Monday, February 17, 2014

Can you walk before you Zoom?

Web-based videoconferencing is one of those things that looks like voodoo to some, but to others it's about as new and exciting as brushing their teeth.  We use it for a number of synchronous classes, making sure to always record the class sessions and make them available to students later.  (Hey, people have real lives.  If you hold a class for 20 people with real lives, a few of them will have sick kids, job overtime, or computer crashes. Life happens.)

Our two "supported" web videoconference systems are Adobe Connect and Blackboard Collaborate. Frankly, both of them are enough of a pain that I'd love to find better alternatives, but they have specific advantages for formal classroom use.  We find it best to have an online moderator actually run the meeting while the instructor concentrates on the class and the content.

BUT - holding more casual online meetings and business meetings is a different deal!  We've found a very handy tool for those, and it's not Skype.  It's called Zoom.

So far, our uses have been small meetings for supervisors and staff, and it has become a great way to avoid travel for these meetings. The good news is that it has been working very well, technical issues have been minimal (for those who are past the point of thinking their CD drive is their "drink holder"), and it has been very cost effective. People REALLY like it, they find it easy to work through the installation and setup, and they have had no problems using their webcams and even screen-sharing for presentations and conferences.

One thing we have discovered: Zoom is much more dependable when you're on a hard-wired connection than wireless.  To be fair, that's true of all web conferencing applications, but you have been warned.

Also, any time you use any web conferencing tool, you are smart if you set up a pre-meeting check in for those who haven't used it before.  I guarantee you will have some minor problems that people will have to work through the first time they connect using any web-based tool.

As is typical for a web tool like this, free accounts are available.  The free version allows an unlimited number of meetings with up to 40 minutes of connection time each. Also, essentially all the features of the program are available for users of the free version - which is rather unusual.  Frankly, if you can't do it in 40 minutes, you should think about other ways to do it...or take a break and come back to a separate meeting.

If you really like it, pricing plans can be seen here: For $10 a month you get unlimited meetings with up to 25 participants, for $50 a month you get up to 100 participants.

Zoom claims to connect with H.323 systems using a "Room Connector" option which costs an additional $50 per month.  We haven't tried this, as we don't use H.323 systems for instruction. We make it it a point to be web-connected and avoid proprietary equipment of any kind.

Bottom line for us is that this tool has come in so handy for small meetings that one unit on campus immediately bought a year's license for $120.  That's less than the cost of two round trips from our campus to Denver, 60 miles away...and it will definitely save many more trips than that.

On a scale from Necessary to Sustain Life to Abandon All Hope, Zoom rates "Worth a Good Test Drive."