Lightweight, Zero-Install Skype Alternatives? by Kevin Jarrett

Cross posted on Welcome to NCS Tech Good morning all, A few weeks ago I was tossing emails around with some local edtech leader friends of mine on the topic of VOIP web conferencing. Although Skype's popularity has increased geometrically
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Cross-posted on Welcome to NCS-Tech!

Good morning all, A few weeks ago I was tossing emails around with some local edtech leader friends of mine on the topic of VOIP web conferencing. Although Skype's popularity has increased geometrically over the years and they recently announced a much-anticipated portal for educators, Skype in the Classroom, we were looking for alternatives. Specifically, lightweight, zero-install, web-based alternatives. One of my favorites in this genre, Tokbox, was an absolute slam dunk:

...until recently, that is. It's gone away, as many great free Web 2.0 services do. See the good news and bad news below (sorry for the small, nearly illegible text):

Tokbox was fantastic. Sign in, create a conference, email a link, and BAM! You're video chatting with no download, install or firewall issues. Extreme awesomeness! No haranguing your school I.T. person for weeks to get Skype installed and your network configured to handle it. No software client to configure, no security concerns, it just worked. Tokbox has gone away, but other services are still out there (for now). But before I run through some of the most promising, a word about planning.

What are your requirements? What are you trying to do?

Coming from the business world (I.T. project management to be precise), I am used to envisioning, designing and building systems to solve problems. "Requirements definition" is a big part of that. It's not that intimidating. It's really just writing down what you are trying to accomplish so that the system you end up building is designed accordingly. There are many reasons you might want to video chat in school:

  • live, real-time collaboration with other classes
  • bringing expert voices into lessons
  • supporting homebound students

But ... each of these are very different scenarios. Do you need a one-to-one connection, one-to-many, or many-to-many? Do you need to record sessions and have them easily accessible (viewable) later? What about integrated chat, shared whiteboard or file transfers? Features like these need to be considered within the context of your learning objectives. You need to make a list. Knowing your requirements will allow you to choose the best solution. What are your options? Perusing the ever-changing, completely amazing Cool Tools for Schools wiki, I found several programs worth investigating. Some are mature, commercial products; others are startups like Tokbox. Deciding which one is best for you is a function of your requirements (see above). Anwyay, here are a few worth considering:

Elluminate is the thousand-pound gorilla in this space, especially since its acquisition of Wimba. Did you know you can get a free, three-seat Elluminate virtual meeting room just by signing up at LearnCentral? Yep. Elluminate isn't the easiest program to use but that's mostly because it's extremely powerful and has capabilities WAY beyond most classrooms need for basic collaboration. But it is still worth considering because it is robust, established, doesn't require a download (other than a Java-based installer that runs automagically.)

http://wetoku.com/reminds me a lot of Tokbox. It has some great features and security. Its openness scares me somewhat - almost anything could be in those little chat windows when you visit the page. It's a notch above Tinychat.com (which I am not going to link to - you can visit it yourself if you want) - which is the wild, wild west of video chatting - not too far off from chat roulette, actually (another site I'm not going to link to.)

http://vyew.com/ is very promising, it uses a 'freemium' model that ensures at least some revenue is coming in the door (translation: it's not likely to disappear overnight). It has a great feature set with many terrific collaborative tools built in. It seems to have been designed with teaching in mind.

http://www.wiziq.com/ is also very attractive. It strikes me as an alternative to Elluminate, with a very similar feature set, but with no attendee limit. Handy! Recordings are even downloadable. Think of the possibilities...

http://www.coolconferencelive.com/ is perhaps the closest to Tokbox of the bunch I am profiling here, both in terms of its simplicity and power, and, in my view, the likelihood it will be gone (or morph into a new product) in the near future. This "beta" service (what ISN'T in "beta" anymore?) does what it says it will do - enable free web based conferences - but it's silly to assume it will continue to do so forever...unless their affiliate marketing plan takes off. Hmmmmm...

http://meetsee.com/ is one of the more established players in this space and it is designed with the business user in mind. The free service they offer is probably enough for you to test drive and decide if it's worth exploring further. The whole "virtual office" thing is pretty impressive, shame they don't have one set up like a "virtual classroom." (Meetsee folks, feel free to use that idea...)

http://www.koowy.com/ (formerly MeBeam.com) is similar to Tokbox and has already gone through one domain name. :) It's simple, fast and effective. Use it while you can!

http://www.yuuguu.com/ has a free 7-day trial that includes unlimited web conferencing, up to 30 attendees per meeting, shared keyboard and mouse control and integrated audio conferencing. A full year's subscription is just $79. I don't know about you, but, I'd spend $79 on a Web 2.0 service I could use all year with my students.

Wrap Up & Path Forward

I wish I could go into more detail here, perhaps even building a matrix comparing features, but this post is already too long, and besides, I need to get onto the stairmaster, then into the shower and over to school. If you find yourself needing a web-based class conferencing solution, I hope that the sites I have profiled here will be helpful to you. If you find one that really works, tell me in the comments! As long as you are clear about your requirements - what you are trying to do - it'll be easy to decide which of these services (or any other you encounter) are worth implementing in your classroom. Good luck! Hope this helps, -kj-

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