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Adobe Connect and the Limits of EdTech Outsourcing
January 30, 2013 - 9:00pm

This post is intended to open up a dialogue with the leadership at Adobe. I hope that people at Adobe read this post in the context of a larger discussion that is going on about the merits of outsourcing, a discussion that The Economist captures really well in its recent Special Report: Outsourcing and Offshoring.

Please do not mistake these concerns about outsourcing e-learning product development and support with any negative arguments partnering with colleagues from India. As I've written in other places, I very much believe that India is positioned for a source of strength in e-learning in the years to come.

Further, my experience has been that Adobe Connect is a fine synchronous collaboration / teaching platform, and that the people working in the Adobe Education Division are highly skilled and service oriented professionals.   

However, my years of experience with Connect has caused me to develop serious concerns about Adobe's strategy toward, and investments in, this platform. This concern is largely driven by my experience with the Connect product and support team, a team that has been outsourced to India.   

I would recommend that any of my higher ed colleagues who are looking to adopt a web / mobile synchronous learning platform include an evaluation of the parent company's product and support strategy. In other words, potential customers should ask Adobe leadership questions about the points that I raise below.

Adobe Connect is our platform for synchronous web based (and increasingly mobile) virtual teaching and collaboration.  We chose Connect because it most closely meets the following requirements:

  • Works through a browser, with no software download requirement.  (Connect does have an add-in built on the Flash 11 player that needs to be installed for full meeting tools to be utilized.)
  • Supports multiple webcam views, as we run classes with up to 30 participants.
  • Integration with a landline phone bridge and VOIP for meeting recording and management, with full international toll-free calling support.
  • Meeting room persistence, where uploaded content stays from one session to another.
  • Dedicated mobile apps for iOS and Android.
  • Features such as breakout rooms, polling, whiteboards, and meeting recording.

At this point I have not found another synchronous collaboration platform that meets all these teaching and learning needs.  

We are confident that our students are receiving a premium synchronous learning and collaboration experience with Adobe Connect.

I am, however, actively looking (and would be happy to speak with you if your platform does meet these requirements), as a result of the challenges experienced with Adobe around this platform.

These challenges include:

Poor Communication Around System Downtime and Product Bugs:  Over the past two years we have experienced a number of occasions where our Adobe Connect service degraded (we are on a hosted instance), or that key features (such as video feeds) stopped working. In each case these problems were eventually resolved and corrected. The problem is that Adobe Connect team, based in India, has been less than proactive in communicating when technical problems are occurring. Nor has the Connect product team adequately communicated about server or application issues with Adobe's support professionals or U.S based sales force or solutions engineers.  In my experience, the Adobe Connect team is slow to report problems, and reticent to offer a full technical accounting of the root causes of the issues or steps taken to guard against future issues. This has not been a one-time event, but has occurred multiple times, most recently around the upgrade to Connect 9.

Inadequate Investment in Product Evolution:  The fact that Connect still most closely meets our synchronous e-learning and collaboration needs is testament to the amazing work performed by the original Macromedia Breeze team (which Adobe acquired and re-branded as Connect). I've been using this platform (first Breeze and now Connect) since 2004, and the platform change has been at best evolutionary. Connect is surely a much better platform than it was five years ago, but the full potential of this synchronous learning tool is nowhere near realized. Connect remains overly complicated for inexperienced users, with audio controls and troubleshooting still way too complicated and fragile. Adobe has not invested enough resources in simplifying the user experience, or in making meeting running and management more robust. Nor have basic features, such as the ability for meeting hosts to record and export meetings from within the meeting UI been implemented, and the meeting recording is only available in a less than useable flash (FLV) format.  The location of the product team in this instance, whether in the U.S. or India, is less of an issue than the level of corporate commitment for R&D for the platform.  I wonder, however, if a product team that is closer to both its customers (at least its US educational customers) and the company's leadership team would be better able to understand the market challenges and opportunities.

Lack of Ability to Collaborate with the Product Team: The lack of communication and collaboration with the Connect product team is I think the most significant cost for sourcing this platform to India. Adobe has not provided any channel (or at least one that I've been able to take advantage of) to enable direct feedback and dialogue with the Connect designers and engineers.   It is not clear to me that the Connect product team participates in edtech conferences or events. Nobody that I know from the Connect team is providing any leadership around learning innovation.

Adobe has enormous strengths to build on with Connect. Adobe has a dedicated, experienced, and highly skilled services and sales team. Adobe has a very strong core product with Connect in which it can innovate. Adobe has been a long-term trusted partner within higher education, with products that are widely used by faculty, staff and students. Adobe has considerable resources and a large number of talented engineers.

What Adobe needs to do, in my opinion, is signal a strong commitment to higher education via decision to invest significant resources in its synchronous learning platform.   

It may be possible to make these sorts of investments with its existing product and support team in India, as I am sure they are also dedicated professionals. That sort of investment, however, would need to be accompanied by a commitment to greater openness, platform upgrades, and tighter collaboration with customers.   

I question the feasibility of accomplishing these goals when the product team is 8,000 miles away from the majority of its education customers. 

Adobe, and other edtech firms, should be asking themselves if the savings realized by moving product and support positions outside of its main customer base are worth the costs in communication with customers, innovation, and agility. 

Is anyone in Adobe's leadership interested in examining these challenges, and perhaps working with our community to address opportunities to improve both the platform and the support model?

 

 

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