School Computing

Video Conferencing

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There are many tools available for video conferencing. Some offer very basic functions and are free, like Skype, and others are on the other end , offering secure storage and sharing of files, shared desktops, and presentation tools (such as Perpich, which is based on Elluminate). What tools are most necessary and useful for schools? What is the ideal video conferencing set up? Share and brainstorm examples of the application of video conferencing in schools. Jenni

Retrieved from H-NET Ed-Tech list-serv 8/08

There are three main ways that schools tend to videoconference today: 1) Skype (as mentioned here) 2) SIP (many other IM type products) 3) H.323 (a protocol that covers many other audio, video and data protocols under a single umbrella and is most often used to professionally transport videoconferences and long distance calls)

There is also an older ISDN telephone technology called H.320 (H.321 when PRI [big pipes] are involved), and quasi videoconferencing formed by streaming MPEG or other videos back and forth to one another. There are LOTS of other ways to move video around, and you may run into various analog coax based systems or DS3 based systems - IF - you look hard enough.

For schools that do a LOT of conferencing, today they will probably choose H.323. Since these units get a lot of use, they tend to use dedicated appliances. Polycom and Tandberg are the market leaders in this field, but you will find names like LifeSize, Sony, Aethra and others as well.

SIP and Skype, and the many derivative proprietary codecs that are similar tend to be used for desktop to desktop service, often for projects, or to give students a chance to chat one on one.

The biggest difference between these two, although the lines are constantly changing, has to do with two things: 1) frame size (resolution) and 2) frame rate.

Most of the "little ball cameras" work very well for desktop chatting software, but lack the kind of resolution that makes them work well for H.323. That doesn't mean you can't plug in a better camera, or make the services talk back and forth - we do it all the time.

For example, you can use a little ball camera, and for $100 buy Polycom's PVX software, and you can chat with classrooms and museums running dedicated videoconference appliances! On a good day, with the wind at your back, you can hit start/run on your XP machine, type "conf" in the box, and Netmeeting will come back from its hidden grave, and will make a connection to a dedicated videoconference appliance - provided tons of firewalls don't get in the way, and if you don't care that you're only sending video at 1/4 CIF/SIF (a very low resolution.)

It should also go without saying that for the most part, Skype only talks to Skype - so you can't load Skype, and expect to talk to a dedicated appliance.

As for your camera, there are lots of products that can take a firewire or USB type camera, and convert it from VFW (video for windows - MS's OLD way of handling video and what most USB cameras are) to DirectShow (DirectX - MS's new-er old way of handling video from high definition high speed devices) and back again. This means that you can plug in a really nice Sony Digital Firewire camera to your computer's firewire port, run any of a bunch of programs with names like ManyCam, QuickCam, or WebCamMax, and Netmeeting can recognize it as a video source and get a reasonable result.

Of course if you have a Sony Digital 8 camera, this makes for a very cheap solution!

(Mac users have a different set of problems, but h.323 codecs exist for the Mac as well.)

Now, without overwhelming you, or boring you to tears (I am leaving out a LOT of information here at the risk of being too wordy, that I'm sure others will pick up on because they feel it is important) I will say that if you do any kind of volume of conferencing, be KIND to the people on the other end, and get yourself an appliance solution. For the lousy video you send, the crackling audio, the terrible lighting while you have your computer screen on a projector facing the other side of the room - yeah - the folks you're talking to are going to have that in their face the whole time.

If you're willing to make a small investment, I would suggest you get a copy of Polycom's PVX. It will set you back $100 street.

Once you have it and get started, then come and join us on Ed1Vidconf - a listserve like this one, dedicated to educators using IVC.

You can also learn a LOT more about h.323 conferencing and the museums, zoos and so many other great "content providers" delivering programming directly to your classroom from institutions all around the world by visiting CILC and TWICE: (Especially since you're in Michigan!)

As to why I feel qualified to answer - I've been doing this now since about 1994 off and on, and full time since 1999. My project, representing K12 schools, colleges and universities, museums and libraries can be found on the web here:

Daniel Gross, Director Southeastern Wisconsin Instructional Network Group

Retrieved from H-NET Ed-Tech list-serv 12/08

From: M G Durrant

Polycom, Tandberg and Sony all make IP videoconferencing equipment suitable for use with a room full of people. Be prepared to shell out; equipment such as a Tandberg 990 or Polycom VX7000 cost about $7000 each or more. We have used Polycom equipment for over five years, and Tandberg for about two years. Quality of the conference is great. Reliability of the Tandberg equipment has not been impressive. I received two new Tandberg 1700 units; one was dead in the box, the other had scores of bad pixels. The Tandberg 1700 is a self-contained unit with an integrated camera, microphone, speakers and 17" high def LCD, which cost about $6500 each. Tandberg sent two refurb replacements; both of those units had serious problems. A third refurb replacement was also defective. Ultimately, I was given two more new units, both of which (finally) work.

We have had serious technical difficulties using the Polycoms with audio/video bridges. Most of our videoconferencing events in Utah run through bridges so that multiple sites can be joined together. These bridges are managed by the Utah Education Network (UEN) ( with well-trained technical staffers. We've been doing videoconferencing statewide since at least 1985, so there is a lot of experience doing this. We do much less "point-to-point" videoconferencing, but the Polycom units do not have problems with P2P.

We use this equipment daily for the delivery of concurrent-enrollment (dual enrollment) college classes, as well as adult classes from Utah State University Extension division. Since we are 65 miles from the nearest real town, distance ed is the only local option. We currently have nine teachers earning a reading specialist endorsement over our VC system.

The advantage of these dedicated audio/video codecs is the quality of the picture and sound. They give good results at any data rate from 128kbs on up. Polycom has a software-only solution (using your own USB videocamera) called PVX. I haven't used it in its current iteration. I have used it with a Polycom ViaVideo camera, now discontinued. PVX supports H.264 and other recent communications standards, as do the Polycom and Tandberg standalone codecs.

I have no experience using Sony's VC equipment. The folks at UEN have tried them, but so far have not done any large deployment.

If all of this is too rich for your blood, you can use simpler means such as Skype, iChat or other video chat software, connecting the computer to a projector or flat panel TV. Just be aware that 320 X 200 or anything less than VGA (640X480) won't look nearly as good as the dedicated units I describe above--and you said you wanted high quality.

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