offered tight integration with Path LMS. Adobe Connect, Zoom, and LogMeIn’s GoToMeeting/GoToWebinar are the first ones Blue Sky has connected. Cisco Webex has been announced and should be available later this year. If you use any of those platforms as your webinar provider, you can use the Blue Sky eLearn package to manage registration and reporting, charge for admission, and auto-schedule new live webinars.
There is no open interface or API to connect other webinar platforms. In those cases, manual intervention is needed. For instance, you can accept registration through your Path system, download a list of registrants, and upload them to your webinar system. Or you can record a webinar, save it as a video file, and upload the video to your Path account to offer as a piece of on-demand content.
DESIGN AND USE:
The Path LMS platform includes various modules to accomplish different tasks. For instance, Path eReg is the utility that manages webinar registration and communications with registrants (it can also manage registration for in-person events if your company hosts conferences or local training sessions). Path eLibrary is the portal system that makes recorded content available for viewing on demand. Although customers can technically license the subsystems without the rest of the full LMS functionality, I found that I wanted the broader capabilities of the full package turned on in order to get access to additional flexibility and control.
I quickly realized that Blue Sky eLearn is not going after Mom & Pop micro-businesses or casual one-time users as its target customer base. The software has a serious learning curve. Blue Sky supports new customers with training, setup assistance, and on-call support – but that comes at a price. This is not the package for you if you’re pinching every penny. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that payment processing for fee-based events or recordings is included in the basic licensing cost… Blue Sky does not take a cut of your revenue as most other vendors do.
When I started experimenting with the software, I had to adjust my perceptions… I tend to think in terms of making live and recorded webinars quickly and easily available to everyone for public consumption. Upload a recording to YouTube or Vimeo and everyone in the world can see it. Post a registration page for an upcoming webinar, and anybody can sign up. While it is possible for the Blue Sky software to operate in those terms, that’s not it’s strong suit. Path eLibrary isn’t trying to be a YouTube competitor… That would be insane.
Instead, the software works best when you encourage people to sign up as registered consumers of your company’s content. Then they can come back time and again to your portal and get fast access to relevant content pieces. Once they have logged in, the Path system knows who they are, so they don’t have to go through manual registration for new webinars. And the system can track their viewing behaviors for recorded content, allowing you to get insights from performance reports across your library and user base. It can even guide them through a linear progression of content pieces, knowing what they viewed last and what the next recommended recording is.
Part of your setup and configuration process is to identify different roles or types of user. Then you can make the system behave differently for each viewer based on their category. Maybe you run an association with Standard Members, Gold Members, and Non-Members. You could make certain content discoverable to members, but keep it hidden from non-members. Or you could charge different fees to the different categories. You can create a fall-through category for “anonymous” or unregistered visitors, so that one-time visitors can still get access without going through the process of setting up a login with you, but they lose the ability to come back for quick and easy viewing of additional content.
That covers the basics of what the registration and library content components are designed to accomplish. As you might expect from enterprise-level software, there are a lot of specifics. I can’t do them all justice here, so I’ll just list some quick highlights from my investigation:
- Path operates in five languages and offers full keyboard-only operation for ADA compliance with people who cannot operate a mouse.
- Account branding for your portal is Do-It-Yourself and can be changed at any time.
- I tested integration with GoToWebinar. Establishing the link with my hosted GoToWebinar account was easy. After that, I could create a new upcoming webinar event in Path and it instantly showed up as a corresponding event in GoToWebinar.
- Playback of content through the Path eLibrary module is not restricted to simple webinar video recordings. Their player allows you to show users PDF files, HTML pages, SRT files (that is the designation for time-synchronized subtitles on videos), and even separately recorded audio and video synchronized for simultaneous playback.
- There is an option that enables companies to show ads (which can be monetized) during playback of content if desired.
- You can pause a recording while watching it and type a note into an online input box. The note is saved and synchronized with the corresponding time in the playback. You can go back later and click on a note, jumping to the exact point in the recording it applies to. I LOVED THIS!!!
- Hosts can turn on the ability for viewers to carry on conversations about content pieces through Disqus threaded comment streams. Comments can be moderated (private until the host publishes them) or immediately displayed for everyone.
- If you enable the full Path LMS functionality you get the ability to add surveys, questionnaires, scored or unscored tests, and certification. These can be included in the registration process, before or after viewing an individual piece of content, or after viewing a set of content pieces grouped as a course.
- Fee-based “admissions” can be set to expire a certain number of days after purchase. This combats the possibility of someone making one purchase and then letting friends and coworkers use their access forever more.
- Emails allow extensive customization of all content rather than just letting you insert some custom text into an existing hard-coded template.
- Registration fields include the smartest “State/Province” field I’ve ever seen. It reconfigures choices based on the country selected above it, with choices listed for countries you would never think of. An incredible achievement for global inclusivity, when most such fields are limited to US states (and sometimes Canadian provinces).
I found some of the Path terminology and setup initially confusing, but I did not go through the new customer onboarding and training that Blue Sky typically provides. Make sure your hosts or administrators take advantage of this to make their early experience with the system as smooth as possible. Your account representative can even change many of the displayed terms to match your preferred verbiage.
There are a few places where the focus on Learning Management Systems peeks through in ways that don’t make sense for simple webinar recordings. For instance, the system mandates start and end dates attached to on-demand content and content sections require a “Presented On” date. I suggested to the company that these be made optional for webinar use cases where you don’t want to advertise the age of the recording.
A few places in the interface had inconsistent formatting. For example, some input fields included sample text while others did not. Sometimes the text would be “real” and selectable, and in other cases it was just a virtual example that disappeared when I began typing.
Every webinar product on the market has the ability to accept registrations for upcoming events and to play back recorded webinars. You don’t need Blue Sky eLearn for that. The software really comes into its own with the ability to create a custom experience for different members of your target audience.
Because of its “Register Once, View Many” operation, the Path portal software may encourage more visits to your library of live and recorded events. Categorizing users into population segments lets you adjust pricing and availability of content as appropriate for different groups.
The software allows the benefits of content organization and multimedia access that comes from an LMS perspective on guided learning. Being able to step users through a suggested path of content consumption is a nice capability.
Perhaps the greatest advantage as an add-on to existing webinar functionality is the ability to charge for live and recorded content. The fact that payment comes to you in full, with no skim fee, is a fantastic inclusion in the basic licensing cost.
Managing user roles, content, navigation paths, and new events is a serious job. In larger companies, non-profits, or professional associations I see this as a dedicated job responsibility (along with other event management tasks). Don’t just fob it off on a random employee to take care of in their spare time. Proper training and ongoing attention to detail will pay off for your organization.
By now, you should have an idea of whether the software is appropriate for your organization. If the needs are there, Blue Sky eLearn is a serious contender for addressing them!