A Few Good Online Conferencing Tools
Adding visuals to a phone conference can make a big difference - perhaps by showing a document, software application or slides. Or maybe you want to conduct a more formal online seminar—sometimes called a Webinar. There are a number of affordable software packages that can help. We talked to five nonprofit professionals about the tools that have worked for them.
With telecommuting rising in popularity and the workforce becoming truly global, conference calls are now an accepted means of doing business. But sometimes a conference call just isn’t enough.
Sometimes you need to show visuals to go along with the conversation—maybe you want everyone to see the same document over the Web, in real time, in order to mark it up together or share calculations. Maybe you want to show your computer screen to demonstrate a particular application or Web site. Or maybe you even want to go a step further and conduct a more formal online seminar—sometimes called a Webinar—with tools that let you show slides or your computer screen, conduct polls or even let your participants talk to each other in virtual “breakout rooms.”
Tools that offer any of these functionalities are often referred to in aggregate as “online conferencing” applications. In this article, we take a look at what's available to help you share a more integrated experience with a remote group of participants. We talked to a number of nonprofit professionals about the tools that have worked for them in this area. While they’re not the only tools available—literally dozens of options exist—these tools might also work for you.
Do You Need Online Conferencing?
First off, if you simply want multiple people to see the same document at the same time, there are easier options than online conferencing. For instance,Google Docs lets an unlimited number of people view and collaboratively edit a text document or spreadsheet online, in near-real time - and it's free. If you’re looking to share diagrams, Gliffy lets you collaboratively create and view flowcharts, user interfaces and other diagrams online in real time. Gliffy is free for a limited use, advertisement-supported version.
What Do Online Conferencing Tools Do?
The basic function of online conferencing tools is to provide an online “meeting room.” Typically, a moderator creates the “room,” and participants enter via a particular Web address. Some tools require participants to download a small application the first time they're used, an important consideration if many different people of different technical skill levels will be participating.
- Desktop sharing. This basic feature lets participants see exactly what's on the presenter's screen. Presenters can share anything from simple documents to PowerPoint presentations and software demonstrations. Note that a number of conferencing tools can only show the desktop of Windows computers, or only those using Internet Explorer browsers—if you’ll need to show desktops for Mac, Linux or Firefox users, look for a tool that supports that.
- Desktop remote control. A step beyond desktop sharing, some applications let you grant control of your desktop to someone else, allowing them to open and work with the applications on your computer—for example, to provide you with technical support via your machine.
- Web site co-browsing. This specialized functionality lets your actions in an Internet browser control your participants' browsers as well. If your conferencing needs are limited to showing or sharing a Web site, this method is likely to create a better view for the participants, and require less bandwidth, than desktop sharing.
- Text chat. Another basic feature, this lets participants and presenters “talk” to each other via typed text chat during presentations. Some tools let all participants see such messages, while others allow for private one-on-one messaging. Some more advanced tools even provide for “breakout rooms” where multiple participants can chat privately.
- Share slides or other documents. While desktop sharing lets you show slides or documents from your computer, you still need to toggle between your desktop and the meeting room. Some tools let you upload documents into the online conference to avoid this hassle.
- Promote attendees to presenters. If you have multiple presenters, some allow you to shift meeting control temporarily to a participant. They can then show their own desktop, advance slides or demo another application.
- Emoticons and polls. Remote meetings have their challenges—with participants in different locations, how do you keep a seminar lively, or even know how content is being received? Allowing participants to display “emoticons” for themselves—little pictures that represent common phrases or sentiments, such “slow down,” “speak louder,” or “laughter”—can be useful. Similarly, the ability to do quick polls to gauge participants’ options or situations can help keep them engaged.
- Video conferencing. Some more advanced tools let presenters broadcast video of themselves talking. In some cases, even participants can broadcast themselves, if they have Web cams or appropriate hardware capabilities.
Handling Audio Conferencing
The way each tool handles voice is a big differentiator. It’s certainly possible to simply use a separate phone line—either the same one you use for phone conferencing, or something likeFreeConferenceCall (which is free to the organizers, but requires participants to dial a long-distance number).
However, integrating audio into the meeting room can be useful. For example, this allows you to see how many people are on the phone, mute and unmute phone lines from the meeting interface and record audio and visual elements together. Some tools provide support for either a toll or toll-free conference line—typically for an additional fee of between $0.05 to $0.10 per person per minute.
Other tools provide support for Voice Over IP audio. Rather than a phone line, participants hear the audio coming out of their computer speakers. While inexpensive, and often free, users report more difficulty with sound quality and drop-offs. This option can also be issue-prone with less technically savvy participants, who often have difficulty troubleshooting problems with their computer speakers. And anyone who wants to speak will need a microphone connected to their computer, which is not yet a common item. In general, VOIP audio can work great for collaboration on small, ongoing teams, but is problematic for larger, one-time groups, like a seminar.
Desktop and Application Sharing Software
Simple desktop- and application-sharing tools have fewer features than full online seminar tools, but they’re often easier for participants to use. They offer a less-cluttered interface, making them a good choice for straightforward sharing. Presenters typically install the software on their computers, and share the information on their screens with others at a specific Internet address.
- Screenstream(www.nchsoftware.com/screen/). Free for anyone to use, Screenstream allows Windows PC presenters to share their desktop with participants on PCs, Macs or Linux, who view the desktop through a browser with no install required.
- TeamViewer (www.teamviewer.com). While focused more on desktop support situations, TeamViewer allows presenters to share PC or Mac desktops with participants on PCs or Macs. Both presenters and viewers must download and install an application—making it more appropriate for internal teams than more public situations. A free version of the tool is available for private use; otherwise it starts at about $250 for six months.
- Glance (www.glance.net). While not free—Glance starts at about $50 per month—this is a widely used, reliable and particularly simple screen-sharing application. Presenters install a piece of software, and can then share PC or Mac desktops with participants on PCs, Macs or Linux, who view the desktop through a browser with no install required.
A number of the online seminar tools, below, also offer free versions with desktop sharing (including from Mac and Linux desktops) for a limited number of users. The interface may a bit more complex for presenters and participants than the tools in this category, but the functionality is the same.
Online Seminar Tools
Online seminar tools typically add features such as chat, slide-sharing, the ability to promote participants to presenters and integrated voice conferencing into the basic desktop and application features. They’re designed to allow organizations to not only present to a group of people, but to facilitate interaction among them.
- DimDim (www.dimdim.com). DimDim is a fairly new, streamlined online seminar application with support for chat, slide sharing, emoticons, white-boarding, VOIP voice conferencing and video conferencing. Only PC desktops can be shared, but DimDim supports Mac and Linux users for other features. Participants can enter meeting rooms using almost any system or browser, typically without a download. A free, ad-supported version allows up to 20 people to participate; a version without ads starts at $99 per year for up to 20 people.
- Yugma (www.yugma.com). Another relative newcomer, Yugma provides desktop sharing, chat and white-boarding. It also supports VOIP conferencing, including a feature that integrates seminars with Skype calls. Presenters can use PC, Macs or Linux. Participants can use almost any system or browser by downloading a Java applet. A free, limited-functionality version allows up to 10 people to participate; more feature-rich versions start at about $200 per year for up to 20 people.
- GoToMeeting/ GoToWebinar(www.gotomeeting.com). GoToMeeting is a bit more expensive, but more established, than either DimDim or Yugma, starting at $468 per year for up to 15 people. The features are comparable—it supports either phone or VOIP conferencing, but not white-boarding or video conferencing—with full support for presenters on Window PCs and limited support for Macs. Participants can use nearly any system or browser by downloading a Java applet. The GoToWebinar version supports up to 1,000 participants, adds poll-taking and integrated voice and visual recordings, and starts at $948 per year.
- Acrobat Connect(/www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnect/). Adobe's take on video conferencing and online seminars is polished, and similar in features to DimDim, with desktop sharing, white-boarding, emoticons, video conferencing and VOIP conferencing. Presenters can use Mac or PCs. Participants can use any browser that runs Flash. The tool is free for up to three participants, or $395 per year for up to 15. For more participants, you’ll need Acrobat Connect Pro (see below).
- ReadyTalk (www.readytalk.com). ReadyTalk is reliable and widely used by nonprofits. It offers strong toll or toll-free (domestic and international) voice conferencing solutions at additional cost, and voice and visual recording features which integrate fully with the Web solutions, but no support for VOIP conferencing, white-boarding or video conferencing. Through TechSoup Stock (www.techsoup.org/stock/), nonprofits can get ReadyTalk Web conferencing tools for $45 per year for up to three participants, plus $0.15 per minute for each additional participant. The tool is also available at a flat-rate fee that starts at about $1,000 per year for hundreds of participants.
Online seminar tools are typically geared to support organizational seminars and meetings with relative simplicity, but there’s another type of system largely targeted at universities and others who conduct large-scale distance learning programs. These systems are not necessarily more expensive—especially for small scale implementations—but they’re more complex.
They typically offer the same sophisticated features as online seminar packages, plus support for breakout groups, online content libraries, online quizzes and exams and more. Each of these packages mentioned below also has a larger enterprise edition that can support large-scale implementations—for example, integrating with course- or learning-management systems, single sign-on support and advanced support for those with disabilities.
- Acrobat Connect Pro(www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnectpro). Connect Pro offers the same features of the lower-cost Connect version described earlier, and adds support for toll or toll-free voice conferencing, slide sharing, an online content library, polls, breakout rooms and integrated voice and visual recording, as well as a host of other eLearning and enterprise features. The platform is priced based on the number of named presenters able to start meetings, and the number of participants. For a single presenter and fewer than 100 participants, it’s equivalent or cheaper in price than the more expensive online seminar tools.
Selecting the Right Package
When selecting an online conference tool, as always, start with your needs. Do you just need something easy for a single upcoming meeting? If so, one of the free desktop-sharing or online seminar tools might suffice. If you need a robust, reliable solution to support an online seminar or training program, however, you’ll want to invest in a solution that will be reliable, powerful and advertisement-free.
If you need more unusual features, like video conferencing, voice and visual recordings or polls, start by ruling out the tools that don't support these needs. Most of the tools are affordable, often with month-to-month payment options, so you can try them out without too much risk.
As the workplace expands without regard for distance, or even walls, don't let location dictate the limits of your presentations or conferences. You can't always bring the participants to you, but with the right software, you may no longer need to.
For More Information
Web Conferencing Roundup
A quick look at a number of less expensive online conferencing options
Screen Sharing Tools and Technology
An in-depth comparison of features and software for desktop sharing
Getting to know Online Conferencing Tools
A free recording of a TechSoup online seminar, in which Laura Quinn, the Director of Idealware, talks through the concepts outlined in this article.
Idealware Online Seminar: Getting Started with Online Conferencing and Seminar Tools
This is a recording of an Idealware online seminar, in which we talk more in-depth about the features and tools covered in this article, with demos, screenshots, and lots of time for your questions. We’ll close with some tips and tricks about conducting training via the web. The recording is $20 per person. Or check out our seminar schedule for a live seminar!
Thanks to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help:
- Chris Bernard, Italics Media
- Kami Griffiths, TechSoup
- Michelle Murrain, MetaCentric Technology Advising
- Laura Quinn, Idealware
- Holly Ross, NTEN
- Yann Toledano, YTC