Easy web conferencing options

Part of the challenge of teaching today is finding a good time to meet as a group.  And in a city as large as Seoul, meeting in person isn’t always an option.  I’ve had a lot of trouble finding time to meet outside of school with students, so I decided to do some research on web conference meetings where students and I could “meet” and discuss class topics or just do some one-on-one tutoring.

There are plenty of commercial-level options such as GoToMeeting.com and Webex that serve small businesses and corporations.  But, for a classroom teacher’s needs, these are very expensive (most starting at $50/month) and contain many features that just aren’t necessary.

What I was looking for were inexpensive options to meet with small groups…here is what I’ve found.

The best option for one-on-one meetings is Skype.  It is totally free and even includes a screen-sharing option if you’re working on a document (English/literature teachers) or if you have a whiteboard program installed (science, math, etc) to show students step-by-step processes.  Skype also offers VoIP conference calls (audio only) or small group video conferences (up to 4 people), but neither support screen sharing.  Overall, Skype is a great solution for one-on-one situations, but is limited for true group instruction capabilities.

Another free resource is an up-and-coming website called DimDim.  DimDim is a browser-based service that has a free option as well as payed upgrade options.  The free account works well for small group meetings (up to 10 people, including the presenter) as it has screen sharing capability (plugin download required) and built-in document sharing/editing and a whiteboard.  I tried this with a group of AP Chemistry students and it was fairly functional, but the only discussion option for attendees is a group chat, which tends to lag depending on student input.  The video and audio refresh rate for the presenter is slow, which led to many instances of “I think it froze again…” and the meeting productivity was limited.  The DimDim upgrades began at $10/month and only upgraded the number of attendees allowed and the capability to record your session.  This is tempting, but you can easily record your own screen with other free downloads.

The best option I’ve found so far is supported by Adobe Acrobat’s ConnectNow.  When you sign up for the free Acrobat account you automatically have a designated file-sharing platform (very similar to Google Docs, but not as large) as well as a web-meeting room (shown below).  Space in the meeting room is also limited (4 participants, including the presenter) but the functionality is far superior to other free services.  First of all, every participant has VoIP capability, so no cumbersome text-based chat window is necessary.  You just need to make sure that each participant has headphones on, or else you get a nasty echo effect.  Secondly, the refresh rate is on par with Skype, so video doesn’t freeze for the participants.  Acrobat also allows for true collaboration because you can had over presenter controls to an attendee, which allows students to show work or lead a discussion group.  The other great factor is that the teacher does NOT need to be present for the meeting room to work.  You can designate your meeting room as “always open” on the account dashboard.  Students go to your meeting room URL (for independent collaborative study groups) and then work from their home.

In a nutshell, there are few free web conferencing services that would allow for large groups to meet.  If budgeting isn’t an issue, there are many options out there that allow large-group meetings to take place.  But for small meetings, I would definitely go with Acrobat and just split students into small groups for each meeting.  Adobe also allows for paid upgrades, but they are at the same expense as Webex and GoToMeeting, targeting business options rather than education.

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