The VC Continuum I Recommend to My Schools

As we end this week of talking about desktop VC, I thought it might be helpful for me to share the continuum of videoconferencing that I recommend to the schools in the two counties that I serve. This may be helpful to know the perspective I’m coming from when I evaluate desktop VC.

I’ve made a more generic overview of the videoconferencing continuum before, but here’s what I recommend to my schools.

What We Have Already

Remember we have:

  • 70 Polycom Viewstations and VSX 7000 endpoints; 1 LifeSize 200 installed last week; 1 Polycom QDX  6000 installed last fall
  • Tandberg infrastructure: MCU, Gatekeeper, IP-ISDN Gateway, and Tandberg Management Suite for scheduling

I still have about another 20-30 schools in my service area that don’t have VC in their school building.

How We Use VC

  • We do about 700-900 videoconferences a year.
  • All our videoconferences are with standards based H323 units.
  • 60% of them are with other schools – collaborative projects etc. 59% of those are out of our service area; 45% of them are out of state; 5% are out of the U.S.
  • 15% of our VCs are with content providers: zoos, museums, GNG, NASA, etc.
  • 15% of our VCs are ASK programs: interviews with authors or specialists: either ones we run for our schools or TWICE ASK.
  • The last 10%  are meetings and professional development, mostly within county or content we get from the state.
  • Many of the teachers just walk into the room to do the VC. The call has already been set up by me or the VC coordinator in the school, and presets are already set if needed. All the teacher has to think about is the muting and unmuting if they are in a multipoint, and the presets if their class is presenting or participating in an ASK program, and of course preparing their students on the curriculum side. Often I’m listening to the VC so if something goes wrong, I can fix it for the teacher.

Ideally a VC cart

Most of our equipment was purchased with grants. When that is possible, I prefer an installation that includes:

  • The H323 videoconference system: LifeSize, Polycom, or Tandberg
  • HD if it can be afforded
  • A sturdy but lightweight cart
  • A 37 to 50 inch monitor
  • A document camera
  • An Avermedia QuickPlay to connect the computer in via S-Video (yes, yes, I know, lower quality, but guaranteed to work with anything we connect to) or any other method that connects the computer that is NOT H.239/People Plus Content/DuoVideo
  • In our latest installation we also had a DVD/VCR, but I wouldn’t recommend that now. My schools never use it.
  • If possible, installed with an IP address NATed. In only one district do we have a firewall traversal unit, and we’re trying to make it work without it because the extension dialing is such a pain.
  • 3 years maintenance on the VC system at least! Usually my districts can’t afford maintenance after the grant runs out, so if we’re using a grant we always do 3 years maintenance. I also strongly urge any districts buying their own unit to buy 3 year maintenance on it.
  • This list is about $7000-9000.

Next Best, Mobile Within the District

Two of my districts were not eligible for the latest RUS grant. When we switched from ISDN to IP in 2005, their PictureTel Concordes were obsolete.

  • These two districts have a Polycom VSX 7000 in a box.
  • It connects to the TV in the classroom or a projector.
  • If a document camera is needed, it is borrowed from elsewhere to use with VC.
  • The district tech moves it from school to school, and updates the network settings as it moves.
  • This setup is just the codec only. So it could be as low as $2000-5000.

Next Best, Buy Old Units

  • In a couple of my other schools, they purchased refurbished or gently used VC systems. In one case from eBay. In the other case from their network services provider which had some extra Polycom Viewstations kicking around. (Another place would be The Videoconference Store, which sells used systems.)
  • Both of these scenarios use existing TVs/projectors/carts.
  • This setup could cost around $1000-$3000.

Interactive 21st Century Classrooms

That brings me to the next scenario: 2-5 school districts that have or are purchasing interactive whiteboards and installing them in every classroom. Each of these districts sees the value of VC as we use it in the curriculum. They all have teachers who are tired of getting the cart to VC in their classroom or going to the library or fixed room. (Kind of funny really. I remember when they were tired of busing to the high school to VC.)

These districts COULD spend their funds to upgrade their existing system to HD. But the possibility of VC in every classroom is intriguing and tempting.

  • Whiteboard plus short throw projector means the display is already there.
  • Some of these teachers are already doing Skype on their interactive whiteboard. So why not H.323 also!?
  • It needs to cost the same or less to put VC in every classroom than they would spend to upgrade their carts to HD and 50 inch LCD monitors.
  • H.323 standards based videoconference is a must.

This is one of the main reasons I’ve been investigating desktop VC (in case you missed the posts, so far I’ve looked at Mirial, Vidyo, and Polycom CMA Desktop. In the future, also need to look at Tandberg Movi and LifeSize Desktop at least).

Desktop VC On a Cart

Finally, the other scenario is for our private schools and districts that don’t have VC yet, but definitely want it. They aren’t eligible for grants – not poor enough or not rural enough or not a public school. But they also don’t have enough funding to buy the ideal VC cart or even the refurbished units. They need something under $500.

  • They could use an existing laptop and projector cart (many of them are sharing the projector in the school this way already).
  • Plus a webcam for $100-ish.
  • Plus a microphone for $150-ish. (I’ve tried out the Clear One Chat in a classroom situation with very poor results; next I’ll be trying the Phoenix Duet.)
  • Plus $120 for Polycom PVX or something similar with one of the other options that I’m exploring.
  • HD is NOT essential as their projector and laptop are probably older anyway.

So, that’s where I’m coming from as I evaluate desktop VC. I’m trying to get more VC to my schools. More H323 VC!

What do you think? Is this similar to what you recommend to your schools? What would you add or change? Please feel free to comment!

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