Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Webconferencing Platform

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1 1 21st Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning click here -> Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Webconferencing Platform Richard A. Berg Instructional Design/Distance Education Specialist Instructional Communications Systems University of Wisconsin-Extension Rosemary Lehman, Ph.D. Senior Outreach/Distance Education Specialist Instructional Communications Systems University of Wisconsin-Extension Webconferencing is a technology that allows synchronous, two-way, interactive communication between two or more parties via the World Wide Web. Webconferencing may also include the transmission of voice and/or video. As travel budgets shrink and the need for distance education opportunities rise, Webconferencing has become a popular way for many organizations to hold meetings, disseminate information, and deliver instruction. However, with over 100 different products available (Woolley ), choosing the right product to meet your needs can be a daunting task. In some cases, the decision to purchase a product is made solely on the price of the product or the pitch of a salesman. An informed purchase is one that is far more likely to serve the needs of the users. (Figure 1) Purchasing a product should not be a one-person operation. You should assemble an investigation team (Figure 2) that includes representation of all components of your organization that will have some dealing with Webconferencing before and after it is implemented. These people should include clients, faculty members, trainers, facilitators, schedulers, technical and support staff, and administrators. While it may be difficult to coordinate this team, doing so will pay off in the long run. Before your team contacts a sales representative, a thorough needs analysis should be done to determine exactly what your organization requires. If possible, try to look down the road to see if there are any new needs that may arise. After completing the needs analysis, you will be ready to begin asking some questions. Once your team has been formed, you can explore different areas that will determine your decision. These areas and questions are not all-inclusive. If there are needs or areas unique to your organization, you should include them as part of your investigation phase. Demonstrations and Pre-purchase Testing Some products allow free testing or demos. If possible, have your team attend a demo, or get a free look at the product to see if it will meet needs identified in your needs analysis. If a free demo is provided, ask questions. Vendor Company History and Stability There are many competing Webconferencing products. Research may indicate whether a company is gaining or losing market shares, faltering financially, or about to be bought out. Products from companies that are unstable may have a very short life span.

2 2 21st Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning click here -> Plugins and Add-Ons If plugins or add-ons are required, they should be free, safe, and easy to install. On some networks, security features will prevent them from downloading or installing. There should be other means to get copies of the plugins so that they can be installed while security features are disabled. You should also find out if any features that are normally in place, such as internal firewalls or pop-up blockers need to be disabled to allow the plugins to function. It is also important to know if they are only required for the session leaders or for everyone. Cross-Platform and Cross-Browser Usability If your organization uses different platforms or browsers, it will be important to find a product that will be usable by everyone. If you can download a free demo of the product, try using different platform and browser configurations to spot any potential problems. Check for a Web page with operating system and browser requirements for use. Connection Speed Requirements Some products require a high-speed connection, while others are usable on a dialup connection. If your users have different connection speeds, try to find a solution that will allow all of your users to connect without having to travel. Server Implementation If your organization is going to host the product, you need to know what size and type of server it will require. You will also want to know how hard it will be to configure that server, how hard it will be to implement the product on that server, and how much time your IT staff will need to maintain that server. Ease of Use for Session Hosts and Attendees Some products have all the bells and whistles imaginable. Unfortunately, they are sometimes difficult to use. Of course, ease of use will depend on how savvy your users are. Difficulty for one group of users may be ease for another group. If your users have a range of skills, you will want a product that can be used by individuals with limited skills sets. Ease of Converting Existing Materials for Use in the New Environment One frustrating thing for new technology users is not being able to convert their materials to a new delivery format. Find out what materials your users are currently employing and how easy it will be to integrate them with a new product. Session Host Tools As the number of products grows, the capabilities for session leaders increase. Common features are markup tools, whiteboards, chat, text questions, and polls. The tools available to hosts should match their needs. They should also be intuitive and easy to use. Sharing Tools with Attendees If leaders need interaction with attendees, they should have the ability to share tools with attendees or otherwise allow them input in the session. Some products give the host the ability to promote and

3 3 21st Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning click here -> demote attendees so that they have most of the same abilities as the host. Others give the host the ability to share control of tools with attendees. Accessibility If your user pool includes people with special needs, it is important to know if the product will be accessible to them. If the product is not readily accessible to people with special needs, it should be determined if reasonable accommodations can be made to provide them with full access and what these accommodations will cost. Scheduling Scheduling meetings varies greatly among products. The investigation team should determine the ease of scheduling a meeting. In some cases, a person may need to be hired to handle all the scheduling, especially if there will be many simultaneous sessions. In some organizations, users set up their own sessions. In others, everyone must go through a scheduler. It is important that the scheduling features can be configured to meet your organization s needs. Session Types Some products allow advance session setup, while others offer instant sessions. Some products have both possibilities. The investigation team should determine which session type most fits the needs of the organization and if one of the options can be disabled when both are offered. Session Entry and Security There are different options for meeting entry and security, depending on the product. The most common type of session entry is one that allows the attendees to simply go to a URL and automatically become part of the session. In one type, attendees go to a URL, but they must get permission from the host to enter the session. If the host does not grant permission, they will not be able to enter. In another type, the attendee goes to a URL and enters a session ID and/or password to enter the session. The most complex session entry type requires the scheduler or host to set up the meeting and make a specific attendee list. In this type of session, attendees must provide a specific password or other information to be allowed entry. Some products allow flexibility, while others have only one option. The team should find out what options are available and if one or more options can be disabled. It may also be necessary to have even more security for sessions. In this case, find out if additional security measures can be used, such as IP address verification or access control lists. Voice and Video Transmission Voice and video transmission via Webconferencing are increasing in popularity. There are problems associated with this, however. For these transmissions, users need an increased amount of bandwidth and a higher connection speed. Users with low bandwidth or slow connections will experience low quality at best. Another concern is whether the audio transmission is full- or half-duplex. If the audio is full-duplex, everyone should be able to speak and hear one another at the same time. If the audio is half-duplex,

4 4 21st Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning click here -> everyone in the session will not be able to speak and hear one another at the same time. The investigation team should determine whether or not users will have the available bandwidth and connection speeds to actually use the features. The need for these features should also be taken into consideration. It is hardly worth the trouble to use a video feed solely for the purpose of providing a talking head to students in a class. If there is to be two-way transmission of voice or video, the costs of equipping attendees with microphones, speakers and cameras will enter into the decision. In some cases, it may not be possible to equip attendees with the necessary hardware to obtain the full benefit of attending a session. If there is to be a large portion of the session information delivered via live video or audio, there will also be a question of whether or not the session will still be accessible to persons with special needs. Further, it is important to determine whether or not there are additional charges for the use of video or voice over IP. Also, ask if the product provides or requires a telephone bridge or other audio service in addition to, or instead of voice over IP. Customization of Features A product may contain a feature that you do not want your users to use. Being able to enable or disable features at the administrative level should be an option. You may also want a feature added that is not currently available. Find out if it is planned for a future release or if the vendor is willing to add it for you. If the vendor says yes to this feature and you decide to choose this product, make sure that the special feature is already in place before signing a contract. Post-Purchase Support If most users are new to Webconferencing, it is likely that there will be a need for post-purchase support for users and tech staff. The investigation team should determine what kinds of post-purchase support are available and what the charges are for these services. If the vendor does not provide training, the organization may need to hire a trainer that will help users learn how to use the product. It will be helpful if that trainer also has some knowledge of instructional design. Recording and Archiving of Sessions In some cases, someone may want to review the session. Some products provide a recording feature. If recording is available, it is also important to determine what options are available. Some options include screen and annotation capture, audio tracks synched with the video, alternate recording formats, and Web viewing or downloading. It should be decided who will record sessions, where they will be stored, and how long they will be kept. You may want to have session hosts make and store their own recordings, or to have one person in charge of making all the recordings. Pricing Structure The three most common pricing structures are the seat license, the charge per minute, and the room.

5 5 21st Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning click here -> A seat license structure is usually a monthly or yearly charge that allows one connection to a conference. This price is charged automatically, regardless of how much the seat is actually used. It usually also allows for simultaneous meetings. The price per minute is the structure most often used by Webconferencing service providers. This price per minute is charged only when the service is actually used. The room charge or flat-rate allows unlimited use by a specified number of users, and is charged monthly or yearly. This room cannot usually be divided into smaller rooms, so the chance for different simultaneous meetings is limited. Find out all the limitations and exclusions that apply to the particular pricing structure, and the cost of expanding the service. As competition grows, more pricing structures being developed, so check to see if the vendor has other pricing plans that may be more accommodating to your needs. Conclusion With so many different products, it can be difficult to make a decision on what will work best for your organization. However, with a good needs analysis and a team performing a thorough investigation, making the choice will be much easier. It will also ensure that the product that is chosen will be the one that will most closely match the needs of your organization. Reference Woolley, David R., (February 25, 2005) Web Conferencing - Online Meetings & Presentations Retrieved March 2, 2005 from Real-Time Conferencing: An Independent Guide to Software & Services Enabling Real-time Communication: Biographical Sketches Richard A. Berg is an Instructional Design/Distance Learning Specialist at Instructional Communications Systems (ICS), University of Wisconsin-Extension (UWEX) and a member of the ICS Instructional Design Team. He is also the lead trainer for WisLine Web, the webconferencing system used by University of Wisconsin Colleges, state agencies and state government. Address: Instructional Communications Systems The Pyle Center 702 Langdon St. Madison, WI Phone: Fax: Rosemary Lehman is Senior Outreach/Distance Education Specialist at Instructional Communications Systems (ICS), University of Wisconsin-Extension (UWEX) and manages the ICS Instructional Design Team. She holds a PhD in Distance Education/Adult Learning, and a Masters in Television/Media Critique. Publications include The Essential Videoconferencing Guide: 7 Keys to Success ( ICS, UWEX), Using Distance Education Technology: Effective Practices ( ICS, UWEX), book chapters and journal articles. Her research interests include the relationship of perception/ cognition/emotion/behavior to distance education instructional design, educational applications for media/technology, and the development of learning objects. Rosemary has keynoted/presented at state, national, and international conferences.

6 6 21st Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning click here -> Address: Instructional Communications Systems The Pyle Center 702 Langdon St. Madison, WI Phone: Fax:

7 7 21st Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning click here -> Figure 1. Action Chart.

8 8 21st Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning click here -> Figure 2. The Investigation Team.

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