Free Video Conferencing Platforms for academic conferences, remote lecturers, research or group projects
When I started my PhD 3 years ago there were many opportunities for guest lectures and workshops that I missed mainly because I was too far away from the places and institutions were these events were supposed to be held. Similarly, there were too many times when I wanted to submit a paper to a conference and realized that my budget is too small to cover the travel and lodging expenses required.
The story that started it all
Having lived abroad, away from my family and friends for the past 5 years, I tested and experienced all the “novelties” of new media for communication from email, to instant messengers, to blogging, voice over IP and video-calling. This personal experience soon slipped into my professional and academic work. One of my first and biggest successes is the defense of my first master’s thesis on Skype. Back then, in 2006, I was simultaneously working on my MA from Romania while also pursuing courses as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Traveling to Romania was impossible since the exam periods were overlapping. With the help and approval of the Dean of the Faculty of Communication and Public Relations as well as of my supervisor and the head of IT from the same school, we set up for a virtual defense. The broadband at that time was too weak to support the 2-way video so I defended while being live on video and having only sound feedback from the room. Later, we switched cameras (I turned mine off and the committee turned theirs on) to have the committee ask questions. This is what showed me that if there is an interest and a willingness to experiment, the free online tools that allow synchronous streaming could enrich and expand the learning/teaching experience.
Why use live synchronous live streaming?
I find the answer to this question to be very straightforward: it’s easy, it’s free, it’s fast, it helps reduce costs (one might have to pay the speaker but not cover travel and lodging expenses) and it enables contact with speakers and people otherwise unreachable. When it comes to education, live synchronous video is an excellent gate for cross-cultural communication and international exposure.
In what context can use synchronous live streaming?
I, for one, have been using live synchronous video connections for a lot of purposes.
- Remote guest lectures are the ones I have delivered the most. This enabled me to get in touch with students from many countries and cities as well as bring guest speakers to the new media class I teach in Belgium from places as far as Canada. I also see live video connecting two remote classes for example as well connecting distance learning students with on campus courses.
- I also used these platforms for qualitative research such as conduct in-depth interviews or focus groups.
- More recently, I saw free tools being used in a conference setting (at the ISDPA Power of Sport Summit) where presenters that couldn’t travel to Boston or sessions with an appeal beyond the conference room where streamed online.
What are the best platforms?
TokBox is a browser-based platform that enables live synchronous simultaneous video streaming of up to 20 people. It used Adobe Flash technology so make sure you have installed before using the platform. It works particularly well in environments where the IT department doesn’t allow you to download VoIP products like Skype and GTalk.
For better functioning, registration is recommended, however guests to the video chat do not have to be registered. Headphones might be necessary to avoid the echo effect but in general the connection (video and audio) is steady and clear.
TokBox has a lot of appealing functionalities extremely useful for guest lectures, conference presentations, team work, research and much more. For instance TokBox enables embedding Slideshare presentations as well photos from Flickr and Picasa and videos from YouTube. It has recently added an EtherPad functionality which allows people in the video chat to work together on a document. This is still rough but it’s good for brainstorming for example. TokBox also has sharing options such as Twitter and Facebook invitations, which we used successfully during the ISDPA Power of Sport Summit.
TokBox doesn’t enable any recording or screen-sharing.
Skype (+ CamTwist + Record) is excellent for one to one video calls. It required download and registration but it has good sound quality as well as good video. It also has chat and file transfer options very good for clarifying terms and sending additional information. It works well in a guest lecturer setting where one speaker (or more) join a class/conference. The two-way video provides contact, visual cues and feedback for both the audience and the speaker. From experience, I can say that I found my audiences to be as engaged while using Skype as when I was actually in the room.
If used with CamTwist, Skype gains the advantage of screen sharing (good for visual support when making a demonstration). However, if used with CamTwist Skype cannot broadcast both the screen and the speaker.
If used with a recording software a lecture/talk/demonstration/interview could be archived for later consultation. For a list of Skype recorders please check here and here. If you do decide to record, please do inform your audience that you intend to do that and tell them what you are going to do with the video afterwards. This is extremely important when working on research or in academia (think ethical standards).
DimDim is also a browser-based and is free to use if you’re planning to have up to 20 people in the meeting. (It can go up to 50 if you are willing to pay for it). It includes options like screen sharing, power point viewing, web site showing or whiteboard.
Although the platform indicates that no software installation is required, this is not completely true as in order to run the screen sharing plugins are necessary and need to be installed. DimDim also allows recording of meetings (but this options is available only in the pro version). If you use it, please let me know how it goes. The tests I’ve been running with DimDim show a lot of potential but still haven’t convinced me that it is a better alternative to TokBox or Skype.
Zorap is not quite a dedicated video conferencing/video-calling platform but has all the functionalities to be used as such. Zorap presents itself as the place to “watch stuff together” and its integration with YouTube and Hulu as well as its Facebook connect options certainly help in that direction. Zorap is browser-based but does require the installation of a plugin as well the registration (either via Facebook Connect or the traditional email set-up).
Zorap allows up to 50 people to be simultaneously connected with video and share documents (powerpoint and word, not pdfs), photos and music. This could be particularly useful when working with convergence, music or PR students on digital media projects to display online to their peers. However, as everything that is shared is displayed on the common screen attention to the amount of data uploaded needs to be given as it could easily crash your browser.
When I tested Zorap, we found that shared documents are actually available to download by the other users rather than displayed on the screen. Also, we incurred a delay in the upload and play time of the video we shared. In fact, my friend has finished watching it when it was uploaded on my side. In this situation the side-chat was particularly useful as an alternative means of recording what we actually wanted to see.
A final word (recommendation)
Whichever platform you choose to use, I do recommend you also pick an alternative. Also, knowing the technical abilities of your university, research group, conference host etc. is also vital. All these free platforms need a steady internet connection on both sides to work well so I do recommend you test them several times before using them in an official setting. In some cases you might need to download some plugins or software updates so make sure you have the IT department’s permissions to do that. When it comes to technology (as in computers, speakers, microphones) you need webcams, microphones and headsets. If in a big room, a projector would be useful too.
If you have any questions or other examples, feel free to share them here.