WebRTC World Feature Article

January 21, 2013

Mozilla Ignite's BigBlueButton Out to Make WebRTC & Education Easier

It's no secret that Mozilla is one of the biggest forces out there when it comes to Web-based real time communications (WebRTC), what with the upcoming plans to integrate the same into future versions of their popular Firefox browser and all. But a new tool, possibly coming to Mozilla as part of the Mozilla Ignite competition, looks to step things up further, and even offers some boon to the growing online education market in the form of BigBlueButton.

BigBlueButton is a Web conferencing system that has been in the making for better than the last four years, and offers an interface built around HTML5, with WebRTC handling the real-time communications aspect. BigBlueButton is set to allow for real-time sharing of several different media all at once, with chat, voice integration and slides all available as well as the recording and playback of different voice sessions. Better yet, BigBlueButton even offers an API for third party issues to get involved in the action.

BigBlueButton is working along a three-phase development system, in which each phase builds on the successes of previous phases to create a larger overall whole. First is the development of an HTML5 client that can allow users to not only view a session in progress, but also join in. Then from there, the HTML5 client is augmented to work with two-way audio and video calling. Finally, the HTML5 client is further stepped up to include the various presentation features offered by BigBlueButton.

While the first phase is proceeding apace, there are already issues on the horizon with phase two, as WebRTC is primarily geared for P2P applications, but a BigBlueButton session is going to need a central server to get involved so as to be able to record the audio and video involved in the session. However, BigBlueButton expects to be beta-ready by the end of the Mozilla Ignite Development Challenge, so at least some parts of it should be ready for exhibition soon.

BigBlueButton's clear intent, meanwhile, is to develop a new and powerful line of conferencing and similar tools for the education market, itself a growing field of endeavor. Online education is rapidly gaining ground as an alternative to public schools, and allows students to pick their classes and join right in the session even as the teacher is delivering the material. This opens up not only the possibility for students to attend classes no matter where they are--sick days become a thing of the past as students requiring bed rest can still at least attend classes and get their homework assignments--but also opens up a similar path for gifted and talented students as well.

One of the greatest problems facing public schools is the outlier population of students in either direction; what is to be done with students whose performance is out of the ordinary, either much below average or much above average? While a fairly sound sliding scale of remedial programs has been established already, the higher end of that scale is often given short shrift due to budgetary issues, and the fact that teaching above grade level is often a more difficult task. But with a service like BigBlueButton, bright high school students can patch into college classes on a greatly reduced expense and engage in dual enrollment.

There are certainly many benefits to WebRTC in general, not only for educational institutions, but also for businesses and regular users as well. WebRTC will likely make many gains in the years to come, and services like BigBlueButton stand to lead the way.

Edited by Brooke Neuman


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