Tag Archives: Skype

Skype vs. H323 Videoconference Carts

It’s not too long ago, that I was comparing videoconference carts to “integrated rooms.” Now it’s time to compare Skype to videoconference carts. There are many ways and reasons to use Skype in the classroom; there are also many ways and reasons to use some form of H323 videoconferencing in the classroom.

Danielle Letter, TWICE President Elect, invited me to present with her last week at a MACUL preconference workshop. We started making a wiki, and spent considerable time discussing pros and cons of various tools. Since then, I’ve been thinking more about Skype in the classroom and H323 in the classroom; and the pros and cons of each tool. (I’m using H323 to be very specific about the type of videoconferencing I’m referring to. H323 is the protocol used to communicate.)

Picture Skype

Flat Classroom Skype by SuperKimbo

H323 Videoconference Cart

From the Read Around the Planet Gallery

Viewing Unless connected to a projector; difficult for the whole class to see Monitor/projector usually designed for the whole class to see
Micro-phones The computer mic is designed for one person at the computer; so audio can be seriously problematic. You might have trouble with the other site not able to hear you. You may also have echo cancellation problems – where the school at the other site hears themselves talking.

This may be able to be solved if you purchase an echo cancellation mic designed for a conference room table or similar situation.

Another limitation may be the length of the microphone cable.

The microphones with cart videoconference systems are designed for whole group use. They are usually on a 30 foot cord, easy to move around the room. They have echo cancellation built in, so no echo problems.

These microphones also usually do well with adults speaking from anywhere in the room; and often the students. But if students are presenting, it works better to have them come up to the mic as shown above.

Access right in your classroom all the time. Easy to just jump in and use it. The cart may be in the library or down the hall. Have to schedule it and share among all the teachers in the school. In some districts, VC is mobile throughout the whole district; or only available at the high school.

Depending on cart design, it may be hard to move around the school.

You can share your desktop with another site, but you cannot hook up other inputs such as the document camera. Usually several inputs for DVD, document camera, computer, etc. Multiple types of visuals can be shared with the other site.
Sharing your computer
Very easy to share your computer screen (PowerPoint, movies, etc.) with the other site. If you’re using H.239 (People Plus Content; DuoVideo; etc.), there are several scenarios where you may not be able to share your computer with the other site.

If you’re using S-Video to connect the computer to the videoconference system, it should work great all the time.

Camera Usually with Skype you have a little web cam which cannot zoom or have presets. The camera has great ability to pan, tilt, and zoom. You can set a preset on any spot in the room (at least 10 or more presets). You can set presets on additional inputs so you can easily switch between the document camera and students, for example.
Remote Usually you can only control the videoconference from the teacher’s computer. An infrared remote control allows controlling the videoconference from anywhere in the room.
There is a potential that you could overwhelm the school’s bandwidth if every teacher did a videoconference at the same time. With a cart, there is a physical limitation to only do one videoconference at a time. Easier to control the bandwidth used.
Picture Quality
The picture quality varies widely depending on the cameras used at both ends and the bandwidth of the two sites participating in the conference. Cameras tend to be higher quality, even HD, and so the picture quality tends to be higher than with Skype. It still can vary based on the bandwidth of the sites involved in the conference.
Skype only connects point to point with video. Yes you can have 10 audio participants in a call; but not video. With the use of a bridge/MCU, you can connect many sites together. Some essential applications include the ability to share the cost of amazing experiences from Global Nomads Group and COSI Columbus across several participating schools, as well as getting multiple perspectives from around the country/world at the same time. MysteryQuest and all its spinoffs are multipoint events; ASK programs work best sharing the cost of the author with 3 schools.

In addition, since I have a bridge, I can monitor even my schools’ point to point calls (by putting them up on the bridge and adding my site). This way I can provide support and encouragement to teachers as they participate. They aren’t “alone” with the technology. I also like to watch the VCs so that I can recommend the good ones to my schools.

None of this is possible with Skype.

$100-200 depending on the quality of the web cam and microphone you invest in. Skype itself is free. $2000-$9000 depending on the size of the monitor/projector, type of cart, and additional peripherals used.
Available Content Many other classrooms to connect to; as well as authors. You can also arrange to connect with any guest speaker you can find. More resources here.

It is easier to connect to international sites with Skype as it’s more likely they can afford a webcam and Skype than the H323 videoconferencing software or equipment.

In addition to other classrooms, authors, and guest speakers, there is a large community of zoos, museums, and other organizations who offer programs to schools. We call them content providers. Most of them cannot offer their content via Skype because they have so many awesome visuals to share with your students that they cannot connect to show via Skype.

It can be harder to connect to international sites as they may not have access.

What do you think?

To me, the content available via H323, and the quality of the conference are the two main reasons to keep using H323 carts; even though Skype is free and easy.

What do you think? Did I miss a comparison? What would you add? Please comment!

8/29/10 Update: Added a section about international connections to the available content.

Resources for My K12 Online Conference Presentation

Instructional Strategies That Work with Videoconferencing

Videoconferencing can bring the world to your classroom. It allows educators to bridge the divide by bringing experiences to rural students; by engaging conversations and interactions between urban and rural students and by connecting students globally. Whether using desktop videoconferencing or room based videoconferencing, educators can bridge the divide between “dabbling” in videoconferencing to fully integrating with solid classroom instructional strategies.

Links are shared in the order referred to in the presentation video.

Curriculum Videoconferencing

Top VC-Using Teachers Study


Projects Mentioned

Final Slide Links: More to Explore

Be sure to enjoy the rest of the K12 Online Conference 2010!

Still Thinking about VC in the Classroom, Skype etc.

The saga/conversation/thinking continues…..

Mirial: Desktop H323 VC from Italy

This morning I downloaded Mirial, a 30 day trial version, (recommended on a comment yesterday) and got excited about the possibilities of getting VC in our “21st century classrooms” around the county. We have several teachers with “tricked out classrooms” who also love VC but want it in their classroom. I haven’t tested too much yet, but so far:

  • The download and install was easy.
  • I didn’t have to make any network or firewall changes and it worked. But I can only dial out (so far).
  • It’s 165 euros which seems to be about $250 US. Now how to buy it?
  • It registered to my GK, and can do H.239.
  • It connected fine to my Polycom endpoints and my Tandberg bridge.
  • It doesn’t work with a firewire camcorder on the Mac yet (bummer).

I’m seriously thinking of getting a classroom to try this out for a year….

Teacher: H323 is better than Skype

Then this afternoon, in a collaborations workshop for Tech Camp, I had a teacher who has Skype and has connected to Mexico. But she says “this is way better” pointing to our VSX7000 set up. She doesn’t have access in her building, but plans to bus the kids here to participate in VCs!!!

So there’s another perspective to compare to yesterday’s.

Bottom line as a VC coordinator for my schools, I need to be able to have a variety of solutions to meet their needs!

Future of VC in Schools

Today I’m pulling another comment out to make it a full post. This one is by Craig Mollerstuen from GCI, Alaska. Craig has been involved in VC for as long as I can remember, champions educational use in Alaska, and has served the NECC sessions with VC support for several years. He commented on my question, “what do you see as the future of VC in schools?” Here’s the full comment:

There are lots of different ways to look at this, from community, technology, equipment, pedagogy and other perspectives.

1) Community: Individuals vs. Groups

Skype isn’t optimized for groups where H.323 systems have been. One can connect a good camera (firewire camcorder) and echo canceling speaker/microphones (Phoenix Duet, etc.). But that have very low usability compared to an integrated appliance with high quality, pan/tilt/zoom cameras and good quality microphones with echo canceling built in.  Group ease of use goes to the incumbents.

Individual ease of use goes to Skype (and other desktop solutions.) This is because of the H.323 protocol. It is easy to make a high quality H.323 application (for Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.) but the protocol sucks. It dies across firewalls.

Individuals are also looking for low bandwidth and high quality solutions as they are often “on the move.” Such solutions typically use adaptive encoding which H.323 doesn’t (easily) support.

For groups we accept high bandwidth requirements because we want significantly higher resolution (larger rooms) and we can typically afford to put more bandwidth into a limited number of fixed locations.

2) Protocols – Standard vs. Proprietary

In general, schools would do well to use VC equipment that supports open standards. Standards eventually lead to wider adoption, greater choice and lower cost. However it takes FOREVER for standards to develop and often we can’t (or don’t want to) wait.

Because of it’s reliance on proprietary protocols, there has been many fewer devices that support Skype. And it is hard to find a Skype MCU.

3) Point-to-point vs. Multi-point

We need to be able to do both point-to-point and multi-site conferences. Solutions that are only point-to-point don’t provide sufficient flexibility for education.

Multi-point conferencing needs to be easy to use. Today’s audio conferencing is a good model, dial a number, enter a code and you’re in the conference.

4) Pedagogy – Video conferencing vs. Web conferencing.

This isn’t really pedagogy, but I’m using the term to describe the gulf between “on-line” conferencing and “video” conferencing today.  We need video conferencing to support some of the really great tools that are available in “on-line”/web conferencing environments (chat, polls, forums, breakout rooms, etc.)

And “on-line” environments need to support better and higher quality audio and video, more video and audio streams and group environments.

So… What is the future of live Conferencing in education?

Long term, I can foresee technology that supports the gamut of teachers and teaching styles, learners and learning styles and content types.

Eventually we will have a conferencing protocol that will replace H.323, SIP, Skype and the rest. It will support multiple audio, text, video and content streams from each endpoint.

We’ll see conference servers that support the new protocol (and that can transcode the old protocols) and support a variety of endpoints (analog, wireless, audio, digital, video, room, desktop, appliance, etc.)

Care will have been given to the user interface, ease of use and to pedagogy. We’ll be able to have multiple PTZ cameras in the classroom, audio mics for teachers and students, content from multiple sources (computers, lab equipment, off-net, etc.) so that we don’t have to limit what we are sharing from the “classroom”.  (Develop an open API so that people can develop content widgets.)

Responsible learners will be given the flexibility to choose the streams that they want to view and hear. Learners who need more direction can be given fewer choices and more structure.

And we’ll get all this in a low cost, easy to use, high bandwidth environment with good professional development.

In the near term, we need:

  1. open standards and protocols
  2. conferencing that adapts to low and high bandwidth environments
  3. transport that traverses the net as easily as HTTP
  4. professional quality equipment for content providers, appliances for theatres, classrooms and desktops and software that runs on our computers (fixed and mobile) as endpoints.
  5. We need academics to study and solve the technology problems
  6. We need practitioners to study and solve the practice problems
  7. We need industry to build high quality and low cost solutions

Products like Elluminate, Mirial and Vidyo are good “next steps”. There is still lots and lots of room for improvement and advancement.

Cheers, -Craig-

Thinking About Skype

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Skype, and so here I’ll share some of my recent thoughts. I hope that you’ll join the thinking and discussion by commenting below!

My Own Use of Skype

I have used Skype for three or four years now. I use it at home to videoconference with family for holidays and special events. At work, I use Skype mainly as a chat tool to keep in touch with my videoconference colleagues – especially those at educational service agencies who have bridges. It’s so handy for troubleshooting when I’m on the phone with my school who is having trouble with a VC, and I can Skype the person hosting the VC on their bridge to brainstorm solutions. Once in a while I use Skype at work for a VC or phone conference, but very rarely.

My Schools and Skype

I have 70 schools with H323 videoconferencing, and we’ve invested a lot of time in creating a support structure and a menu of content to offer our schools. Up until last year, most of my districts were still using T1s as their connection to the Internet, so bandwidth has been (and still is in some cases) very tight and carefully monitored. Several of my districts block Skype due to concerns about the health of the school network. These challenges have mostly kept Skype off the radar in our districts.

One notable exception is a district using Skype to VC with a home-bound student for some daily instruction. There may be additional uses of Skype that I am unaware of.

Difference Between H323 and Skype

Just in case you’re not familiar with the difference between H323 videoconferencing and Skype videoconferencing, here’s a quick rundown:

  • Skype is free; H323 requires special videoconference equipment
  • H323 generally has good echo cancellation for classroom videoconferencing; Skype is designed for a person with a headset at a computer so echos can be a problem
  • H323 is standards based, so you can connect to any other H323 device; Skype requires Skype on the computer you connect to

Is H323 Dead?

Last week, TelBitConsulting did a review of Skype and asked if H323 videoconferencing is dead:

Well H.323 is not really dead, but, you get the idea, maybe….ah….read on.

Except in the corporate world where high definition is the thing, I believe, now, that the standards-based H.323 videoconferencing market may not reach the masses as I, many years ago, had hoped would happen.

Don’t get me wrong, videoconferencing will still be a mass market (not counting corporate, education, telemedicine where it is doing very well thank you) success, but, the new king of videoconferencing for the masses may be (already is?) the Internet-based free (or very low cost) applications using a computer (laptop, network, cell phone, or desktop) and a web cam (built in or added).

I keep wondering about the future of videoconferencing in schools. I see the value of all the content we’ve built up around H323, but I also see the barriers to schools using VC on a mass level (beyond 30%). Will a tool come along that helps more schools access VC content? Would Skype be that tool?

So next, here’s some of my thoughts on pros & cons:



  • Web cameras don’t usually allow camera presets and various views of the classroom
  • Does sharing the computer – a PPT presentation for example – work well enough for events like MysteryQuest?
  • Can’t do multipoint calls for events like MysteryQuest, ASK, etc?
  • Lots of H323 content providers not available via Skype
  • Hard to restrict how many calls occur at once in low bandwidth schools (easier with a VC cart)
  • Some school technology directors have valid concerns about Skype on their networks

Future Developments

I certainly plan to keep an eye on what is happening with Skype in schools. An interesting development is the OSU Internet2 team working on a Skype to H323 gateway. If regional service agencies could install a box like this to provide access to H323 content to schools with Skype, more schools could take advantage of the H323 content. I am anxious for this tool to become available to try out.

It’s hard to tell what is next for the videoconferencing world, but it seems that those of us in H323 videoconferencing should keep up on what is happening with Skype in schools as well. To that end, I’ve added a new tab to my blog to keep resources that I find about Skype. I will still spend the majority of my time on H323 videoconferencing, but I want to know what the “Skypers” are up to as well!

Your Turn

What do you think of Skype? Have you used it in your classroom? How would you compare it to H323 videoconferencing? What do you see as the future of VC in schools? Please comment!