Tag Archives: Desktop VC

The Problem with Free

As you know, I keep processing Skype vs. H.323 and other ramifications and changes in the videoconference world.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is how stable and sustainable a videoconference cart is. Our Polycom Viewstations from 1999 are for the most part still running! And teachers haven’t had to relearn how to use them in 11 years.

Some Free Videoconference Services

On the other hand, free services can be challenging. Free services I’ve heard mentioned in the last couple years include:

  • Oovoo
  • DimDim (oops, it’s gone already!)
  • Skype
  • TokBox (oops, it’s gone too!)
  • TinyChat
  • Can you think of any others?

Challenges of Free

  • Free services can have flaky, unreliable service. Think of the December 2010 2 day outage of Skype.
  • Think of the Delicious scare last December. The service could disappear just when you’ve gotten attached to it. (See Doug Johnson’s blog on tech longevity in the context of the Delicious scare)
  • Sustainability. You might try all these other free little VC tools. The quality is iffy & the site may go away.  You can certainly dabble in using it in your classroom; but if you want to do anything sustainable you need something you can count on.
  • Some teachers are happy to change up tech tools every six months or so. But many other teachers will not waste their time learning something they can’t count on being around in the future. Changing tech tools often jades them on technology and soon they don’t want to try anything new.
  • With free sites, often the product they are selling is YOU! Read more here. Do we really need that in education?!

What do you think? Does the “free-ness” of free tools outweigh the disadvantages? Or do you think we should be cautious and thoughtful about investing time and energy in free tools?

Multifunction Devices & Classroom Videconferencing

Recently, I read this post on the Radvision blog about multi-funtion devices vs. single-function devices. While Sagee was focusing on the Flip camera vs. the iPhone and other Smartphone, I couldn’t help but think about classroom videoconferencing.

Single Device
Would you rather have a single device that only does one thing: videoconferencing?

Multifunction Device

Or would you rather have a device that does multiple things: an interactive whiteboard plus a camera for videoconferencing:

Silvia Tolisano's class interviews an Olympian

A device that can:

  • Do Skype videoconferencing
  • Do standards-based videoconferencing
  • Display web pages and movies
  • Can use for drawing and concept maps
  • And much much more…

This is my vision for my schools: to provide a login to standards-based videoconferencing so that they can use whatever tool necessary to videoconference with whoever they want. All from the comfort of the classroom and using the “technology central tool” in their classroom.

What do you think?

Cameras for Desktop Videoconferencing

Yesterday I had a couple of excellent meetings with our district tech directors. We were discussing bringing desktop videoconferencing to our classrooms with interactive whiteboards or even just projectors to use as classroom based videoconferencing.

We had a great discussion on the different ways to do the web cameras. I had only been thinking about a basic under-$100 web cam. But they had some other creative comments.

Wide Field of View

Our Berrien Springs district has a long term collaboration with a school in Korea – using Skype. They have been experimenting with different webcams. They found that the teacher prefers a web cam with a wider field of view than the newer HD web cams that have a much narrower field of view.

In addition, they’ve been using a wireless mic with great success. Still waiting to hear which it is.

Document Cameras as Webcams

I learned yesterday that some document cameras can be used as a webcam. That if they come with a TWAIN driver, then they can be used as a USB webcam. But most document cameras only use USB to get pictures off the document camera; not as a webcam. Another district is considering whether they can find a document camera with enough features that can also be the camera for the videoconference. Imagine being able to use the same camera to show the class or a document. Could be easy for teachers.

Camcorders with USB Streaming

Remember when you could connect a camera via firewire to your computer and use that for your camera? We’ve mostly lost that functionality with USB connections. However, a couple tech directors shared about camcorders that could stream through USB. This would make an excellent camera for the desktop VC as well.

Not Standardizing

Someone suggested to me that I have our districts standardize all on the same webcam. But after hearing the discussion yesterday, I think we’ll get better research and ideas if we let them try out different options.

What webcams are you using? What do you prefer? What criteria are you using to choose? Please comment!

Monster Mayhem, Tornado Warnings, and More

Today was our first day of this year’s Monster Mayhem with Whirlidurb and Dallas. We had a busy, but learning-filled day! In addition to our monsters, we also had classes participating in the TWICE ASK programs on bullying with author Dana Lehman, and two connections with the Cleveland Zoo and the Lee Richardson Zoo. Here are some highlights and lessons:

Tornado Warnings

At about 9:15 when my first calls started coming up, the whole county was under a tornado warning. Originally it was till 10:00 am, but then extended to 10:45 am. Six of my videoconferences were affected.

I spent a goodly amount of time on the floor under a desk away from the window with my phone and laptop/Skype texting and messaging to rearrange, reschedule, and calm down involved educators. Four of the VCs we were able to reschedule for this afternoon.

Reflection question: What is the craziest thing you’ve done to make sure your videoconferences happened?

Monster Mayhem

Here are some of the monster pairs from today. Lots of great comparisons and discussions: what is the same? what is different? what could we have written better?

4th grade

5th Grade

1st Grade (I only caught pics for one pair of their monsters.)

TWICE ASK: Adventures at Walnut Grove & I Double Dare You

We also had several classes in the TWICE ASK program with author Dana Lehman, on two of her picture books: Adventures at Walnut Grove and I Double Dare You. Students asked questions about bullying and teasing, as well as the writing and publishing process. Great program!

The Cleveland Zoo

Another class connected to The Cleveland Zoo for their Boo! I’m a Bat program. Great session. Had two classes participate in last week’s program as well. Great visuals & costumes!

Desktop Videoconferencing

Finally, due to the tornado and a couple other problems, in one of my sessions, the teacher did the videoconference on her own! with a desktop videoconferencing solution that we are currently testing (and will remain unnamed). The software was installed on the teacher’s computer. Check out the video we received from them. Can’t tell the difference between this and a regular codec! Yay!

What a day! How did your VCs go today?

I Have a Dream: Giving VC to People Off My Network

I have a dream!

  • I want to give a login to my (as yet undetermined) desktop videoconferencing solution to an author in her home so she can talk to my students.
  • I want to give a login to a guest speaker my teacher invited to talk to her students (a guest speaker with no access to an H323 videoconference appliance).
  • My teacher knows a teacher in Oregon (or California or the district across the state) and they want to VC together. My teacher wants to use our H323 Polycom system. The other teacher doesn’t have access to H323. I want to give the other teacher a temporary login to our desktop solution.

Some day, this dream, and others will come true!

Reflections on Desktop Videoconferencing

Last week I taught 3 sessions of Skype for the first time. I found it fascinating and want to share some of the comments and reactions from my teachers.

What I Covered

  • An intro to how Skype is used in the classroom: heavily dependent on pictures and videos from Silvia Tolisano. She seems to be the “queen” of Skype in the classroom as far as I can tell!
  • We installed Skype, added contacts, practiced chatting, calling, and sending video (by muting our speakers to avoid awful audio in the room). We set the privacy settings to school recommended settings: only receiving calls or chats from my contacts.
  • We connected to one or two people, depending on the length of the workshop.
  • We had a lot of discussion on best practices, classroom management, comparing to H323, etc.

Here are some of the areas we discussed and how the teachers reacted.

H.323 Standards Based Videoconferencing

Since almost everyone in my workshops were already familiar with and using their Polycom cart, they really wanted to compare! I thought I should try to teach Skype for Skype, but they asked too many questions!

  • I ended up adding slides to my workshop PPT to compare H323 based on these two comparisons: from March 2010 and July 2010.
  • We couldn’t talk about Skype without bringing in a conversation about H323 desktop videoconferencing. That is the “in between” solution that has the best of Skype and the best of H323.
  • My teachers don’t want to go to just Skype. They want H323 as well, preferably in their classroom.

Ideas for Using Skype

I found it very interesting to hear what teachers wanted to do with Skype:

  1. First and foremost: they want to connect to family. One participant last week added her college age son to her Skype contact list and before the workshop was over she was talking to him at college!
  2. A journalism teacher wants to use Skype for students to interview sources for their articles. The students would do individual Skype calls. We discussed using use science fair poster boards to reduce sound challenges having more than one skype call in the classroom at the same time. She also wants to be able to record the interview for evaluation/grading. There are a lot of tools for recording – but I don’t yet know which is the best. Do you have an opinion? Please comment!
  3. Using the conference call feature (voice only) to do grade level meetings across the district.
  4. Middle school scientific data collection to increase test validity (better quality data).

Teachers Want Support

While I’ve heard edtech types say “Skype is easy; teachers can do it on their own”; that is not the feedback I received last week.

  • Teachers want a “21st century learning facilitator” like Silvia Tolisano is for her school.
  • Teachers don’t feel comfortable with the challenge of finding a partner class on their own or building their personal learning network (like Silvia has 200 people on her Skype contact list). They want help with this!
  • One teacher, with a fairly high level of ed tech skill, confided that he found it very difficult and discouraging trying to find a partner class for a Skype project. He had tried for a full school year with no success.
  • When they thought about registering for CAPspace or Silvia’s Around the World site,  they didn’t want to get a lot of email. This again shows the need for a “coordinator” to build the network and assist.

It seems that just like support is needed for H323 videoconferencing, it is essential for Skype as well.

Access and Capabilities

  • Teachers are super super excited about VC in their classroom. There are issues with vc in the library and noise if another class is there too; issues with scheduling the space (not the equipment – the space!) for VC; etc. Access in the classroom!!
  • Tech directors are worried about the loss of capability with desktop VC compared to VC systems/carts: loss of zoom, pan, tilt, presets, ability to plug in multiple peripherals. Teachers don’t care about that. The access in their classroom is worth that loss.

Logistics, Webcams and Microphones

  • Before last week’s trainings, I thought I wanted to mount the webcam on the interactive whiteboard or somewhere at the front of the room. But I found all week that it was nice to be able to pick up the webcam and move it around: angle it one way or another depending on the need, etc.
  • One participant had noticed that using the built in camera/mic on a laptop there was no echo (in his own use of VC); but more likely to get echo when using a webcam. This is an interesting observation that I would like to verify and test further.

So, what do you think? Are you hearing these same kinds of reactions from your teachers? Did anything in this list surprise you?

Results from Australia Desktop Videoconferencing Project Group

I learned from a post on the Megaconference listserv about this work that was just completed in Australia. Quoting their website:

The Desktop Video Project Group (DVPG) was formed to evaluate desktop based video conferencing solutions to be used in Australian Universities and Research institutions. This group believes that there is no “one‐size fits all” when it comes to desktop video conferencing. … This group has completed a review of a broader range of “off‐the‐shelf” applications that are grouped into particular “types” that have been evaluated to offer a broader and greater relevance for institutional users and support teams.

Their project evaluated the following tools:

  • Mirial Softphone
  • Polycom PVX
  • Xmeeting 0.4P2
  • Emblaze-VCON’s vPoint HD
  • Kedacom PCMT
  • EVO
  • Vidyo
  • Tandberg Movi 2.0
  • Microsoft Office Communicator
  • Polycom Converged Management Application

The project also includes some very helpful definitions of different types of conferencing. Given the blurring of lines between room, desktop, H323, nonH323, etc. and the growing casual undefined use of the term telepresence, these definitions are very helpful.

The project includes lists of different scenarios of use for desktop videoconferencing -the scope and range of the list is very comprehensive!


  • The checklist used to evaluate each product is very helpful and can be used adapted by any organization.

The full report is online here in PDF.

A picture of the workgroup testing is posted on twitpic:

Learning about Skype Policies from a Pro

Chatting at the SIG IVC Open House

Today in the SIG IVC open house, I had a nice long chat with Joan Roehre from WI who is running Wisconsin HistoryMystery via Skype, connecting students in Guatemala to students in the U.S. and many more cool VCs.

Here are some of the tips I learned from her:

  • Teachers don’t get Skype on their computer until she has worked with them.
  • She makes sure their settings are locked down to receive calls and chats only from the contact list (CRITICAL for K12 school use).
  • When they had a T1, sometimes Skype was using 75% of the bandwidth!! Now that they have fiber it is no longer an issue. From the networking side they allow Skype and make sure it has the bandwidth it needs.
  • The teachers aren’t sharing the desktop yet – that’s too complicated.
  • Visuals for sharing history mysteries were posters or just students giving the clues orally. (I’ve been wondering how visuals work best with Skype.)

It’s good to talk to someone who actually has it working well!

Thinking about Polycom CMA Desktop

This post continues the journey to figure out how to get videoconferencing in the 21st century classrooms in our county. Remember my original vision from 2008 as well. The other tool that is really catching my attention is Polycom’s CMA Desktop.

When I first learned about Polycom CMA Desktop, it had two drawbacks: the requirement to be on the same network as the CMA server (via VPN or physically), and it didn’t work on the Mac. Both of these have since been resolved.

In the month of March, thanks to Aaron Schippert at Saginaw ISD, I was able to play with the Polycom CMA Desktop and I’m really quite excited about it. I’m thinking in particular of two of my districts installing interactive whiteboards in all their classrooms, and wanting VC in every classroom if it can be done well.

I’m also thinking of my schools that still don’t have VC, as well as participants from my March session of Planning Interactive Curriculum Connections who were using only Skype. Once they learned what they were missing in H323 content, they were so eager to get H323 VC, but funding is a huge problem. One of the participants had set up a Skype cart for their school. What if, for a small fee, they could get H323 VC on their Skype cart as well??!!

So here’s my thoughts from testing and learning about Polycom CMA Desktop:


  • It’s super easy like Skype. It has your contact list and an easy call button. It will call an IP address or another person (by name) registered to the CMA server.
  • No echo! Echo cancellation is built in. In our test, we didn’t have to install an additional mic. Polycom CMA Desktop used the audio from the Logitech camera. With no echo. (Better than Skype! I’ve heard a lot of echos on Skype calls!) Echo cancellation is a huge issue when trying to morph desktop VC to work in a classroom.
  • Quality. In my initial tests with a login from Saginaw ISD, the video and audio is GREAT!
  • Scalability and cost. The cost structure is definitely a pro. After investing in the server, you can have unlimited downloads of the client software!!!  Of course, depending on how many licenses you buy (100, 200, 400, 500, & up), you can only have that many people logged in at the same time; and a slightly smaller percentage of those actually in a call at a time depending on setup. But teachers aren’t going to use VC all the time, so if you can just have them logout when they aren’t using it, this resource could stretch a LONG ways in education! Especially if you figure from the 10% use as normal use of VC – which I think is pretty close to a reasonable number when looking at the most VCs I have at the same time and how many codecs I support.
  • It works on the Mac! (starting April 30). Yay! This of course is critical. Not interested without Mac support.
  • When installed with a Video Border Proxy (VBP), it works great across firewalls. No configuration changes to the firewall! I tested a login borrowed from Saginaw ISD while they had a demo VBP at their site. We installed it on a PC behind our firewall, hooked up a 3+ year old Logitech camera, logged in, and we were up and running. Beautiful. Connected fine to several H323 units off our network. No problem. (Note: I understand from talking our sales guys at Polycom that this may not work as well with corporate high security firewalls. In that scenario they recommend a VBP at each network edge.) Just imagine giving an author or expert a temporary login so they can come in via H323! I’ve learned that the reason this works is the new h.460 extension to the h.323 standard. It allows the server to set up a secure connection with the desktop to easily traverse the firewall. Note also that without the VBP, each user off the network has to VPN to connect to the CMA server. Not a good solution in our scenario.
  • Dialing. Another benefit of installing with the VBP is the dialing benefits. I’ve learned that gatekeepers really do help with dialing. For example, if a VBP is installed with the Polycom RMX, the Tandberg bridge can dial in with the alias@IP format (using the VBP’s IP). I wasn’t able to actually test this, but I was told that Polycom endpoints off our network could dial in to a Polycom CMA Desktop user with the IP##alias format; and Tandberg endpoints off our network could dial in with the alias@IP format. This means that I could call out to a classroom involved in a VC, and the teacher would only have to have the computer on and logged into CMA Desktop. I have several districts where they need this level of support. Dialing in/out via H323 is another essential feature for our use of videoconferencing.


  • H.239. As I got excited and started talking to my districts interested in VC in every classroom, they wanted to be able to share the computer. That means H.239 with Polycom CMA Desktop. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I never use H.239 if I can help it, and I find it incredibly frustrating. There are too many situations where it fails. With a regular unit, that is easily solved by zooming the camera in on the laptop. But how would that work when the laptop IS your VC system? After learning how LifeSize handles H.239 last week, my expectations were raised. I thought I’d test to see how CMA Desktop works when sharing content with the other site having H.239 turned off. Just as expected, it did not allow sending content to Polycom MGC, Tandberg bridge, Codian bridge, Tandberg MXP endpoints all with H.239 turned off. The anomaly was my Polycom VSX 7000 (version which accepted H.239 content whether or not H.239 was turned on, but that must be a fluke. So now I have to decide how critical desktop sharing is to my dream. I don’t want teachers to spend classroom time preparing a presentation and then find out the partner class can’t receive it. Note to Polycom, in a future version, when CMA Desktop detects the other site can’t receive content, could it just send the computer screen and not the webcam? Please!
  • So far that’s all I can think of for a con. What about you?

Hmm. If H.239 didn’t work with the partner school, what about taking the little webcam and facing it to the laptop screen? For that matter the webcam could serve as a document camera by moving it around too. I’ll have to think about this more.

Server Based VC

Initially in my interest in morphing desktop VC for the classroom, I wasn’t interested in server based videoconferencing. I keep thinking of the schools that install Polycom PVX and are up and running tolerably well. It is such a low cost entry starting place. How would they get started without that? Of course PVX is painful to get working through the firewall. But still, it’s an easy low cost starting place (read a success story here).

As I’ve learned more, though, I understand that Skype works so well because it too is using a “server” – a distributed system/server of course – but still it’s not stand alone. It’s the server that helps make the VC on the desktop so super easy.

So, now I’m thinking, educational service agencies or others could offer a service to schools to get access to Polycom CMA Desktop for less than the cost of the school/district getting their own server. This way tiny schools that want to start with H323 VC could get started without investing in a $8K cart or their own server. Then as they have funds they could upgrade to a full codec/cart once they saw the benefits of additional peripherals and quality.

Dr. Phil’s Choice

While I was thinking about this whole issue in March, I ran across this article on how Dr. Phil switched from Skype to Polycom CMA Desktop (and other endpoints/infastructure). Very very interesting!


This post concludes (for now) my little journey into desktop VC. I realize some glaring omissions include LifeSize Desktop and Tandberg Movi. But I don’t know any K12 people who have an installation that I could play with and learn about in an unbiased fashion. Plus spring break is about over and I’m about to get sucked into the last 2 months of busy VCs for the school year. So feel free to comment if you have anything to add to this thread and I’ll try to add more to it later. Maybe at the ISTE playground in June I’ll get more info to share. I also was awarded a SmartBoard with all the trimmings with the MACUL Educator of the Year award, and once that is installed, I will be playing further to see what could possibly work. That’s a summer project too.

Thanks, everyone for your comments and questions as we all learn together!

Full disclosure: Polycom funds the Berrien RESA VC Content Provider Database. They also link to my blog. However, they do not dictate, edit, or pre-approve anything I write here.

Conflicting Thoughts About Desktop VC in the Classroom

I have to say that I’m still conflicted about this desktop VC thing – trying to get desktop videoconferencing to work on an interactive whiteboard installation.

HD Large Monitor
After the installation of the LifeSize cart last week, I keep thinking about the quality of HD videoconferencing on a 40-50 inch monitor. It looks so good! It caused such a stir of excitement among teachers and students! The quality is just great!

VS. Teachers Using VC on their Own
But then there’s the fact that Skype use in schools is growing fast. I can’t ignore that! Just last week I heard from a local teacher planning to connect to a niece in China via Skype – to share with her classroom.

I hear how easy it is for teachers to use Skype on their own. For example, this comment from the Read Around the Planet evaluation:

At the elementary level (where I work) skype is SO much easier to use than Polycom. The quality is not as good, but teachers can do it on their own. With Polycom we have to bring equipment and set it up. It involves IP addresses and other things that most teachers do not understand.

vs. Teachers Still Needing Help with Desktop VC

Yet, the teacher wanting to connect to China needed assistance with getting Skype to use the right camera. In addition, there are all the wire problems with length of the USB cable, the placement of the camera and microphone for ideal classroom use. All these things complicate the connection. Compare the comment above to this one (also from the RAP evaluation data:

I love my Polycom and am so glad that our principal approved buying one of our own so we didn’t have to share with a regional group. I am so proud that any technical difficulties have been primarily on the other end and our equipment has proven to be steady and reliable.


YET, what makes me keep coming back to it is my schools don’t have any money for carts! Cart installation of VC still tends to be grant driven. There must be a way to help new interested users in videoconferencing get started. Desktop VC is a way to get access when you can’t afford the full $5000-$9000 cart! It’s a great way to get started with videoconferencing and still be able to connect to all the content providers and other schools with H323 videoconferencing systems (desktop or room).

What do you think? Am I crazy to keep thinking about this?