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.