Thompson Rivers University’s video conferencing platform overloaded during the first day of school last week, causing disruptions to many classes as the post secondary institution begins a year of online learning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The platform, BigBlueButton (BBB), was overwhelmed by a high amount of server connections — about 35,000 over the course of the day on Sept. 9.
Now, the university is adding server capacity and encouraging students to refrain from using their web cameras during online lectures and meetings in order to get through the year after a day of unprecedented demand.
“The kind of usage we saw last Wednesday was probably anywhere from five to 10 times higher than normal — at least, maybe more,” said TRU’s director of learning technology, Brian Lamb.
Lamb said they received many reports of system downtime, noting about 70 inquiries related to BBB that day.
Lamb said they have since made some “short term computing power fixes” and the video conferencing system is running at about 90 per cent reliability, and are in the process of adding another upgrade to increase that number later this week.
“Essentially we’re moving to an entirely new server environment with multiple servers that are load balanced,” Lamb said.
Lamb said there were similar challenges on the video conferencing system in the spring when TRU first moved to virtual learning, but nothing of last week’s extent — something Lamb chalks up to the demand of the first day of school.
“We knew the system would be taxed. We didn’t anticipate quite this level of demand,” Lamb said, noting there were 3,500 people streaming video at any given time Wednesday, whereas 1,000 has been more common.
Lamb said there will be far less demand on the system if a professor has her or his camera on while the students keep theirs off, noting a class of 30 with all their cameras on is equal to 870 video streams.
Use of the program Kaltura is also being encouraged to send prerecorded video messages and lectures — some 7,000 of which were recorded over the summer.
TRU also has a cloud-based video conferencing platform it’s making available as an alternative.
Asked why it doesn’t use Zoom, Lamb said while it’s likely the most popular system, it’s not immune to similar issues.
“When system usage on a video conferencing system spikes dramatically, it’s not unheard of for these kinds of problems to happen,” Lamb said.
He added that other systems such as Moodle — the university’s main learning management system — had no reported issues. he said it was just their video conferencing platform that was performing poorly, with fewer reported issues on Thursday and Friday.
Lamb said post secondary classes began last Wednesday across B.C. and the service that hosts BBB, which is a provincial consortium, experienced issues in general.
“TRU wasn’t the only school having a rough time on Wednesday,” Lamb said.