Ashanti Morgan

What to Expect When Syncing: Best Practices using Video Conferencing Tools

Technology is changing how we do everything. Gone are the days of classroom strategies that focus solely on using static content to engage students. Thanks to high-definition (HD) video ubiquity in mobile devices, tablets, laptops, etc., engaging in real-time (instantaneous) with folks across the globe without leaving home is feasible and affordable. To take it a step further, video conferencing, or as some may describe as web conferencing, webinars (web seminars), or webcasts, enables online collaboration with limitless implications for student engagement, in the US and abroad.

The formal definition of video conferencing, as defined by Merriam Webster, is:

  1. a method of holding meetings that allows people who are in different cities, countries, etc., to hear each other and see each other on computer or television screens.
  2. the holding of a conference among people at remote locations by means of transmitted audio and video signals

While there are a number of solutions that exist to host virtual meetings, it’s important that standard features embedded in these systems are easy to use and work seamlessly during an online session. Some of the more common features include the ability to stream HD video, instant chat, screen sharing, recording, and the use of a whiteboard to jot down important points during the meeting. While nothing compares to face-to-face interaction, these tools help connect users in ways that a teleconference (see definition) are incapable of doing.

Some of the usual suspects—Skype, Webex, Gotomeeting, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Adobe Connect, Avaya Scopia, Blue Jeans, Polycom, etc.—have worked tirelessly to create user interfaces that are intuitive and function with minimal to no latency issues. In order to make an informed decision, it’s important to develop and prioritize the functionality that’s paramount to a successful implementation for “you.”

Now that you’ve been sold on the idea of integrating a video conference solution into your course, there are two big ideas that must be considered:

  1. What options exist for implementation?
  2. What’s most important when selecting a vendor?

In the following, I’ll unpack the major factors that impact video conference solution decision-making and then I’ll address in detail a look at implementation models.

Implementation Models

There are three primary methods for video conference collaboration in higher education. Depending upon your needs, you may use one or all models for different pedagogical scenarios. The implementation models include:

  1. One-to-One (Peer-to-Peer): this model focuses on two individuals connecting using a system. In some instances, an individual may connect to the video conferencing system to record content without another person present.
  2. One-to-Many: this model is most commonly used and works best with lots of interaction to keep participants engaged.
  3. Classroom-to-Classroom: the classroom connection model is optimal for international (or domestic) collaboration. A focused and strategic agenda will create a dynamic experience for end users.

Let’s take a closer at these models in action. You’ll note that the use case scenarios list specific examples of how you might use video conference technology in your classroom or meeting.

Implementation Model Classroom Use Case Examples
One-to-One
  • Office hours (student-to-faculty)
  • Faculty planning meetings (faculty-to-faculty)
  • Student group project (student-to-student
  • Study groups
  • Pre-record content (e.g., lectures) for future dissemination
One-to-Many
  • Guest lecturers
  • Faculty lecture
  • Student oral presentations
  • Virtual field trips
  • Conduct demo
  • Faculty forum
Classroom-to-Classroom
  • Connect classrooms globally using one device (e.g., Polycom-to-Polycom, Polycom-to-Zoom)
    • Pre-video conference, online connections using asynchronous (delayed time) tools
    • Guest speaker
    • Embed interactive activity
  • Conduct labs
  • Conduct interviews

Make sure that the video conferencing tool includes the following key features prior to selecting a tool:

  • Screen share: share your desktop, application (such as Microsoft PowerPoint,Excel), etc. to help explain difficult concept or conduct a presentation
  • Whiteboard: great for taking notes, brainstorming, explaining a complicated concept, etc.
  • Instant chat: participants can chat with the entire group or individuals within the group
  • Record meeting: record the entire video conference interaction so that it can be archived and reviewed later
  • Breakout rooms: great segmenting a large group into smaller, manageable groups for collaboration
  • Poll audience: gauge how participants reaction to topic by integrating closed ended questions

Solution Selection

With so many vendors to choose from, what factors need to be considered before choosing a solution? Here are my top three:

  1. Ease of use: can users access the platform with minimal to no issues? Is the system intuitive with functionality that’s easy to find and use?
  2. Features: what features exist and what’s the value in using them?
  3. Cost effective tools: what’s the best tool for the price point?

The Blue Jeans video conferencing system developed a very nice infographic (see it here) that highlights key factors for using video conferencing. In it, they detail five things to consider when deciding on a system:

  1. Ability to connect with any device
  2. Remains reliable wherever you are
  3. Affordable and easy to use
  4. Scalable and allows any to join
  5. External meetings are easy and enjoyable

It goes without saying that conducting a pilot test (perhaps multiple iterations) is paramount to determining the best tool for you. In the sample comparison matrix below, a few video conference tool features are shown side-by-side. The customized list of factors were most important for a successful higher education implementation. Creating a list of tool features is critical to narrowing down the best application for your needs.

Sample Video Conference Comparison Matrix

comparison-matrix

Notes:

  1. Google Hangouts requires use of the “Hangouts On Air” feature to save meeting videos to YouTube.
  2. Skype requires a third-party application to record sessions.
  3. Zoom drawing tools are available to all users when any user shares his or her screen.
  4. Drawing tools are only available to the user who is currently presenting.

* “Can Join Via Link,” means each meeting has a unique URL you can easily copy and share with many students at once. Skype does not provide a meeting URL, which means you must invite students by adding their user IDs one by one to a list within Skype.

Sample Zoom Interface

Without endorsing one product over another, I’ve include a sample user interface in a video conference that was hosted in Zoom. There were approximately 20 individuals on simultaneously during a one and half hour session. None of the participants had issues connecting or staying connected throughout the entire experience. In my experience, it’s rare to find a tool that has no latency issues for a larger group of participants.

zoom-interface

Best Practices for a Successful Implementation

Once you’ve done the hard work of vetting solutions and making a decision, it’s important to test the environment to ensure it works well. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include lessons learned from my personal experiences implementing on a large scale. Here are some tips for you to consider:

  • Conduct system test: include instructions for participants to test their system using web-based tools from the vendor. It’s strongly encouraged that you also include testing windows for participants to join in a week or so prior to launching.
  • Setup technology support during session: establish an in-house staff member that you can rely on to provide support prior to a large video conference session. Also, developing concise step-by-step directions on system setup (e.g., iOS mobile device, Mac, PC) is a great way to control support concerns. Vendor tutorials are also helpful, so be sure to use them as well.
  • Rules of engagement: establishing ground rules that explains how to ask questions, etc. is good so that netiquette issues won’t arise. Walk participants through features before beginning and include a note about technology issues; if someone has an issue, make it clear how they should obtain support during the session.
  • Prepare an interactive experience: if you’re planning to engage a large group of students, create an agenda that requires peer interaction and content that is minimally focused on lecturing to students. If you’re using a presentation, consider using a tool like Google Slides. It’s a great way to conduct a collaborative presentation or share your presentation with participants once the session has ended.

In the end, it’s all about planning and testing. Once you’ve established a system that works best for you, execution will be simple and scalable.

Ashanti Morgan

About Ashanti Morgan

Ashanti Morgan is a Senior Instructional Technology Consultant and Program Manager for the Global Learning Experience (GLE) initiative at DePaul University. She also teaches computer productivity courses online as an adjunct professor in DePaul's School for New Learning. Ashanti has been working in the instructional design industry for over a decade in a variety of sectors including higher education, K-12, and non-profit. In her current role at DePaul, she manages faculty training, strategic planning, and global course development for the GLE program, an initiative that exposes students to intercultural exchanges while collaborating virtually with students abroad. She also provides instructional design expertise to faculty in a variety of disciplines across the university. Ashanti earned her master’s degree in Instructional Technology from Northern Illinois University. She also obtained her bachelor’s degree in Organizational & Corporate Communication from Northern Illinois University.

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