When there are many software products that do similar things it can be a little confusing to choose one. Like a neophyte oenophile looking at a wine list, one might be tempted to make an arbitrary choice just to move things along — and wind up with a snootful of inappropriate complexity and a character that doesn’t suit the meal. So, without further ado (or beating this metaphor to death), here’s a sampler of the computer video conferencing and collaborating products in use at the College, somewhat arranged in order of complexity.
Skype is the best-known option by far, and the one most users are familiar with. It’s free if you simply want to connect with one other person (multi-party calls require the “pro” version), and you can make calls to plain old telephones if you buy Skype Credit. The quality’s not stellar, and in my experience has a sort of Murphy’s Law built in so that it will work 98% of the time if you’re calling Aunt Nancy but will crash and burn if you’re trying to do something important. Users must install a program and register with Skype to use the product.
Google Hangout seems more popular with students than with faculty and staff, but is catching on. You’ll have to get a Google+ account (Google’s sort-of-Facebook product) to use Hangout, but if you have a Gmail address it’s more of a quick activation — and I know plenty of folks who have derelict Plus accounts because they signed up simply to use Hangout. The quality is about equivalent to Skype, but it is more feature-rich: up to ten people per hangout, users can share their computer screen, and best of all, it integrates with the Google suite of apps, including Docs and Spreadsheets — making it an excellent collaborative writing/project tool. (April wrote a nice intro to Google Hangouts in Education in a previous issue.)
SeeVogh is a product that W&M has been piloting for better than a year. The quality can be extremely high — up to 720p HD — assuming users have the connection speed and computer horsepower to handle that. SeeVogh supports multiple users and screen sharing. It’s Java-based, which is both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, all you have to do is send your collaborators a Web link; on the other, if their Java is not up to date (hint: it never is!) or is disabled on their machine, there will be finagling required. It’s free for W&M faculty to use but requires coordination with Classroom Support (our hardware can only support so many simultaneous sessions, depending on desired quality and number of participants).
Cisco Jabber Video
Cisco Jabber Video is a neat little product that can not only talk one-on-one with other Jabber Video users on a PC, but can also talk to standards-based (H.264) videoconferencing hardware like PolyCom units. Essentially, it’s a software version of an H.264 endpoint. It requires a free download and install of the client. Users can do multipoint conferences, but you’ll need to run that through a hardware unit capable of multipoint conferencing that acts as a host. Jabber video is free, and the quality is very good, too.
Adobe Connect is the most sophisticated option available on campus. Connect is a hosted virtual meeting space, and supports not only multipoint (up to 100 users, but I’ve never seen a Connect meeting even approach that) and screen sharing, but also has a lot of other features such as virtual whiteboards where users can write and draw, automated breakout groups, polls, and recording. Licenses for Adobe Connect are $75/semester or $150/year, but if you’d like to give it a whirl for a short period, feel free to contact me directly. April also has written an excellent post about Adobe Connect if you want to read more about it.
As I illustrated previously in the Scout’s Guide to Video Teleconferencing, the key to success with any of these tools is practice and preparation, preferably with the same equipment and in the same environment that will be used for the teleconference. As always, feel free to contact Academic Technology Services for more information or help with video teleconferencing at William & Mary.