Several upcoming posts, including this one, will examine technologies that can be used in a library or classroom setting.
I chose to begin with video conferencing software. These programs and applications are best suited for managing classes, meetings, and/or webinars online. And there are many great choices, all of which I have used at some point. Before I describe individual programs, here are a few features all have in common: ADA compliance, in-program chat box, and high-quality video feeds. To avoid ranking, the list is presented in alphabetical order.
Connect bills itself as a “web conferencing platform for web meetings, eLearning, and webinars” that “powers mission critical web conferencing solutions…on virtually any device.” This capability is possible because there is no need to download any program files (unless the devices does not have Adobe’s Flash Player). The the presenter can share slides or notes and it is a secure platform (The U.S. Department of Defense uses it). Connect also offers the ability to set up permanent online meeting “rooms” with persistent URLs, break-out discussion “rooms”, and real-time collaboration. For webinars, Connect can support 1,500 participants using all features or the Webcast version can be used to broadcast only to larger audiences. Additionally, content can be archived for later use. Overall, Connect has the benefit of serving both large and small groups, though only smaller groups will have full functionality.
In webinars I’ve attended using Connect’s Webcast mode, it is the quickest program to load. As a non-presenter, all I could do was watch (full-screen mode) so I have no experience with the other features.
Collaborate combines two other Blackboard Products, Wimba and Elluminate, in one interface. Thus, it bills itself as the “comprehensive online learning and collaboration platform designed specifically for education.” Wimba is a program that sends content out from the originator, including the video feed. Elluminate essentially is an online interactive whiteboard. Both offer chat boxes, audio, and visual feeds for the participants, but they take a backseat to the aforementioned uses. Collaborate combines these in one seamless interface. The number of possible participants is unknown, but it is designed for smaller groups.
I have not had the opportunity to use Collaborate in a classroom setting, but I have for interviews. The interface is great! There is a menu bar on the lower two-thirds left of the screen and the video feed is located above that. The majority of the screen is dedicated to the area where PowerPoints, web pages, and other shared content can be displayed. My one complaint is that the video feed is fuzzy when enlarged. I have used Wimba many times in my blended (partly online and partly in-person) courses, and the video feed is much clearer but it is designed to be full-screen. However, with Wimba, unlike Collaborate, I often had issues getting it to run; something always messed up when the software was downloaded (to a different computer or after a software update). When I contacted the company once about this, their answer was that some firewalls partly blocked Wimba’s files. Sadly, I have never had the opportunity to use Elluminate.
WebEx is a video conferencing software designed for businesses. Like Connect, it offers the offer to participation from any device, allows file sharing, and is considered to be secure. WebEx also allows participants to call into the meeting/webinar when computer access is not possible and offers simultaneous webcam feeds if there are multiple participants. Additionally, content can be archived for later use. The number of possible participants is unknown. It seems to work well for both small and large groups, but like with Connect, full functionality is for the smaller groups.
Google Hangouts and Hangouts on Air
Hangouts is Google+ feature. It allows for video calls for up to ten people. It is also possible to make calls from the computer to a cell phone or landline and it is available as a smartphone app. These capabilities allow Hangouts to be useful for group projects. The conversation is saved only for the participants.
For larger groups, there is Hangouts on Air. These live broadcasts air publicly on Google+, YouTube, and the organization’s website and is automatically archived on YouTube. Hangouts on Air is best for content that is meant for public viewing, such as webinars, over meetings.
While I have not used Hangouts, it has benefits for the small group. I could easily see students using for group projects if they could not meet in-person after school. I have participated in webinars utilizing Hangouts on Air and it has a great interface. The live video feed streams on the top half of the page while the lower half features a chat box and the event’s Twitter feed. Sadly, the chat box supports a limited number of people, forcing the overload to use Twitter. However, to post and join conversations one must use Twitter itself because the on page feed is for viewing only.
GoToWebinar is easy to use. According to their website, e-mail reminders are automatically sent. For participants, entering the webinar is easy, as all one must do is click a link sent via e-mail (Connect and WebEx require signing in with a name and e-mail address). Call in options are also available. The software offers pen, highlighter, and arrow tools to demonstrate points; desktop sharing; a Q&A box; polling; and one-step recording for archiving the content. GoToWebinar can support up to 1,000 viewers and offers full-functionality to the participants (unless the presenter opts to turn them off). As another option, the parent company, Citrix, offers GoToMeeting for groups of up to twenty-five people and the program is included with a GoToWebinar subscription or available separately.
GoToWebinar is another one I’ve frequently encountered on the webinar circuit. Like WebEx, the majority of the screen is dedicated to the content, whether that is slides or a video feed. A sidebar on the right features the chat, Q&A box, and other features in a convenient click and drop format.
Skype is best known for its video calls. I’ve utilized it extensively for interviews and personal use. To operate, one must download the software to their computer and create an account. Video calls are free, but for a fee, landlines could be called in a voice-only mode. Also for a fee, group video calls are available. During a video call, file- and screen-sharing are available. While Skype is not great for a webinar, it can be a method for small group projects. Skpye does everything Hangouts does, plus adds a file sharing feature.
Skype’s interface is easy to use. The top menu bar offers a variety of personalization features and ways to see past data. The left-hand menu allows the user to change their status (ex. “available” to “do not disturb”) and see their contacts’ statuses. The sound and video feed are usually clear.
Connect, WebEx, GoToMeeting, and Hangouts on Air all have the potential to be used for large-scale instruction. In a library setting, they could be used for informative webinars, to live broadcast speaker’s series held in the library, and conference with all types of other libraries. Collaborate could likewise be used, but since it is an educational program, conferencing with other libraries could only occur if that library is part of another education institution. All subscription options offer useful tools to work on projects virtually, nearly as if the group was working in person. Hangouts and Skype could be used for smaller groups and those that lack funding for the subscription services, but I see it more for group projects over providing instruction due to the limited capacity. All services could be used to stream a guest speaker making it easier to introduce students and/or patrons to relevant topical experts for an enriching learning experience.
Have you used one of these video conferencing programs before? If so, what did you think about it/them? Do you have any useful tips to share? Also, do you know of a program I missed?
Edit 7/15/13 @ 1100 CDT: Added bit about GoToMeeting.