Free Options for Internet Videoconferencing: Moving Beyond and Chat

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1 technology Del Siegle, Ph.D. Free Options for Internet Videoconferencing: Moving Beyond and Chat PProviding gifted and talented students with appropriate and intellectually stimulating learning opportunities that further their talent development can be a major challenge. This challenge can range from locating more advanced curriculum materials to helping gifted students explore an area of interest. While this challenge is particularly daunting for those in isolated areas or with limited resources, technology has enabled parents and educators to expand gifted students learning options with minimal expense. Although most users primarily view the Internet as a repository of knowledge that is easily accessible through a search engine such as Google, the Internet s simple capacity to connect users is an equally important strength. Most students and educators are comfortable with and use it on a daily basis, and most students and a few educators are comfortable with instant messaging and some also use it regularly; however, videoconferencing has not experienced the widespread use of these other communication tools. With the advent of Internet2 and the proliferation of high-speed Internet connections, two-way video transmission is now a viable teaching and learning option, especially given that it often utilizes existing equipment. The videoconferencing options that are described in this article require a computer with either a built-in or external Webcam and microphone. Most Apple computers, and some PCs, include built-in Web cameras and microphones. If a Webcam is not built in, one can be purchased for as little as $20. Videoconferencing Ideas for Students Gifted and talented students require access to expertise and advanced content across a wide variety of fields. Videoconferencing can provide enhanced interaction opportunities for gifted students to not only interact with experts from various domains, but also to interact with each other. Student videoconferencing projects fall into four categories: courses and tutoring, virtual field trips, multischool projects, and community events (AT&T Education, 2008). A number of educational opportunities exist within these categories. Because the technology to videoconference is inexpensive and easy to implement, the extent of its use is limited only by teachers imaginations. Students can share their interests and communicate first-hand via video with professionals in the field who share their passion for a given topic. This also can include extending traditional mentorships, as well as telementoring relationships, with interactive video meetings. Cooperative agreements can be established with other schools to share classroom instruction via videoconferencing for students who have outpaced their school s available curriculum. Many museums and zoos now offer virtual tours. Students can observe and interact with exotic animals housed in zoos anywhere on the planet. In addition, students in a classroom in rural Montana can roam backstage at a Broadway play via a cooperative theatre staffer who is armed 14 fall 2008 vol 31, no 4

2 with a simple laptop and wireless connection. Students can visually experience other students living environments and cultures. In addition to other countries, the United States contains a variety of cultures that students will find interesting, and students benefit from interacting with a variety of other students. Florida students can learn about local animals and customs from videoconferencing classmates in Alaska or New Zealand. Students in different areas can start a book club and discuss their reading online with each other. This may be particularly valuable for students in isolated or rural schools with limited numbers of gifted students. Students can connect to another class and develop and discuss projects. This might include joint data collection and sharing. Teachers or students can organize spelling bees, panel discussions, and debates among students across the Internet. These events allow students to interact with talent throughout the nation and world. Videoconferencing is a natural media for conducting interviews. Students can interview book authors, politicians, and a variety of experts. Videoconferencing also affords talented students opportunities to share their expertise with others. Students can possibly teach peers remotely. Videoconferencing opens the world to gifted students. It can be particularly effective for visual and auditory learners. It also may be a desirable learning format for some twice-exceptional students who are gifted and learning disabled. The interactive format of videoconferencing and the technology it involves also may increase some students motivation to learn. Free Videoconferencing Online Options Windows Live Messenger ( messenger.live.com or net) and AOL Instant Messenger ( are popular text messaging options that students have been using for a number of years. Both of these options also include a free videoconferencing feature. Skype ( is becoming a popular alternative Internet phone service that also features a free videoconferencing function. Each of these options is free but requires users to download special software and to register with a unique login and password. Although AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and Skype are available for Mac and Windows platforms, Helpful Planning Tips Expect something to go wrong and have a backup plan ready to fill the time scheduled for the videoconference. Test the equipment prior to the conference and, if at all possible, schedule a brief trial test with the other site or sites. Account for different time zones and possible holidays and vacations for those with whom conferences are scheduled. Have students conduct background research before the videoconference so they are adequately prepared and do not waste other conference participants valuable time. With multiple participants, state a person s name first before directing a question to him or her. Prior to conferencing, inform videoconference guests about the students with whom they will be interacting. With large-group videoconferences, use a video projector so students can see the conference more easily. This also allows some flexibility to reposition the Webcam. Windows IM is only available for the Windows platform. Recently, an alternative for videoconferencing has surfaced. MeBeam ( does not require a registration login or software installation. The remainder of this article will describe how to use MeBeam and Skype. Videoconferencing Could Not Be Easier Than MeBeam MeBeam can easily be accessed with any computer connected to the Internet. Only a Web browser, Flash player (usually installed with the Web browser, but freely downloadable from products/flashplayer), Webcam, and microphone are needed. Users simply visit the MeBeam site using their Internet browser and type a title for a video chat continued room they on page wish?? to create gifted child today 15

3 Figure 1. Creating and entering a videoconference is as easy as typing a conference name into a dialog box at Figure 3. Once access to the computer s camera and microphone are given, the user s video image appears. Figure 2. The multiple participant features of MeBeam allows educators to create interactive video sessions with up to 16 participants located at various sites. (see Figure 1). The system automatically creates a video chat room for up to 16 people. Participants can then invite others to join the video room by giving them the room s URL. Each participate enters the URL into a Web browser or visits the MeBeam site and enters the common video chat room name into the entry box to join the videoconference. As individuals enter the video chat room, additional video windows appear (see Figure 2) with their video images. This service is free and can be used without any registration information. Once a conference name has been entered, the system requests permission to access the video and sound devices on the user s computer (see Figure 3). As soon as users select the Allow radio button, their video image should display. As additional people enter the Web address and join the conference, additional video windows appear. A conference with 16 people talking could be difficult to follow, so some conference control options appear when users click on the participants video images (see Figure 2). Users can mute their own microphone by clicking the MIC text on their own image. They can stop all incoming audio by clicking Figure 4. The microphone sensitivity is adjusted by clicking on the microphone icon within the settings option on the user s video image. on their SILENCE text. They can select their video and audio input devices and adjust their microphone sensitivity by clicking on the settings text (see Figure 4). They can mute the audio from any other participant by clicking on the MUTE options on that participant s video window. They can replace the video image of any participant with a colored box by clicking on that participant s FADE text. Finally, they can hold private conversations with a given participant by clicking on that participant s Private text. Each of these features makes MeBeam one of the most user-friendly videoconferencing options available. 16 fall 2008 vol 31, no 4

4 Figure 5. Skype requires a registered user name and password. These can be requested from the login screen. Figure 6. Videoconference contacts can be located through the Skype Add a Contact feature. River P Using the Internet Phone Features of Skype Skype has become a popular Internet-based telephone option that has replaced traditional phone service for many people. The company offers free voice and video calls between personal computers connected to the Internet. For a fee, users also can call standard phone numbers from their personal computers. To use the system, Skype software must be downloaded from the Internet ( The user also must set up a Skype Name and Password. These are used to log into the Skype network (see Figure 5). Using these IDs, Skype users call each other through their computers. Users can search the Skype network for friends Skype Names (see Figure 6) and add these friends to their Contacts list. Calls are made by selecting the desired name in the contact list and clicking on the green telephone icon. The recipient also must be logged onto Skype when the call is placed; Skype can be running in the background. The recipient s computer will ring and the program will ask the recipient if he or she wishes to accept the call. Assuming the call is accepted, voice conversations can begin. If the pair wishes to videoconference, they click the Start My Video option near the bottom of the screen (see Figure 7) to begin videoconferencing (see Figure 8). The size of the video screens can be adjusted. Once Skype accounts are set up and the software is installed, videoconferencing is as easy as selecting a contact and clicking on the phone icon to make the We invite you to become a member of the Students, parents and teachers will receive a one-year membership with the following benefits: Certificate of Recognition Exclusive School and Member Directory Access to the AIFS Educational Planning Portal Scholarships Discounts Monthly E-Newsletter Criteria: students must provide a national test score of 95% or above, be enrolled in a gifted program, or have letters of recommendation. If you are interested in becoming a member of NSGT contact Emilia Musella, Membership Director at or by at continued on page?? gifted child today 17

5 Figure 7. Once an Internet call is connected, the Start My Video bar activates the videoconference. Figure 9. The author s 7-month-old daughter stays acquainted with her grandmother through Skype s free video option. New software products and Web sites are appearing every day. Educators and parents now can embrace this free technology to expand learning opportunities for their young charges. Figure 8. Windows within Skype display the caller and the recipient. The size of these windows can be adjusted to fit the screen. call. Although Skype requires more time to set up and connect than MeBeam, the current video quality is superior to some of the other options. Young people are attracted to and inspired by technology. Our infant daughter became fascinated with the computer when she was 4 months old. At 7 months, she stays acquainted with her grandmother who lives several states away through free Skype video calls (see Figure 9). Internet videoconferencing has matured extensively since the original CUseeMe software, and options that once seemed impossible are now commonplace. New software products and Web sites are appearing every day. Educators and parents now can embrace this free technology to expand learning opportunities for their young charges. With minimal equipment and setup time, videoconferencing can open new worlds for gifted students. GCT Reference AT&T Education. (2008). Videoconferencing ideas and examples for schools, colleges, and libraries. Retrieved July 1, 2008, from 18 fall 2008 vol 31, no 4

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