Note: This post was written for the MACUL conference blog 2007 with attendees in mind. However I’m reposting it here because it seems it would be useful for readers here too.
The videoconferencing TWICE is showcasing here uses the H.323 videoconferencing standard. We connect using IP or via the Internet. Generally this is “room-based” videoconferencing which allows for a whole class to participate. The H.323 standard allows multiple types of equipment to connect to each other, no matter the vendor.
By comparison, Skype videoconferencing is desktop based, designed for one person at a computer using a headset, and requires Skype installed on both computers to work.
Codec / Videoconferencing Unit
First, you need a codec or videoconferencing unit. There are three main manufacturers that schools tend to be using. Polycom and Tandberg are the most popular, and Sony offers several units, including cheaper low end versions. Most of the companies don’t sell directly to customers; instead you purchase the videoconference unit through a reseller. Some resellers that Michigan schools use are: ICI which is based in Michigan and provided the audio-visual equipment in the TWICE room, and SKC to name a few.
Generally room-based videoconferencing units run around $5000 and upwards from there.
However if you want to dabble in videoconferencing before purchasing a higher-end unit, you can start with H.323 desktop videoconference. With a webcam you can use open source H323 clients or Polycom’s PVX for $120ish, to connect to H.323 content like TWICE is showcasing here. You could hook it up to show a class via a projector too. The challenge with this setup is the audio. The sound in desktop videoconferencing is designed for a headset. So if you use a microphone and speakers you’ll find a lot of echoing. The solution is to have a ready finger on the mute button so that you are always muted when the other site is talking. Annoying but doable if you want to just try it out.
Projector / TV Monitor
You’ll need a way to show the video from the codec. Most commonly this is a data projector or a TV monitor. Some installations have several monitors, but one is minimum required.
Some schools install videoconferencing into a fixed room, but it is becoming more common to purchase a cart to bring videoconferencing right into the classroom.
One of the huge challenges with videoconferencing is making H.323 work through firewalls. TWICE has a collection of resources and articles to help you address this. Definitely start talking to your technology people early if you are interested in VC. It may take several months to work through the networking challenges that come up with H.323 videoconferencing. Give it time and realize that it’s a journey!
So how can you get grants to support the purchase of videoconferencing? Here are a few resources I know of: