Only Connect?

Despite being a distributed organisation that frequently works with people across the UK and beyond, we’ve never looked very hard at running meetings and events online.  Environmental concerns, tightened budgets, and simple practicalities such as overly busy schedules or arranging work cover or childcare are issues we and those we work with regularly face, and so we felt that the time was long overdue for us to take our first steps in online conferencing.  We’ve been looking at various tools available with some interesting results, and we thought it would be useful to share them with you.

Our requirements

We were looking for something that would allow voice, text, file sharing, presentation abilities, with minimal support needed to set up and run it.  We were happy to use a paid-for service if it met all our requirements and wasn’t wildly expensive.  We tried three systems, and considered but rejected a fourth without trying it.

The one we looked at but didn’t try was FlashMeeting from the Open University.  Although this is a well respected and popular system, we were looking for something we could use for both internal and public events and the terms of use state that ‘your meetings will be recorded and reviewed and may be used in research publications in professional learning. Do NOT have confidential meetings on this research server!!!’, making this an unsuitable system for us to use.

We didn’t try Wimba, InstantPresenter, Media on Demand or WebEx as we felt that we’d found a good system for us.  We also didn’t try any VNC, IRC and VoIP combinations as we wanted a single system rather than trying to coordinate multiple tools with so much more potential for things to go wrong!

DimDim

The first one we tried was Dimdim.  This is open source, works on Window, Mac and Linux, and works directly in IE, Firefox and Safari (but sadly not Chrome) rather than requiring any installation.  It offers a range of presentation facilities, and ranges from free for up to 20 people, to $75 per month for 100 seat webinars.

We ran into a number of issues with our free trial tests.  The biggest issue was problems with audio and video, with audio cutting out if we had more than one video feed, and we had to find a workaround for getting Flash to recognise the onboard camera on Macs.  It offered the ability to record meetings, but recording can’t be paused and when new presenter takes over, the previous recording is stopped and overwritten.  There’s a neat widget for sending out invites (though again, it doesn’t work in Chrome), but the agenda didn’t seem to be carried through to the meeting room.  PollDaddy integration appealed to our resident widget lovers, but didn’t work as well as we’d hoped, and only the presenter was able to scroll embedded pages which caused problems reading them.  There were too many issues for us to be able to recommend it for trialing in a larger group.

Edit 17/1/11: Dimdim has now been taken over by salesforce.com.  The open source code will remain available on SourceForge although Dimdim will no longer be contributing to it.  More information is available here.

Elluminate

Anyone who’s attended the JISC Online Conference or one of the many elearning webinars regularly on offer will have encountered Elluminate, so we were very optimistic that this would be a good option for us.  Again, we were using the free (vRoom) version, though there are various payment tiers available with vOffice for 20 users at $1536 a year and prices for larger group available on request.  Unfortunately one of our testers was completely unable to get into our vRoom on either Mac or PC, and others have had problems with permission settings and proxy settings giving some odd results in the past.  Despite our expectations and generally positive previous experiences, we felt that it didn’t meet our ‘works straight off’ requirement, and so kept looking.

Adobe Acrobat Connect

I’ve used Connect in its past incarnation as Macromedia Breeze and found it very easy to use and very good quality, so I was keen to see what my colleagues thought.  Our first attempt used the free ConnectNow Beta which is limited to three people, and we then bought a month trial for $62 to run a larger meeting with most of the CETIS staff; annual payments are also available for a lower overall cost.

We did have some initial problems with audio issues, but once everything settled down we were impressed with the quality of the sound and video, and the very pleasant interface.  It worked fine in Chrome, IE and Firefox, but the meeting couldn’t be launched in Safari and there were problems installing the required software in Linux, though it did run eventually.  The meeting administration interface for adding participants and scheduling meetings is far less elegant and intuitive than the actual meeting interface.  There are lots of nice little features, and the overall feeling from both our trial meetings was that this is a mature and stable system that is very pleasant to use.

There was however one major black mark against this system: very poor customer service when dealing with payments.  Buying one month’s access requires a credit card, which is then automatically debited each month until the arrangement is cancelled.  Unfortunately, actually cancelling this recurring payment is not an easy process, and Sharon spent several hours trying to do so online and following dead links on their website before finally learning that the only way to cancel these payments is by telephoning their customer services in the US.  Had we not had other meetings already arranged in Connect by the time we discovered this, this experience would almost certainly have made us continue our search for a suitable system.

Conclusions

We hold our monthly team calls in voice-only services such as Skype or PowWowNow, so we’re all very familiar with these types of virtual meetings.  I was surprised that quite a few of my colleagues felt less connected with the meeting when speaking because there wasn’t any feedback, but I think that’s something that people should be able to get used to fairly quickly.  On my part, I found being able to share slides and the ability to have mulitple webcam feeds really helped me to get much more from the session than I do from audio-only meetings, but that may depend on the individual participant.

A year’s subscription to the system we settled on costs less than it cost for me to travel to our most recent event, and far less than the cost of venue hire, catering, etc.  I’ll be using it for our next QTI WG meeting, and it’s definitely worth noting that this meeting would have been difficult to schedule without having an online option, and it would not have been possible to get everyone who can make the online meeting together for a face-to-face meeting.