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Desk-top Video Conferencing


David Richardson
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We've just started using a programme for desk-top video conferencing. I'll refrain right now from saying which one, so that this topic doesn't look like a commercial endorsement!

Basically you have the features available that the old CUSeeMe programme had: real-time audio and video, a shared whiteboard, shared chat and private chat + audio & video. You need the server software to be able to link up several people at once, and that seems to be priced at a level which requires it to be bought by an educational organisation, rather than a single department or school.

The main difference from the old CUSeeMe programme is that it works! We've got the bandwidth now to be able to link up computers in real-time. One of the features that I see as a main strength is that it's multi-platform: Windows, Linux + Mac.

We've only been using the system for about 2 months so far, but we've been very impressed. Here are some of the things our system has been used for so far:

1. Lessons at remote sites - involving both 'lectures' and group work, where students take over and make their own presentations.

2. Helping individual students who don't live anywhere near any of the Study Centres where we run ISDN-based video conferences … people who live in places like Abu Dhabi.

3. Tutorial help for students from Sweden, who're studying part of the term at the University of Aberystwyth - less work for us all to do when they come 'home'.

4. Students are using the system quite independently of us to prepare for lessons and group sessions. It saves them from having to drive 30 miles each way for a face-to-face session, and it's more functional than a telephone.

Here are a couple of the extra things we're planning to do with it in the autumn:

1. Linking up a primary school in Sweden with an equivalent school in Manchester so that pupils in each place can talk to each other, and show each other pictures and text documents they have on their hard disks. The plan is to include a link between UK ESL pupils and Swedish pupils learning English. One idea is to send the Swedish students out with a digital camera to make a 'day in my life' presentation.

2. Using it to help teacher trainees out on school-based training. It'll certainly facilitate contact with teaches here at the college, but we want to set up student self-help groups too where they can swap teaching ideas and plan lessons together. Another idea is to set up a webcam in a classroom, so that we can observe more lessons, since we don't have to travel to the school.

----------

I'm sure that other people are using similar systems. Do you have any stories to tell?

Edited by David Richardson
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Robert O' Dowd has created two websites full of information on videoconferencing and telecollaboration:

Videoconferencing: http://www3.unileon.es/personal/wwdfmrod/videoc.html

Telecollaboration: http://www3.unileon.es/personal/wwdfmrod/collab

Videoconferencing is obviously of interest to language teachers and language learners. See Section 14 of Module 1.5 at the ICT4LT website:

http://www.ict4lt.org

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Thanks for the links, Graham. They're great for finding out how video conferencing and teleconferencing work, if you've never done it before.

The system we've started using is designed for desk-top conferencing, which adds 'synchronous' audio and video' (i.e. you can speak to the people on the other end and hear them at the same time that they can hear you and speak to you) on an individual basis. In our experience this is adding an extra dimension to the exchange. Fora, like this one, are a great way of carrying on a discussion, if you don't mind a slight time delay, but imagine what it would be like if we could talk to each other in real-time and put up our documents and links directly.

We use ISDN video conferencing extensively, and will carry on doing so as long as we have access to the technology. That's a great way of bringing small groups of people together, and we're currently using around 25 centres spread out over a geographical area the equivalent of London-Bristol-Liverpool-Leeds. Of course, you need studios, technicians, an investment of around £50,000 per site, a booking system, the use of a bridge at around £12/hour/site, etc.

This new technology works on an more individual basis (though I saw Dr Phil using Apple's iChatAV programme with a whole family on the other side of the country on TV yesterday!), and has one feature that ISDN video conferences don't have: the ability to show and then save (at both ends) documents and pictures from your hard disk. You can show documents at an ISDN video conference, but only as hard copies.

Once someone has invested in the server software, it doesn't cost anything extra for the participants to join in. All they have to do is to download the client software, connect up a webcam (if they want us to see them), and go for it.

SUNET (the Swedish University Computer Network) has set up trial versions of several of the available desktop systems. Their site (in English) can be found at:

http://www.meetings.sunet.se/

They've put out a fairly extensive review of the various systems in English. The forum at that site is in Swedish, though.

If anyone wants to try our server out, just get in touch and I'll send you the exact details of how to do it.

Edited by David Richardson
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Guest Andrew Moore

I have begun to use a conferencing/virtual classroom system - a client program with video and, more important, two-way audio, messaging, asking structured questions, feedback systems and more. Most of the desktop/monitor is taken up by shared applications - browsing, whiteboards, and so on.

At the moment, I am using it in training for teachers/mentors and demo purposes (which is a good way to become proficient in its use). The client program is free, but we pay a licence to use the system that coordinates it.

It will be one of various technologies that we use to set up and run a digital school (initially in our region, Yorkshire, but ultimately distributed widely - nationally, internationally, globally...)

If you would like to give the Virtual Classroom a try, please get in touch via the forum. And if you think that you have found a very good solution, then please do name names... In due course, I will say something about particular classes, and maybe even be looking for teachers and mentors (anywhere in the world...)

On the other hand, I am convinced that one can do much with a combination of free or inexpensive tools - a message board, like this, e-mail, and, above all instant messaging and net-meeting systems. My regional grid is working to provide an open-source messaging system, and this will also be important in establishing a digital workplace. One needs some reasonable security for some things (portfolios of work), but also systems that are welcoming and usable, or users will stay away...

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Naming names …

The system we're using is called Marratech, and you can download the client software to use it from:

http://www.marratech.com

We're in the early days of using the system right now - our university only bought the server software at the beginning of January. The things we've done with the system so far include:

• running a technical English course between Kalmar, Oskarshamn and Västervik (a geographical range rather like Lincoln to Newcastle), where students have been using the system both to plan presentations independently and to participate in on-line lessons

• individual tutoring of 'remote' students in places like Abu Dhabi and Stockholm

• lots of planning conferences

If the University of Aberystwyth's computer department are kind to us, we'll shortly be using the system to tutor Swedish students who're spending 10 weeks at Aberystwyth at the moment. At the same time they're writing a mini-thesis for teachers here in Sweden, and they need some 'hands-on' help.

I spent a couple of hours yesterday on-line to Missouri, Oregon and California to plan an input at the TESOL Conference in Long Beach, California in April. We're going to be the remote end of an on-line teaching materials presentation at one of the conference workshops.

Working from Sweden, I'm often struck by the relatively unsophisticated nature of US use of IT - strange to say. I realised last Autumn when we had an American visitor that the reason instant messaging is relatively unimportant here is that we've got a much better mobile phone network than they have. (The Swedish government refused to auction off 3G bandwidth, but instead granted 'free' licences only to those companies which demonstrated that they could actually build a 3G system that covered the whole country. 3G phones and subscriptions were this year's 'must have' Christmas presents.) One of the times the Americans really perked up was when I was describing the process of producing course material for Marratech and of integrating it in to the rest of the work on the course. My conclusion was that they'd been piloting it extensively, but hadn't managed to bring it in to their mainstream activities.

It's too early to say whether Marratech is the answer to all our needs! The big problem is bandwidth - too many people linking up at the same time = loss of audio and video. The student in Abu Dhabi has particular problems in that respect since a) there's a big difference in the quality of the Swedish and Abu Dhabian connections; and :lol: we haven't read the manual yet (which is actually somewhat of an endorsement of the system's ease of use!).

Sweden does have an extensive network of very well-connected Study Centres, though (at least one in each District Council area), so for most of our uses, bandwidth is not a problem. Most of the time, audio and video work excellently, even when we've got 6-10 computers connected to the network. A problem that is developing more and more is that it's getting harder and harder to find a time when the video conference studios are free. The marginal cost of building each extra video conference studio (and you need at least two at a time - one at each end) must be over 100,000 Swedish kronor (£8000 or so). The Marratech server software has cost us just under that amount on a one-off basis. Thereafter the marginal cost per connection is the price of a webcam (300 Swedish kronor), a headset (250 Swedish kronor) + perhaps an hour of someone's time downloading client software, setting it up and testing it (say, 400 Swedish kronor). You can get a lot of Marratech-equipped computers into the space used by a video conference studio, and you can use existing machines.

On the other hand, the most important aspect of the introduction of new technology, in my opinion, is the development of the pedagogical, administrative and budgetary framework within which it can be used. Since we started using the system, for example, we've had a very constructive on-going debate within the English group here about what it is we're actually doing as teachers, whether on-line or face-to-face. So even if we were to stop using the system tomorrow, it has already 'paid for itself' in terms of the in-service training and discussion about teaching it sparked off (and it's important to add that the system has been bought centrally - our Departmental funds haven't been tapped for it).

We're writing an application to the Swedish Council for the Renewal of Higher Education at the moment to fund development of the use of the system over a two-year period. Everyone in the English group has participated actively in the writing process, so far, which is nice. We probably won't get the money (Kalmar is not a very prestigious place!), but the university will probably fund us anyway. If we get the funding we'll start officially in January 2005 and create a website where we keep interested parties up to date with what we're doing.

Even if we don't, we'll be using the system extensively in the Autumn Term for lots of different things, and I'll keep this forum informed whenever I have the time.

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  • 3 weeks later...

We had a very interesting experience with Marratech last Friday. Last October we had a visit from Dr Chris Metress from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, one of our partner universities. Chris is an expert on American Literature, and we have a book called 'In Country' by Bobbie Ann Mason on the English 1-10p course this spring.

The course itself is being run at 14 different Study Centres over an area which is equivalent to Bristol - London - Nottingham - Manchester, and we connect up every second week via a bridge in Gothenburg (the other side of the country for me).

I really wanted my students to have an input from Chris since he has some interesting insights into the book - and he speaks in a lovely Southern 'Sweet Home Alabama' accent! However, Chris' university doesn't have an ISDN studio, and Chris isn't very practised with computers for this kind of application.

So … we tested Marratech between us, with him in a computer lab and me in my office, and on the big day we fed the Marratech input audio through the digital camera attached to the ISDN system, and broadcast the computer screen to all the centres. My students could all hear Chris perfectly, and they could see the shared whiteboard as he put up quotations and pictures. The only bit we haven't quite cracked yet is the students' audio in from their centres to Chris. We solved that by using me as an analogue interface … in other words, they asked me and I asked him (they could hear his answers directly).

This opens up a lot of interesting possibilities for us … any time we want to use inputs from off our campus, we can set up a link and an outside expert can speak for just a short time, without being vastly inconvenienced. As a matter of principle, I've got our university to pay Chris 8 hours at 25 euros/hour, the same rate we use for our Internet tutors in places like Singapore and Australia. It's not only right - it's also a case of building something into the budget, so that we can do the same next time too.

---------

I'm currently working on an arrangement with a local school to link up to a school in Manchester. The only requirement for the schools is to have an Internet connection + webcam and headset. Then pupils at both ends can see each other, speak to each other, draw things, show each other documents, etc. I've suggested that one exercise could be for pupils at each end to take pictures of things they do each day (eat breakfast, come to school, sit in the classroom, play in the playground, etc) and do a mini photo-documentary in real time for each other.

The beauty of it is, there's no technical restriction on any of you using our Marratech server to link up anywhere with anywhere else … If you want to give it a try, just let me know.

Edited by David Richardson
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  • 1 month later...
Guest Andrew Moore

I'm interested to check this out, but the Marratech site seems to be dead today.

Our system has some merits but several drawbacks.

Although the client is a free download, the reseller sells licences for use of the server sessions - so that it can be expensive to have large numbers of simultaneous users.

And it's available only for Windows - this is a big problem for me, as an advocate of open source products.

I'd like to find a conferencing system that is available either freely, as an open source development (is this the case with Marratech?) or where one pays a flat fee for a site licence, but has no restriction on the number of users, other than those that arise from the limitations of one's servers and networks.

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I'm fairly sure that Marratech *isn't* open source, although it is multi-platform (i.e. there are Mac and Linux versions available). The server software is what costs, but the client software is free. You're supposed to be able to do point-to-point video conferencing with the client software, but I've never tried that.

If you want to try out Marratech with me, just send me a mail and we'll decide on a time. We're using it all the time at the moment for all sorts of things (the Aberystwyth link-up has been very successful).

I'm a bit cynical about the claims of computer programmes … my judgement is that Marratech is the best one I've used to far, though. The whiteboard is excellent, the audio works very well indeed, but the video is still a bit iffy. However, in our practice, the video isn't quite so important.

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I have only dabbled in videoconferencing, but I wasn't that impressed. It seems to me that the work involved in preparing for a good videoconference outweighs the benefits. Our local school (Cox Green) experimented with videoconferencing for teaching French. They paired up with a school in France. Here's what the head of modern languages wrote about the experiment:

"A great idea, technically feasible especially if you have unlimited money. Did not work for us as the idea of regular one-to-one contact between students met the reality of different (and largely incompatible) school timings and adolescent embarrassment."

http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod3-1.htm

Robert O' Dowd has created two websites full of information on videoconferencing and telecollaboration in teaching modern languages:

Videoconferencing: http://www3.unileon.es/personal/wwdfmrod/videoc.html

Telecollaboration: http://www3.unileon.es/personal/wwdfmrod/collab

Viedoconferencing has often been a hot topic in the Linguanet Forum. There was a flurry of messages just a short while ago. See the archives:

http://www.mailbase.org.uk/lists/linguanet-forum

Regarding open source products, have you looked at Moodle? It's a VLE:

http://moodle.org

I don't think videoconferencing is enable within Moodle (yet).

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There's a lot in what you say, Graham, but I think it helps to keep two types of video conferencing separate from each other:

ISDN video conferencing needs studios, technicians, bridges and dedicated lines.

Desktop video conferencing needs a computer with a broadband connection, a cheap webcam and a headset.

I've been using ISDN video conferencing fairly regularly since 1991, and it's a bit old-fashioned here in Sweden now. There are about 240 study centres all over the country with studios, so there's no problem linking two studios up.

Desktop video conferencing is only just making its appearance, at least as *functioning* technology.

As you can imagine, there are all sorts of practical and administrative problems with ISDN video conferencing, mainly caused by the fact that they're a sort of resource bottleneck. You have to book them, you can only use special rooms, and the students have to turn up.

The sound and video are pretty good, though, and it's easy to set up activities which are genuinely communicative. I've done plenty of ISDN video conferences where there have been 50+ participants spread out over a very wide geographical area.

Desktop video conferencing is a different kettle of fish altogether. It's a small group activity, and people can do it from home, without prior booking. We've just started working with a new teacher, who lives about 500 miles away, for example, and we were able to link the three of us in the course team up from our respective apartments and go through lesson planning. That you can't do via ISDN video conferencing, unless you want the huge cost of a studio at home (and you can book a bridge).

The major advantage video conferencing gives to me as a language teacher is 'synchronous audio and video' - in other words different people can speak to each other and listen to each other at the same time from different places. It's a whole other experience than participating in a text-based chat, or posting entries on a discussion forum like this. The participants can also download the whiteboard at the end of the session too, and go over it again at their ease and leisure. And then, I can put up on the whiteboard more or less anything I've got on my hard disk. Very useful for showing phonetic symbols …

However, there's not much point in using it, unless there's some geographical or logistical point to it - easy to find in a big country like Sweden, less easy in more compact places!

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Desktop video conferencing needs a computer with a broadband connection, a cheap webcam and a headset.

This is exactly what my local school uses. They were given a grant to buy the desk-top system by a local business that has branches throughout the world and encourages language learning by making generous grants to education. It was the mainly the timetabling/preparation issues that put a damper on things.

I used a kit that cost 40 000 pounds at my university in the old days of multiple ISDN lines. I enjoyed using it but, again, a lot of work went into preparing for each videoconference so that we got the most of of it.

I hooked up a webcam to my system at home for a while and joined an online videoconferencing discussion group using NetMeeting. I gave up after a couple of weeks, however, as I was being bombarded by exultations to watch all kinds of interesting things going on in bedrooms around the world. But this may have been due to the way I set up NetMeeting. But once bitten, twice shy. I can only just cope with spam emails.

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I seem to type faster than I think these days: "exultations"? I meant "exhortations", of course. Maybe I was thinking of an "exaltation of larks". :)

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  • 1 month later...

Interesting thread.

Video conferening so far was still a question of affordability. I did various reserches regarding video conferencing. The currently most cost effective with an acceptable quality rating is iChat.

We use it for music lessons.

801-comp_setup1.jpg

And here is an insteresting Movie

For more technical data follow this Link

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I really like the long-distance music lessons!

I'm also a fan of iChatAV - I've used it to talk to classes of students in the USA from Sweden, for example. The quality is much higher than anything else I've seen, and it's such a shame that Windows users don't seem to have anything comparable available (please correct me if I'm wrong …).

There are two things that iChat hasn't got that we need sometimes: the ability to do multi-point conferences and the whiteboard.

Your experiences reinforce a point I make all the time to my campus-based colleagues: desktop video conferencing is a way of bringing experiences and expertise into a classroom which you wouldn't otherwise have access to.

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