The virtual classroom and conference room is a growing trend made possible by amazing online tools and apps booming across the web today. One of the best ways to stay in touch, learn new concepts, or discuss ideas across the city, state, country or globe is through web conferencing.
There are many tools out there that make you feel as though you’re working right in the same room with your students, teachers or colleagues from wherever you may be in the world. These tools make collaborative and interactive online learning possible from anywhere. Let’s explore the top web conferencing tools out there:
- Elluminate Live!
- Skype, and
- Google+ Hangouts.
Elluminate Live!, which was acquired by Blackboard last year to expand its new Blackboard Collaborate platform, is a web conferencing tool built for interactive instruction in education. Eluminate Live! allows you and your students to:
- Present or take turns talking to a large group using audio and video
- Collaborate and contribute ideas visually with its built-in whiteboard window
- Share applications on the desktop
- Surf the Internet
- Raise hands to ask questions, provide feedback or contribute to discussions
- Provide feedback about levels of understanding, and
- Send chat messages to communicate without interrupting the flow of audio presentations.
This Blackboard Collaborate web conferencing tool recreates the essence of the classroom environment in many ways, online. You can jump on a conference by simply sharing a link or sending out an email. It allows multiple students to talk at the same time, creating an excellent space for interactive and collaborative classroom discussions.
The whiteboard feature adds value, creating a visual element to the tool that helps educators better explain their lesson. Some other nifty features that Elluminate Live! includes are a graphing calculator, breakout rooms for group work, polling for instant question responses, and the ability to record sessions for sharing and future reference.
While the interface is rather clunky, it’s truly a full-service application for leading classroom lessons, discussions and group work from anywhere and anytime in a virtual environment. The other plus is that it’s fully integrated with Blackboard’s other educational platforms. Yet, it comes with a price tag after your free trial.
On the business and individual-use side, there’s likely better-suited and more cost-effective solutions out there that don’t require you to buy into a whole education platform like Blackboard.
Elluminate Live! Score:
- 10 out of 10 for Education
- 3 out of 10 for Business
- 2 out of 10 for Individuals
GoToMeeting, one of Citrix Online’s platforms like GoToWebinar and GoToTraining that’s geared toward business professionals, allows you to attend meetings from just about any device.
Like Elluminate Live!, GoToMeeting allows you to screen share, talk simultaneously, chat and send invites quickly with email, URLs and conference lines. GoToMeeting includes conference calling, which allows you to call in to the meeting with a land line or mobile phone. This can cut back on interference and poor audio quality from the integrated audio on the app.
If you conduct regular meetings with colleagues or clients, this is a great solution because there’s a flat rate for unlimited meetings. Yet, in my experience GoToMeeting has been known to glitch, making it difficult to call in to the same line or access the online meeting.
As an educational tool, it’s a fairly basic tool that does not include all the interactive and collaborative learning features of Elluminate Live! So, for simply classroom conferencing and screen sharing, save a buck and go with one of the free alternatives like Skype or Google+ Hangouts.
- 2 out of 10 for Education
- 9 out of 10 for Business
- 4 out of 10 for Individuals
Join.me, a fun and free web conferencing app by LogMeIn, allows you to share screens, chat and send files. Join.me has a much better bandwidth than Skype when screen sharing, allowing you to share with up to 250 individuals at a time. Like GoToMeeting, Join.me allows you to use a conference line to improve audio quality.
Join.me takes screen sharing to the next level by not only giving others view of your screen, but giving you the option allow others to take control of your screen. In a tutoring or collaboration environment, this may help users interact while working on the same document.
What also sets Join.me apart from all the other apps is that there’s nothing to download, install or register for. You can get started right away. This is also handy if you’re working between multiple computers or devices. Join.me also has a beautiful interface, which may be more engaging for students and clients. All of this is free. Yet, if you want to customize your web link or background, there’s a Pro version you can purchase.
Join.me is great for business professionals and individuals, yet as an educational tool it lacks much of the learning features of Elluminate Live!
- 6 out of 10 for Education
- 10 out of 10 for Business
- 9 out of 10 for Individuals
If you’re looking for something more cost-effective, Skype is a great option. Skype, a free application intended for individuals and businesses, allows you to chat, conference call, video call, and screen share with others.
I’ve used Skype’s screen sharing feature to learn quick tips from friends about how to do technical projects on my laptop. It’s great for one-to-one tutorials between students and teachers. You can also conference call with multiple people for free to discuss projects, conduct regular meetings and quickly check in.
Skype also makes it easy for me to stay in touch with my colleagues throughout the day. I can quickly send a message without stepping away from my computer. The nice things is that I can also have it running the background without cluttering my screen with one more browser window or tab.
I can also use the mobile app on my smart phone to be accessible at any time. This is a useful feature in case you’re working in different time zones, need to step out for lunch, etc. and need to be available to answer questions and provide feedback quickly.
Everything is free until you need to call a phone line using Skype or video conference call more than one other person. These features require an upgrade to Skype’s Premium Subscription or Business Manager. Even then, it’s affordable for individuals and small organizations.
For education, Skype is not as secure of an environment as Elluminate Live!. If students and teachers are listed in the app’s public directory, they may get invites to chat, call or video call from “Joe Schmo” across the country. So, the app may fall short for districts’ and schools’ priority for safety.
- 4 out of 10 for Education
- 9 out of 10 for Business
- 10 out of 10 for Individuals
Google+ (G+) Hangouts, which is targeted toward high school and college students looking to chat, “chill out,” and work on projects together, offers much of the same functionality of Skype – for free. You can chat, video chat and share content here.
G+ allows you to seamlessly watch a YouTube video while hanging out. This is a feature that is not well-supported on the other tools like GoToMeeting and Skype, which can’t handle the bandwidth it takes to do so. YouTube videos can be great learning tools given all of the free educational and professional development tools now available.
One of the downsides is that G+ is not currently available to business accounts. So, in order to host a business meeting on G+, everyone will need to use a Gmail personal account. This poses some potential problems in personal and professional boundaries when holding meetings in larger organizations or between clients and consultants. This would also be true for any schools using Gmail as their email agent for its students and teachers.
Google+ Hangout Score:
- 4 out 10 for Education
- 6 out of 10 for Business
- 10 out of 10 for Individuals
So, when choosing a web conferencing tool, you’ll want to take into account your purpose, usage, audience and budget. Tallying up the scores and reviews, here are my recommendations:
- Best Educational Value: Elluminate Live!
- Best Business Value: GoToMeeting
- Best Individual-Use Value: Google+ Hangouts or Skype
- Best Overall Value: Join.me
What tools are you using for web conferencing and why?