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Videoconferencing on the Cheap

I wouldn't have believed the quality until I saw it for myself, but using Skype Video was really great. A couple of features really stood out:

1. Tunnels video through port 80 so it is easy to traverse the school district firewall – no network setup or extra permissions from network administrators.

2. Video could be expanded to full screen, with good resolution for a web cam (not great) but good enough.

3. Skype's experience with VOIP shines through on the audio, with no echo. That's right – voice cancellation.

4. Possibility of multi-point with Festoon .

Thanks to Shawn for pointing out this Skype feature.

Helping Ontario K-12 Educators to Connect Using Videoconferencing

InteractiveClassroom.caI have been working on a videoconferencing community web site over the last little while and I thought I would give my blog readers a bit of a heads up. I used Joomla for the CMS and Simple Machines as the forum. I bridged the registration system between the two, and added modules which allowed for expanded functionality. Some preliminary content has been added, but we are all hoping for a much broader scope as more community members join.

This new web site is being developed for Ontario K-12 educators interested in interactive distance education. The web site will officially launch in the middle of June.

It provides information for educators who are just beginning to experiment with using videoconferencing in their classrooms to those who have been using interactive distance learning for years. Created out of a need for Ontario educators to support each other through their videoconferencing experience, the web site was developed through the cooperation of educators across the province, and continues through their support.

Educators can use the web site to organize local, national or international interactive distance learning projects, get technical assistance, or network with others that share similar interests through the interactive forums, contacts database, and social networking tools. A public aggregator republishes feeds from around the world, and a links directory help educators to find current videoconference events and information.

Membership is free.

If you are interested in participating beyond becoming a member of the community please feel free to contact me.

Please spread the word.

Expedition Everest

I took another look at great project that came out of the Ottawa-Carleton
District School Board and Telecom Ottawa, called Expedition Everest. The event took place over the early part of last year, where Ben Webster and Shaunna Burka climbed Mt. Everest. Students met with the climbers through video logs, audio clips and through internet chats. Teachers met for a week at Algonquin College developing the curriculum around the Everest summit attempt. Students used Blackboard to collaborate asynchronously with each other, as well as synchronously through videoconferencing.

If you haven’t stopped by the event website I encourage you to take a look at the archived audio, video and chat transcripts.
Expedition Everest – The Climb of a Lifetime | OCDSB

Purchasing Videoconference Equipment – Guiding questions

Deciding on the right videoconference equipment to suit your board or school needs can be quite a challenge. You need to start off the process by asking the right questions.

What is your budget?

This question will immediately narrow down your choices of venders as well as options. A smaller budget might be limited to webcams and headsets, while a larger budget would include a higher end camera and audio system.

How do you plan to use videoconferencing? (person to person, person to many people, many people to many people)

This will influence your decision and can mean the difference between spending a hundred dollars or a few thousand dollars. A person to person conference over the internet can be done using a webcam and microphone over existing software that is freely available like iChat, or MSN Messenger. A person to many conference may require more expensive equipment to help everyone in the room access the content in the same way.

Will you need to use video and data conferencing to share your computer screen with the end users or do other types of collaboration?

Are you planning to do PD events or videoconferences that require staff and students to share their computer screens for presentations or collaborations with the remote site. If so, then the equipment that you choose needs to support this feature.

How will you ensure a quality audio/video connection?

You may need to investigate network software/hardware that will help ensure that bandwidth on the network will be dedicated to the videoconferences when they occur, this could mean QoS (Quality of Service) software or a hardware bridge to boost signal throughput. Something to remember: you may have large bandwidth and great connections within your board intranet, but when you are going out over the internet all bets are off.

What type of connections will you need to support?

The remote sites that you plan to connect will support certain videoconference protocols or methods. There is a move to standardize connections but it is still a bit of the Wild West. Make sure that the equipment that you purchase will support the widest standards possible including the H 323 and all its variants, as well as newer standards like SIP. Make sure that the software on the videoconference unit is easily upgradeable and that you do not need to make another hardware purchase just to keep up with videoconference standards.

If the remote site only supports ISDN (most don’t), then you need to ensure that your equipment supports ISDN as well as IP based connections.

What kind of warranties and support will you get from the vendor?

Check if the vendor will continue to update new standards on your equipment without charging you to do it and for how long will the support last. Make sure that the videoconference unit works well with other vendors. If you are planning to do videoconferences with remote sites you need to feel assured that your equipment will work with other vendors equipment.

The Videoconference Cookbook is another great resource if you would like to learn more about videoconferencing. It gets into more details.

A New Videoconferencing Model (well not so new)

Videoconferencing equipment is expensive, but it is more costly to keep them in a closet. A few boards in Ontario have invested thousands of dollars in order to carry out meetings or have administrators in remote schools talk to each other via videoconference. But there is a better model for distributing this technology to benefit students directly.

When multimedia projectors were first on the market they were hard to get. There were a few around, but you would have to beg to borrow it or travel to some far-off place to pick one up. Now they seem much more prevalent in schools. You see it at staff meetings, meet the teacher nights, student presentations, even the occasionally classroom movie. It is more commonplace.

So if videoconference equipment is like the multimedia projectors of the past, how can we improve on the model?

Well the idea isn’t revolutionary. Give the videoconference equipment to the classroom teachers and watch what happens. Purchase equipment specifically for the purpose of using it in the classroom, then create a plan for getting it in the classroom.

If we can get the technology in the hands of innovative teachers and start a borrowing model and use it to set up presentations with remote sites, we can provide unique educational experiences for our students. This would require some interdepartmental partnerships to develop at the school board level, getting the equipment delivered to the school, setup, testing the connection, and then carrying out the conference.

Just like the multimedia projector, it could be more common to see purchased at the school level. As educators become more confident using videoconferencing as a learning tool, the idea of connecting to resources half way around the world will become commonplace. An educator doing a unit on Australia could connect to the resources that they need by bringing the Melbourne Zoo to the students.

You can find a large database of remote sites with educational content that can be used in your classroom at the Polycom Website.

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