In the genus of synchronous tools, Interact Now is a different species. Formerly known as iLearning, and then Capstar, Interact Now joined the Thomson NETg fold in 2004. The product was initially developed as a synchronous learning platform in support of a satellite-based distance learning classroom solution.

This history is reflected in the product's rich use of live video, which is incorporated into a virtual classroom interface that scales to an audience of thousands. The video isn't supplied by simple web cams, but is typically studio-produced and delivered. To support this platform, Interact Now offers optional professional services for technical support, event management, virtual instructor-led training, consulting, and custom content creation.

"Our sweet spot is really the customer who is looking to rapidly produce a highly interactive, synchronous learning experience for very large audiences," says vice president of services Chris Brenchley.

The name may not be as familiar as some others in the synchronous tools field, but Interact Now is the distance learning platform of choice for a couple of heavy hitters in the training and education field. For example, the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) uses the product for its distance education programs.

Interact Now looks to be a big part of Thomson NETg's future. Since 2000, Interact Now has had four major software version releases, with additional point releases moving to production on a quarterly or semi-annual basis.

Thomson NETg is part of Thomson Learning, which is one of four groups of the parent company, Thomson Corporation. The corporation's current market capitalization of approximately $25 billion is the largest in the business services industry. While it hasn't been a spectacular stock market performer in recent years, the corporation has enjoyed steady growth and has a strong balance sheet. With many training-related assets, Thomson Learning offers a favorable business context for Interact Now, with plenty of capital available and a wealth of content from other Thomson units that it can draw on.

Interface

Time and again we hear that the biggest obstacle to using synchronous tools is that the end user can't figure out how to operate them. The Interact Now interface has five different views and could easily become complex. Fortunately, each view is rendered in an easy-to-interpret way. There are two administrative views in the Builder portion of the tool (an administrator uses the Builder to set up sessions), and three additional views of the live event.

I hate to call anything "foolproof," but the Interact Now participant interface comes close to earning that designation. No need to worry about novice end-users here. Everything loads automatically, and there is no need for the participant to do anything but sit back and watch the presentation begin.

Live video elements display in the upper left corner of the screen, with intuitively labeled controls that allow the user to stop or pause the action and adjust the volume. There's also a simple-to-use feature that allows the participant to change the rate the video is being streamed to their desktop without ever leaving the interface.

Features

Interact Now may be complex, but its key features are easy to summarize.

  • The major differentiating features are the use of live video and the ability to scale to audiences in the thousands. Video must be produced in a studio, not using a web cam. If your company has its own video conferencing room, that will work. Or, you can make use of any of Thomson NETg's partner studios set up in major cities across the United States.
  • You don't have to use the video feature. Without it, the product functions much like other synchronous classroom tools, leveraging Internet audio delivery of the presentation. Interact Now does provide better-than-most support for rich-media objects, which is good news for those who are tired of synchronous death-by-PowerPoint.
  • One of the real features that sets Interact Now apart are its consulting services. You can learn best practices from a company that has developed and delivered thousands of hours of online instruction.

Training, documentation, and support

The training and support available for Interact Now is one way that being part of a large educational products and services company pays off. The product is actually positioned in the Services division of NETg. As a result, there is a big focus on providing consulting services to help customers get the most for their investment.

Interact Now also benefits from Thomson NETg's experience producing online training, classroom-based instructional materials, and job aids. You'll find well-designed support materials that come from instructional designers, not engineers.

Value for the money

As with much else about Interact Now, their pricing model is also different. Rather than a true concurrent user model, Interact Now is available in a "per live maximum seat model." What does that mean? Basically, if you purchase a 50-seat license, you can hold as many live programs as you want, concurrently if you wish. Also, as long as no session goes over 50 people per session, you won't incur any overage charges.

That also includes unlimited access to any asynchronous content produced. "Our pricing model is compelling to our customers because it is hard for them to predict concurrency," says Brenchley.

If you don't want a full service package but would like a little extra hand-holding for certain events, you can also purchase service packages separately.

Recommendation

Interact Now really isn't one of the usual suspects when it comes to synchronous tools. If live or pre-produced video is part of your online curriculum or if your training audience routinely numbers in the hundreds per course, Interact Now just may be the tool for you. It does have some shortcomings, but I think the future looks bright for this product.

Rating

Interface 4.0
Ease of use 3.5
Features 3.5
Documentation/Help 3.5
Support 4.0
Value for the money 3.5
Overall rating 3.5