Best Conference Software

| January 24, 2013

It seems that time passes, and as technologies change, and as our lifestyles adjust with technology, it’s growing increasingly difficult to keep up with people in person, and, handily, increasingly easier to keep up with friends over digital technologies. It’s hard to even remember that as a child all my friends lived on my block (perhaps this is why we were friends!) when I now have friends and family living across the country and globe and I have no idea who my neighbors are. Now, I take for granted the ability to bring a friend right into my living room with Skype, or the ability to FaceTime with a friend in Kenya. In an age when it is so hard to find time to get together, and so easy to connect digitally, it makes sense that our needs in business and education have shifted as well. With so many tools at our fingertips, how can we connect and collaborate seamlessly?

Conference software offers dynamic ways to meet up digitally, but the possibilities span far beyond that. Hybrid programs include the ability to share data (files, documents, images, spreadsheets) and work on them collaboratively; the ability to record and save presentations and invite groups to watch (and comment in “real time”); the ability to record and save conferences; the ability to save and store interactions without “live” participants. Whew! If these possibilities make your head spin, so can wading through the conference software packages and sorting out which is most useful to you. From personal use to institutional use, this quick guide should help you explore (and perhaps weed out) the options.

Personal Use: Users create their own accounts; pricing is up to individual use

Skype: You’ve probably used Skype before. Skype allows you to make digital “phone calls” with one or more friends for free, or for a fee.  Calls are free at their most basic, but to add callers and make it a conference call, fees apply. There are no other bells or whistles with Skype, but its ease of use makes it the most popular choice for the most basic need: to connect for free with a friend. Skype is currently installed on our laptops in the library.

ooVoo: A real competitor to Skype, ooVoo uses the basic principals that Skype made accessible (easy chatting digitally for free) and amped it up by allowing users to conference with 12 people simultaneously, for free.  Like Skype, users need to have an ooVoo account to join the conversation, but existing users can simply email a link to a conference call to make this happen. Users can record conferences and upload them to YouTube; users can also embed chats or invitations to chats on their personal website. ooVoo seems designed for the average savvy internet connector; it’s like Skype, but with more robust options.

Institutional / Developer Use: The institution or developer hosts, the users access the software

TokBox: TokBox takes traditional conferencing and adds a spin, plus a sleekly designed interface. ToxBox is more collaborative than the previous two programs, and takes educational possibilities into account, an obvious boon to our education community at Teachers College. They’ve added the possibility to “live doodle” which means you can chat and work out math formulas or sketch designs on the left portion of the screen while chatting on the right. These chats can be embedded into Facebook or a website, and you can record and archive conversations, a bonus. Unlike ooVoo, who allows 12 users simultaneously, TokBox’s free account only allows four, a perhaps serious limitation. However, with a professional account, TokBox allows developers to tweak the back-end: add a company logo, create digital spaces embedded into their websites, create conferences with virtual rooms, create a talk show with guests, and more. There are wide-reaching possibilities for collaborative conversational modes, most of which seem highly conducive to educational collaboration. Best of all, users don’t need to download the software to use it; they log on to your web portal.

Adobe Connect: Connect is a highly powerful, advanced collaboration software solution designed with collaboration in mind (which includes, of course, conferencing). Used by organizations like the Federal Highway Administration, Mrs. Fields, and MedPoint, Connect is robust and fully customizable.  There are three hosting options available: hosted by them, hosted behind your organization’s firewall, or your can outsource it completely and have Adobe’s IT manage it.  Possibilities include: web meetings (conferences, file collaborations, the ability to record and archive), Webinars (hosted conferences with speakers and participants), and eLearning Tools (create and host classes, share educational course materials, learning sessions,etc). Connect is available across all mobile platforms, though it does use Flash, Apple’s least best friend. Read the simple pitch here.

Vidyo: Vidyo is a new-ish company making a name for itself by focusing exclusively on conferencing software. Vidyo serves institutions, not individuals, which means that an institution can purchase a package for their community, tailored for that community, and run the software on their computers (so in this case, the computers in our library conference rooms). Vidyo features a package specifically designed for education: a single site license comes with multi-user conferencing software, the ability to record and archive conference calls for future use, the ability to record lectures and share with students who may have missed class, the ability to pre-record instructional videos, and a place to host them… all within a package that allows student users within the community complete access. Read their simple pitch here.

With all these choices, I hope this simple guide enlightens (more than it alarms) you!  The world is a large and interconnected place. Happy conferencing!