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 doesn’t provide the appropriate venue for your needs. For example, if you have visuals to show along with the conversation—so everyone can see the same document over the web, in real time, to mark up together or to share calculations—or want to share your computer screen to demonstrate a particular application or website. Or maybe you want to go a step further and conduct a more formal online seminar, called a webinar, using tools that let you display slides or your computer screen, conduct polls, or even let 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 look at the different tools currently available to help you share a more-integrated experience with a remote group of participants. To that end, 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 are proven tools that might also work for your needs.
 

Do You Need Online Conferencing?

If you simply want multiple people to see the same document at the same time, there are easier, more-affordable options than online conferencing tools. For example, Google Drive, formerly called Google Docs, lets an unlimited number of people view and collaboratively edit text documents or spreadsheets online, in near-real time—and it's free. If you’re looking to share diagrams, Gliffy lets a group create and view flowcharts, user interfaces, and other diagrams online in real time. Gliffy offers a free limited use, ad-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—note that 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. Generally, other features and functions include the following:
 
  • Desktop Sharing. This basic feature lets participants see exactly what’s on the presenter’s screen—everything 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, so if you’ll need to show desktops for Mac, Linux, Firefox, or Chrome 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.
  • Website 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 website, this method is likely to create a better view for the participants and requires less bandwidth than sharing your desktop.
  • Text Chat. This basic feature 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 among participants. 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. More advanced online seminar tools let you upload your slides or other documents into the conference to avoid this hassle.
  • Promote Attendees to Presenters. It can often be useful, especially in a classroom setting, to shift meeting control to a participant and allow them to 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. More advanced tools may 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 like FreeConferenceCall, which is free to 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-based 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 (VOIP) 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 more familiar troubleshooting problems on their phones than their computer speakers. 
 
In addition, everyone who wants to speak will need microphones connected to their computers. While modern laptops typically have microphones built in, using both the microphone and speakers without headphones or a headset may result in feedback. In general, VOIP audio can work great for collaboration on small, ongoing teams, but for larger one-time groups such as seminars, it may degrade audio quality and provide an extra burden for participants.
 

Free Online Conferencing 

If all you need is a no-frills video conference, consider Skype and Google Hangouts. While both provide conferencing and chat between two computers for free, Skype requires a paid account for three-or-more callers. Google Hangouts, however, allows up to 10 participants for free. In addition, Hangouts allows users to share Google Drive documents, making collaboration easier than with Skype.
 
Google Hangouts is available free with a Google account through Google Plus, while Skype comes pre-installed on most new Windows computers and can be downloaded for free on others. Because of how data from your calls or chats is handled by their respective companies, neither platform is likely to be appropriate for use in a confidential setting—for example, conversations with patients. 
 
In addition, neither platform seems to consistently have better call quality than the other, and reliability can vary widely based on connection speed, available bandwidth, and other, less-tangible factors. The tool that works best for your organization will depend more on your own hardware and internet connection than anything else. Ultimately, your decision will likely be limited by what tool your participants prefer, or already use. 
 

Desktop and Application Sharing Software

Simple desktop- and application-sharing tools have fewer features than full online seminar tools, but are 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.
 
The most commonly used of these tools include the following:
 
Screen Stream. Free for anyone to use, Screen Stream lets Windows PC presenters share their desktops with participants on PCs, Macs, or Linux-based systems who view the desktop through browsers.
 
TeamViewer. 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 $750 for up to 15 participants and unlimited hosts.
 
Glance. While not free—costs start at about $500 per year—Glance 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 systems viewing the desktop through browsers. 
 
Join.me. A newer option, join.me provides free web meetings with desktop-sharing and VOIP audio conferencing in a clean interface for up to 10 participants. Participants can also attend meetings using join.me’s free apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android. Join.me Pro starts at $149 per year for one user and up to 250 participants.
 
A number of the online seminar tools listed in the next section also offer free versions with desktop sharing (including Mac and Linux desktops) for a limited number of users. The interface may be 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 not only to present to a group of people, but to facilitate interaction among them.
 
Yugma. Yugma provides desktop sharing, chat, and whiteboarding. It also supports VOIP conferencing, and can even integrate seminars with Skype calls. Presenters can use PC, Macs, or Linux-based machines, and participants can use almost any system or browser by downloading a Java applet. A free, limited-functionality version allows one attendee, suitable for one-on-one meetings, while more feature-rich versions for 20 or more attendees start at about $100 per year.
 
BigBlueButton. BigBlueButton is an open source webinar solution designed for colleges and universities that brings in functionality typically found in a Learning Management System (LMS). In addition to a clean, straightforward interface, this tool includes built-in whiteboards, audio-visual recordings, desktop and webcam sharing, and VOIP. As an open source tool, BigBlueButton is free to acquire and is continually being developed—less tech-savvy users may be intimidated by the installation and update process, but can find help from the community.
 
GoToMeeting/GoToWebinar. GoToMeeting is a more-expensive, well established tool, starting at $468 per year for up to 25 people. The features are comparable to Yugma—it supports either phone or VOIP conferencing, but not whiteboarding 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.
 
Adobe Connect for Web Meetings/ Webinars (http://www.adobe.com/products/adobeconnect.html). Adobe’s take on video conferencing and online seminars is polished, with desktop sharing, whiteboarding, emoticons, video conferencing, and VOIP conferencing. Presenters can use Mac or PCs, and participants can use any browser that runs Flash. Pricing starts at $45 per host, per month, for up to 25 attendees. For more participants and features, you’ll need Adobe Connect for eLearning (see below).
 
ReadyTalk. 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, whiteboarding, or video conferencing. Through TechSoup Stock, nonprofits can get ReadyTalk web conferencing tools for $9 per month for a one-year license (plus TechSoup’s $45 admin fee) which can include up to 25 participants, plus $0.10 per minute for each additional participant. The tool is also available at a flat-rate fee that starts at $948 per year for 100 participants or more.
 
WebEx. WebEx by Cisco—often chosen by businesses—allows for desktop and document sharing as well as whiteboarding, and provides a free mobile app to allow participants to join a meeting from their tablet or smartphone. Participants can call in to presentations or meetings either through VOIP or a toll-free line. Pricing for WebEx is multi-tiered, depending on specific features or uses, and starts at $25 per month for one host license and up to eight people per meeting; for up to 100 participants, pricing starts at $89 per month. 
 
In addition, you may consider an eLearning environment if you need larger meeting sizes or more-interactive features. 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. These systems are not necessarily more expensive—especially for small-scale implementations—but they’re more complex, and larger enterprise editions can support large-scale implementations—for example, integrating with Course Management Systems  or Learning Management Systems, single sign-on support, and advanced support for those with disabilities. Both Adobe Connect and WebEx offer more feature-rich eLearning editions of their conferencing solutions.
 

Selecting the Right Package 

When selecting an online conference tool, 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-advanced features like whiteboards, voice, and visual recordings or polls, start by ruling out the tools that don't support these needs. If you have the time, it may be worth trying out a few tools to find the right fit—most are fairly affordable with month-to-month subscriptions, and some may include a free trial. 
 
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 News Radar. Kolabora maintains this helpful and up-to-date ticker of news and tips for online and video conferencing, as well as other collaboration topics. 
 
Cheap and Cheerful Video Conferencing. In this Idealware guest blog post, Lauren Haynes, IT Manager for the Ounce of Prevention Fund in Chicago, talks about the “cheap and cheerful” video conferencing setup her organization threw together.
 
Online Meeting Guide: Software and Strategy. From Make Use Of, a handy overview of the advantages and disadvantages of online conferencing, as well as a rundown of free and paid conferencing tools.
 
Five Best Web Based Video Chat Services. From Lifehacker, a list of the five best web services for video chat, as picked by the readers.
 
Thanks to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help for the original and updated articles:
 
Lindsey Martin-Bilbrey, NTEN (www.nten.org) (2013)
Kami Griffiths, TechSoup (www.techsoup.org) (2008)
Michelle Murrain, nonprofit web developer (www.murrain.net/) (2008 and 2013)
Holly Ross, NTEN (www.nten.org) (2008)
Yann Toledano, YTC (www.ytconsulting.com/ )(2008)

 

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