Virtual Meetings

One of the (many) things I’d taken for granted before switching into education was virtual meetings. Services like WebEx and LiveMeeting made it easy to meet with people in other locations and to time-shift so that people could access content and training presentations way after the original date of the session.

It’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

This is something I wanted to replicate in the school (the virtual meetings, not the absence). The ability to provide remote access to lessons; to easily create lessons that could be accessed at different times to support flipped learning; and a better way to capture my teaching sessions to help me learn and improve.

Oh, did I mention that there’s no budget?

I had a quick scoot around the alternatives for free-to-use services. MettingBurner and looked interesting, but in their free versions didn’t support recording.

The next step was to look at running a solution on one of the redundant boxes we have in school. For this I’ve been looking at BigBlueButton.

BigBlueButton is a collection of open source components that you run as a local service to provide:

  • Desktop and application sharing (great for demo’s)
  • Sharing office documents and PDF files
  • Built in IM chat for Q&A
  • Audio sharing
  • Video (web cam) sharing
  • Recording and playback

Getting an evaluation system up and running was relatively straightforward because an environment is available as a VMWare virtual machine.

First impressions:

  1. Works very well on the networks I tested on using the server as a virtual machine.
  2. Flash client is responsive and intuitive but, as it’s Flash, iPads as clients are out. (Aside: there is HTML5-based meeting playback for recorded meetings).
  3. Configuration of a real system looks fairly complex because of the need to configure the separate pieces. The VM system isn’t configured to record webcam and desktop sharing streams out-of-the-box, so this observation is based on setting that up.
  4. There’s no front end. This means for a real system, where students can be directed to a web page that shows classes to join or recorded sessions to play, you either need to:
    1. use BigBlueButton with one of the supported third party systems (which include Drupal; Canvas LMS; Moodle) or the Matterhorn system for lesson capture and management.
    2. build your own (web) front end.

That last point is actually quite attractive to me personally, but maybe less so for others. The API is straightforward and it’s fairly simple to put together a simple web app that allows teachers and students to publish and access lessons and that stores recordings. (For examples see this tool.) Managing that gets more complex, which is where integrating with one of the third party solutions becomes attractive.

All that said, BigBlueButton (and Matterhorn for that matter) are clearly aiming at the further/higher education segment. In that context the administration overheads make sense. For my 11-18 usage it’s also feasible, but that isn’t likely to transfer to other 11-18 institutions.

Maybe this is a great opportunity for a decent systems integrator…

In the meantime, I’m planning on giving it a go to support the sixth form courses I’m teaching on this year.