Lessons from Italian Schools on How to Go Online in a Time of Shutdown

[Note: the above interview was captured using the 8×8.vc service and then broadcast live via a YouTube live stream.]

COVID-19 is driving at least a temporary shift to online learning, as evidenced by the many college campuses across America that are closing their physical classes and moving to virtual ones instead. It’s not clear that U.S. K-12 districts are able to shift as easily to an online-only option.

Perhaps U.S. schools can take a lesson from their Italian counterparts who have been resourceful in finding ways to connect with their students during a time of shutdown.¹ 8×8, the video conferencing pioneer with technology roots dating back to the early 1990s (think AT&T picture phones) has seen an unexpected surge in Italian K-12 schools using its browser and app-based video conferencing platform to extend learning into the home.

As announced in today’s press release, WeSchool, “is now connecting nearly 30 percent of all secondary school teachers to students on 8×8’s Jitsi.Org open-source video conferencing solution.”  In the above interview, Martin explains how,  WeSchool had been operating a self-managed Jitsi instance and needed to rapidly scale to meet the increased demand, so they contacted 8×8 for their managed service. According to its website, WeSchool “serves 2 million students every month with videos, texts, and exercises curated by teachers and experts.”

To provide an idea of the growth that 8×8 is seeing with its 8×8.vc service, there were over 1.7M unique active users for the month on the evening of March 19th, 2019. By, the morning of March 20th, 2019 that had grown by approximately 500k to approximately 2.2 unique active users, according to Martin. These statistics are kept at 8×8.com/live and soon will move from daily updates to a live data feed.

The 8×8.vc product is based on WebRTC (real-time communications within the browser via simple Javascript APIs – see this interview with Dean Bubley for further explanation).  Martin indicates that 8×8 took WebRTC and hardened it for the enterprise application and is one of the reasons they have able to scale to meet the sudden demand. From a end-user standpoint, WebRTC means no applications to download and cross-platform and cross-device compatibility.

The use cases that appear on that 8×8.com/live website and referenced are varied and include:

  • Online education
  • Telemedicine
  • Fun and social things, like knitting clubs, yoga, house concerts, online movie watching
  • Church council meetings, Lenten discussion groups
  • Micro-community broadcasts

Hearing the joyous conversation and laughter coming from the virtual, impromptu wine party/reunion in the room next to me as I finish this post, I have to think that the adoption of video conferencing platforms, like the 8×8.vc service, will be one of the unintended positive impacts from the Coronavirus.

¹[Note, 8×8 has created a 5-step process to help teachers conduct a virtual lesson.]

Highlights from the above interview (click on the link to go directly to that point in the video)

  • 01:10 Helping schools in Italy with online learning –
  • 03:34 1.7 M, unique users, last night, 2.2 million this morning 
  • 04:16 Applications beyond businesses include telemedicine, knitting clubs, virtual reunions, yoga, house concerts, church council meetings, micro-community broadcast 
  • 07:20 Based on the Jitsi open-source platform and WebRTC. They hardened WebRTC for enterprise-level use. 
  • 10:42 At the same time, people can dial-in with an old rotary phone
  • 15:10 Ken tries to illustrate what a fax machine does for those who are too young to know. 
  • 15:32 Is the Internet going to break? 
  • 17:40 What is the traffic path? 
  • 19:32 Fast scaling of the system 
  • 20:07 How does 8×8 make money on this service? Martin explains some of the differences between the paid version and the version that is being used to stream the above video. 
  • 22:58 The power of open source and the ability for the platform to meet new needs  
  • 24:06 Can developers develop plug-ins for Jitsi? interesting home-away-from-home application. 
  • 25:15 WeSchool wraps the 8×8.vc service in a larger online education platform thanks to the extensibility

And to see an interview with Bryan Martin talking about an earlier generation 8×8 video conferencing solution, please check out https://www.viodi.tv/2004/12/15/the-video-phone-is-here/