Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.
I don't know about the rest of you, but as a relatively tech-savvy person (though by no means an expert), I get an awful lot of help-desk type questions from my family members. As a trainer, I know what a challenge it can be to explain a complex concept in person, but it's nothing compared to the difficulty of explaining something over the phone, especially when the person on the other end may not share the same vocabulary. Worse yet, he or she may not even be looking at the same information you are, adding frustration and confusion to your initial communications challenge.
With that at the back of my mind, and some experience with distance learning in my background, a paragraph from an October Internet Legal Research Weekly (ILRW), caught my eye. It discussed a couple of Web-based conferencing products from a company called Linktivity. They are WebDemo, a conferencing tool with multiple features to enhance collaborative distance work, and WebInteractive, a tool mainly intended for sales or help desk personnel with a more limited features, the most important of which is probably that which allows remote access to and control of a PC.
The last time I really looked at this sort of software, I was a librarian in Philadelphia-based firm doing training in satellite offices all around Pennsylvania as well as in Chicago, New York and Miami. I spent so much time (and firm money) traveling that I had hoped to find conferencing software that would work well enough to let me stay at my desk and train our users remotely. At that time, I really didn't have much luck. Video conferencing was new and very clunky, audio elements were even worse (did you ever try one of those free Internet phone programs over a slow modem connection? -- Oh, the pain!) and there wasn't any easy way to share desktops or applications with a trainee so that they could actually see what they needed to do without a trainer or help desk person having to go to great lengths to describe it directionally. As an example, I once overheard a help desk person trying to describe the scroll bar in Explorer in an attempt to get a user to click on something near it:
"Click on the up-arrow above the scroll bar. It's the black arrow in the gray box above the side bar with the box in it. It's near the top on the right. The scroll bar is all the way on the right side of the window. That's right, the one all the way to the right. It's the bar that slides up and down when you drag it. When you click on it with your mouse (left mouse button) and hold the mouse button down as you move the whole mouse vertically. Now, do you see the little arrows at either end of the box? Great, now click on the top one. You should see the view go up by one line at a time each time you click. Not working, eh? Ok, let's try this again".
That's the compact summary. The actual dialog went on for a good ten minutes before the help desk person gave up and went to visit the user in person. And that was a fairly simple question! I still remember the extraordinarily painful challenges of learning about BNA's new Web products through phone training, and I was a person used to using the Web and BNA products. I can only imagine what a nightmare such training would be to a person new to both.
Since then, Microsoft has begun to bundle NetMeeting with many of its products, and it has, as you might expect, become one of the most common conferencing programs in use. (My apologies to those of you who are MAC or Linux users, most of the following is Windows-centric. If you have experience with good conferencing software for other operating systems, please let me know.) Some free software has also cropped up which can do many of the same things. Yahoo Instant Messenger (IM), for example, has a video conferencing feature and allows file sharing along with the familiar text chat option. Virtual Network Computing is a free program for desktop sharing (remote control for Windows and Linux computers) from AT&Ts Bell Labs. And then there are the products like WebDemo and WebInteractive which offer all the features above, plus give users enough added value to hope that they'll be willing to pay extra for access.
Lets start with an overview of some of the things which most systems have in common. Anyone using conferencing software needs to realize that some limitations of networked computing still exert restraints on conferencing which can make the experience a little disappointing. All of these tools except the most basic text-chat feature require fairly high bandwidth connections, like a local network, because they need to transfer so much data. Without high speed connectivity and wide bandwidth, they are too slow to be very useful, a drawback which hasn't changed much about conferencing software since I last tried it.
Sadly, audio over the Web is still terribly unwieldy. The delay, even in broadcasting audio on a higher speed system like a T-1 or cable modem, is pretty much unbearable. One help desk person I've been working with judges that, "Four seconds delay from one person to another is not too bad" for audio. Not too bad if you're standing on one side of a vast gorge and are waiting for your echo, horrible if you're actually trying to carry on a conversation. It's all about managing expectations.
So, what's the best strategy for adding audio to your conference? If you're not within a local area network, use the telephone. Even my mother, a 70+ year old with an excruciatingly slow dial-up modem, now has a cell phone and can talk to me and work on her computer at the same time. Those in a local network should note may find it easier to stick with teleconferencing even if their audio quality is good. Since teleconferences are now fairly common in the business environment, this is often a manageable option even for a large group, whereas getting the audio settings, headphones and other miscellany right for a Web-based call for half a dozen people is still a major challenge even without problems with the audio transfer itself.
While video conferencing has improved and has certainly become MUCH less expensive, it still leaves a lot to be desired. TechBargains, a technology product shopping comparison site, now shows Webcams that cost from under 10 dollars to over 300, each with it's own variety of functions. Even a fairly basic models will do the job if you're not expecting much -- I'm using my $50 camera so that relatives in Canada can see our new baby, for instance. It's like buying a new car, you can pay whatever you want. The equipment is not so much the issue as the bandwidth the images require. They often end up looking grainy because of poor image quality or jerky because of a slow refresh rate. Still, it's nice to see the person you're working with, even if they're a little fuzzy. It's reassuring to see facial expressions, especially if you don't have a phone connection to give you tone of voice.
When you get involved in a complicated conference, chances are that open views will begin to proliferate as each participant shares information with the group. This can quickly become overwhelming, especially for novice users, and has actually become worse over time because more functions are now available for Web conferencing. The best tactic for dealing with the confusion of overlapping views is to keep any item not currently in use minimized to limit the number of open views.
The Good News
If you have enough bandwidth, a telephone, a few inexpensive peripherals like a Web camera and some headphones, you're golden. Virtual conferencing can be a great way to bridge a distance or convenience gap and get two or more people who can't share a physical space literally working on the same page. Consider some of the most common conferencing features:
Text Chat -- The ability for two or more individuals to type to a common bulletin board or window in turn so that everyone invited to a discussion can see participant comments in real time. A nice collaborative tool, especially when combined with the ability to see a shared view of a document. Changes can be discussed before they are incorporated in a document
Video Conferencing -- Seeing a small image of each individual involved in the conference, sometimes including yourself, sometimes not. Again, it can be useful to see who you are working with, humanizing an otherwise remote connection. It may also be the best way to show participants some part of a presentation like a unique object.
Audio Capability -- It's less than perfect, but most software does allow you to listen to other participants over your Internet connection, and tone of voice can be very telling.
Whiteboard -- A shared view in which participants can take turns using a simple graphics program to write, point, underline, circle or draw in a view.
View sharing -- Viewing, and sometimes controlling, another participant's desktop. This is probably the most critical aspect of virtual conferencing. In a collaborative environment, it allows all participants to see the same documents and programs and to watch changes as they happen. In a training or help-desk situation, it allows activity in the user's end to be controlled remotely. Help desk staff can quickly and easily make changes and fix problems, while trainers can show users what they need to do on the users own system. A picture really can be worth a thousand words.
File Sharing -- Sending a file direct to one or all conference participants. Not necessarily faster than sending an attachment via e-mail, but no one will have any doubts that it arrived.
After having seen the ILRW blurb on Linktivity, I took it on a test spin and spoke to one of their sales managers about its features. I also went back and used NetMeeting for the first time in a long while and signed up for a free Yahoo IM account for comparison. What I found was that the conferencing experience has improved hugely in recent years.
NetMeeting and Yahoo IM
For Windows users, NetMeeting offers an astonishing range of features, basically everything listed above, and the unbeatable option that it can be downloaded for free if you somehow didn't manage to get a copy bundled with your version of Windows. I expected Yahoo IM to be rudimentary by comparison, but it has a surprisingly robust selection of features including a great video conferencing component, file sharing, and, of course, text chat. It has the capacity for audio, though as with other systems, you probably wouldn't want to use it unless you were desperate for free phone access. Yahoo IM is also available via your text-enabled mobile or wireless phone. So, when the free software offers so much, why would you want to buy the Linktivity products? Well, Linktivity's software incorporates most of the same basic functionality available in NetMeeting and adds some extra twists to offer more collaborative options and more control of what is shared or viewed. To really understand all the product functions, you should sign up for the free trial; some aspects of the software are difficult to explain, but make perfect sense when seen. Good information highlighting the full capabilities of both Linktivity products is available from http://www.linktivity.com/home/products.html, but here's a quick summary of the features which set them apart from NetMeeting's:
Whiteboarding Over an Application -- While most whiteboards are just that, a plain white empty space to write on, Linktivity's can also be used transparently over an existing document allowing you to point to or highlight the document's features without actually changing the document itself.
Co-Browsing -- A mode which allows for easy guided Web tours, but with the advantage that the viewer can bookmark sites, something not possible when, for instance, viewing a Web tour as a slide show. This actually happens in one or more users' browser windows, as guided by the controlling participant.
View and Control Enhancements -- WebDemo allows users the option to share either their full desktops or subset as well as allowing views of individual applications. Participants see only what you want them to see.
Security -- It's there but not inhibiting. Firewall friendly as their promotional materials put it. That's not to imply that NetMeeting isn't secure, but this seemed much easier to work with.
Recording and Playback -- Allows for review of all conferencing features in use as they happened during the session: Audio, Video, Co-Browse, Whiteboard, etc.
Minimal Software -- At least for the user's. Because WebDemo is Web-based, most of the interactivity is handled on the host end. Other participants mainly need a current browser and a good Internet connection.
WebDemo costs are based on concurrent connections, but to give you an idea, 5 concurrent connections costs $1499.00. There is a WebDemo Lite option that offers most of the same features except co-browse, audio and video. It's 3 to 5 connections for $799.00. Also, please note that WebDemo's video package is an add-on that costs an extra $699.00.
WebInteractive shares many of the same features as WebDemo, but is less complex since it's intended to be used mainly in one-on-one situations such as at a sales or help desk. The interface is much more user-friendly and explicit - an important aspect especially for the people calling in for support who see it from the user perspective rather than as a technical person who is providing help. For security reasons, the program always requires the user's consent before the support or sales person can take over control of the remote PC, so it's important that interactivity be straightforward. Costs for this product are based on the number of "agents" running the software, and it's $1499.00 each.
So, the good news is better than the bad news. Web conferencing has become much easier and less expensive and even a sophisticated conferencing suite like WebDemo can be had for a pretty reasonable price. Now, if they can just resolve those bandwidth issues, it will be truly practical. If you can live without audio, though, it's definitely worth investigating both as a collaborative tool and in problem solving or presentation environments. If you try any of the tools discussed above, let me know how it goes.
Next month, large scale interactive presentation smartboards and whiteboards.