I have previously written about the various different video conferencing technologies we use at the University on this blog, and although this post isn't going to cover a new technology, I am going to talk about an exciting change to an existing technology.
CiCS supported a trial of WebEx across the University earlier this year, and colleagues from a number of different departments had a chance to use the technology. WebEx is an enterprise-level desktop video conferencing solution. Participants can join meetings using Linux, PC's, Mac's and mobile devices. What makes it different from other web conferencing solutions, such as Google Talk or Skype, is that participants do not need to set up an account, which does remove a possible barrier to connection.
WebEx has features common to many desktop video conferencing platforms, such as video chat, screen sharing and the ability to schedule meetings in advance. However, it also has more advanced features; such as the ability to join meetings via telephone, record sessions and upload files to the meeting space so participants can view them before, during and after the meeting.
During our trial, the platform was used for a number of different purposes, including job interviews (with external candidates), meetings with colleagues from outside the institution, conference participation and student supervision. Clearly, the area that is most relevant to this blog is student supervision, as students could meet with academic supervisors in disparate geographic locations. As well as having a video chat, students can present, share documents, as well as recording their session for review / reference later.
All of this is a great, but there is a monthly charge for the WebEx service, which would probably put off many casual users. Similar services are freely available, such as Google Hangouts, Meetings.io, Anymeeting etc. However, in a first for the company, WebEx has recently launched a free version of their WebEx Meetings service. The major limitation to WebEx Basic is that meetings are restricted to three participants. This will clearly limit the service for people looking to host online classes or webinars, but for a remote meeting between two parties, such as the example outlined above with the student and academic, this could be ideal. The table below shows the differences between the Premium and Basic accounts.
Before this post turns into a wholesale advert for WebEx, it's important to note that my experiences with the platform haven't always been gratifying. It struggles to work over wireless. Sometimes it makes you install software, sometimes it does not. Desktop sharing can be almost unbearably sluggish. Audio for the conference is not turned on by default. Even with the fastest wired connection, and decent computer, full screen video does not look as good as I think it should. And, what I think is most unforgivable; WebEx will continually crash if you try to use it with a USB headset and a Mac. This is something which I think is quite frankly unacceptable, and has been a problem for people for almost a year and a half now.
I'm sure that some of you will have had similar problems with other video conferencing platforms, and will be familiar with some of the above. It can often be the case of finding the 'least bad' video conferencing system for your needs, rather than the most perfect. If you think WebEx could work for you, I would love to hear about your experiences.