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Technical woes – do online meeting systems really work?

February 8th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

I spent a lot of time yesterday evaluating ‘virtual classrooms’ or spaces for online simultaneous communication.

The background: over the last two years I have recognised, presented and participated in a considerable number of seminars, workshops and conferences using Elluminate. Whilst it has its bad days, in general Elluminate is reliable and I am fairly confident in getting people online and in facilitating communication on the platform. So when I was asked to help organise an online course for careers guidance professionals, I based it around a mix of self directed activities using PBWorks and simultaneous online sessions in Elluminate.

Then came the problem. Elluminate is a Java based application and requires both Java to be installed and the opening of a couple of ports which are sometime closed by systems administrators. Indeed the ports had been closed but that obstacle could be overcome. But, for one reason or another (I am not quite sure what), the application could not be got to run on Windows XP machines on the clients network. So I was left looking for an alternative.

First on the list was Net Webinar. I was not much taken by this given the web page marketing hype (and the price) but we had been recommended to use it by our client. It is Applet based avoiding the need for Java or downloads and I could set up a free month’s trial. The application seemed very much to emphasise the role of the presenter. There was no shared whiteboard and the main role of participants seemed to be to ask text questions. Sadly last night the person I was collaborating with was unable to access the webinar I set up (I suspect an issue with Windows 7 netbook version). Today I tried again with another colleague and it all worked quite well but I couldn’t hear any audio from her. The manual is also curious, seeming to focus more on toll paid telephony than anything else!

Next we looked again at Flash meeting. Although I use it regularly for project meetings I had never tried it with the whiteboard and tools enabled. For interactivity, this requires each user to have their own account. Furthermore the design does not really work, neither are the presentation tools far developed. Flash meeting is as the name suggests a meeting tool, I think.

On to DimDIm. I like the design, although functionality is limited by only five microphones being available. And the big failing of many of these system seems to be that the Flash system they use is unreliable. When switching between modes – whiteboard, presentation etc. it seemed to do things to my audio. And this morning, trying it amongst three of us, one person could hear everyone, whilst two of us could not hear each other. Promising but two buggy to risk with a non techie audience.

At this point I tried a skype shout out. The first reply was from Nergiz Kern. “NergizK @GrahamAttwell @cristinacost Maybe a bit unconventional but what about http://www.scribblar.com/ ? (If all else fails).” I liked the approach , unconventional or not. But once more the audio failed miserably. On skype someone (by now I have forgotten who) recommended WizIQ. oh dear, the moment I tried to invite Cristina Costa (who by now I had inveigled as a fellow tester), the whole site went crazy on me. Things were moving all over the place. More Flash problems I suspect. Another one ruled out.

I tried another two systems this morning. Similar results. With he notable exception of Flash meeting, the implementation of Flash in these systems seems very buggy. It might work on a good day for most people. Or it might not. And even in Flash meeting we spend a lot of time saying “can you hear me.”

I didn’t try Adobe Connect. I cannot afford it. And the trial version is too limited to use for the sessions I am trying to organise. It should also be remembered that Elluminate is not free – it is just that I am lucky to have access to an install.

So my conclusion – Flash doesn’t really work. And none of the free systems are yet good enough for working with non technical first time users. Disappointing really. My latest thinking is to re-jig the session and use an embedded slidecast, along with an embedded chat room in PBWorks. It is all free and with a bit of luck and a following wind it might work. Or perhaps to use Edmodo.

I’d be very interested to hear of your experiences of using these, or any other online seminar or workshop tools.

5 Responses to “Technical woes – do online meeting systems really work?”

  1. We’ve had Elluminate on our system at college, to enable some of our students from Hong Kong to communicate with their own university & with the University of Liverpool. Technically, it did require a bit of configuration – which your average user would not be able to undertake on an institution network.
    I’ve used DimDim with some fellow postGrad students as part of an OU course. Yes, it’s free -but, as you said – it is limited & passing the mic caused all sorts of audio issues. Participants were in Saudi, Italy, Switzerland, UK & Canada (if I remember correctly) – so it did function well across those geographic ranges. pity about the audio.
    There was another ‘free’ application – but I can’t remember the name. It was OK but again there was audio loss for some participants.
    Our JISC RSC use Adobe Connect – which is good – but as you say, it’s the cost.

  2. Hello Graham,

    I think it’s time to try Second Life…

    It works really great in audio/chat conference. I’m not a big fan of SL but I’ve tried it in a task that I’ve presented with my #mpel3 collegues.

    We talked about Twitter -> http://www.slideshare.net/nelasport/twitter-3008717 – I was main speaker and we got a good feedback.

    Paulo Simões

  3. Telmea Story says:

    Check out Big Blue Button. It is an open source webinar tool very much like Elluminate, audio, video, chat, screensharing etc.

    BBB has a test server set up at the main .org site and an active BigBlueButton-Dev discussion going on Google Groups. Worth a look!

  4. Zak Mensah says:

    Its great to read about your uses. In september 2009 we launched our fortnightly online help for the community using Elluminate http://www.jiscdigitalmedia.ac.uk/surgery/

    We use that system because we have access to it, but recently have been looking for alternatives including most of which you have also played with. I have used Adobe connect in the past and found it to be the best so far BUT the cost means that very few have it (Adobe seem to be missing a trick here). Elluminate works ok but its interface is pretty average and not that intuitive for many hence looking at other options.

    The result of all of this is that many systems claim to work but in reality do not even jump the first hurdle of getting connected. As a backup, we use skype and put materials online outside of elluminate (e.g. vimeo/youtube and slideshare).

    If you do find a better solution do let us know,

    Regards

    Zak

  5. Dan LeBlanc says:

    Your review of online meeting systems was very in-depth and I certainly appreciate the feedback on Elluminate Live! and your experiences.

    I wanted to take this opportunity to offer some assistance and guidance regarding your concerns regarding Elluminate Live!, specifically regarding your issues you mention below.

    Elluminate is a Java based application and requires both Java to be installed and the opening of a couple of ports which are sometime closed by systems administrators. Indeed the ports had been closed but that obstacle could be overcome. But, for one reason or another (I am not quite sure what), the application could not be got to run on Windows XP machines on the clients network. So I was left looking for an alternative.

    You are correct in that Elluminate Live! is a Java based application that requires both Java to be installed and ports to be open. To accommodate individuals who may have ports blocked and a more restrictive network, the Elluminate Live! client will attempt its connection on several ports simultaneously, intelligently selecting the route for the best experience. Port 2187 is used by default but will fall back to port 80 if necessary, as most people have port 80 open for web surfing.

    This is the point where it can be more involved and difficult for certain situations. Should the client computer connect through a proxy server and require settings, it is possible that these settings were required to be entered into the Elluminate Live! client as well for proper access on any one of the accessible ports.

    This is one scenario that can be frustrating and difficult to manage for some individuals. I would love to speak with you, should you wish to investigate your problem. Please feel free to contact me should you wish to discuss this further.

    It was a pleasure reading your article and reviewing your findings. Elluminate strives to provide the best experience possible and if we can help you in any way please let us know.

    Best Regards,

    Dan LeBlanc
    Manager, Technical Support
    Elluminate, Inc.
    http://www.elluminate.com

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