Videoconferencing has continued to improve dramatically in the past several years. One sign of this improvement is that fact that in a group of twenty US educators today, at least one is likely to have participated in a free videoconference with someone in another country thanks to Skype. Before Skype and iChat, however, we had codec-based videoconferencing equipment. Companies like VTEL and Polycom were the pioneers, with Tandberg (now owned by Cisco) and Lifesize now offering the best (IMHO) options for IP-based (H.323) conferencing connections.* Codec-based videoconferencing units are still much more expensive than webcam solutions like Skype, iChat and Google Video, but generally offer greater stability, reliability, call quality, and peripheral support. Until now, codec-based videoconferencing was also differentiated by its ability to offer multi-point calls with more than 4 participants. Skype video and Google Video calls have been limited to one-to-one, but iChat calls could have up to four simultaneous participants. I’m pleased to report these past limits can now be exceeded, thanks to a breakthrough “cloud-based” videoconferencing solution.

This past Friday thanks to Tammy Parks in Howe, Oklahoma, I was absolutely THRILLED to be introduced to multi-point videoconferencing via the Blue Jeans Network.

Blue Jeans Network

According to the web service’s about page:

At Blue Jeans Network, our mission is to make video communications as easy and pervasive as audio communications, enabling more effective collaboration at work, at home, and on the road. Our cloud-based conferencing service enables people to connect with each other any time, any place, and from practically any device.

This translates to an amazing capability: After registering on the site and creating a meeting (free for now while the service is in beta) you can invite ANYONE using an H.323 endpoint codec or Skype connection to join your conference. Up to ten people can join at a time, and the conference host can choose different layouts to share content as well as video from any participant. These layouts can include video from ALL participants, surrounding selected central content, even through people are connecting via different communication protocols. This allows folks with H.323 equipment to leverage its quality and feature set in calls with folks who may just have access to Skype on a laptop or even a tablet device, like an iPad. Everyone in the call has access to the same video presentation including multiple participants and computer data as well as cameras shared as content streams.

Skype call on Blue Jeans Network

This is an EXTREMELY exciting and potentially ‘game changing’ technology for me personally. While I do like and enjoy synchronous web conferencing options like Elluminate, the screen sharing capabilities and multi-point video performance of that environment isn’t on a par (from what I’ve seen to date) with Blue Jeans Network conferences. In addition, Elluminate can be VERY expensive for institutions to license. I’ve used Ustream in the past for synchronous workshops, but the video quality has not been great– especially for computer content sharing. I still need to check out Big Blue Button as a web-conferencing solution, since it’s open source, but I don’t think its capabilities can rival Blue Jeans either. I’ve considered renting my own Elluminate room for online workshops, but I would really like to be able to use a solution like Blue Jeans which bridges the gap between schools having H.323 videoconferencing capabilities and those with just Skype and webcams. I’m now considering a series of workshops this summer which might explore these possibilities, particularly those offered now that the iPad2 has full VGA-out mirroring. I don’t know how I could readily share a live conference with my iPad2 using Elluminate or another web conferencing environment, but I definitely can in a Blue Jeans Network-powered conference using my Tandberg videoconference unit.

Collaboration needs to become the norm rather than an anomaly in our classrooms. Cloud-based videoconferencing services like the Blue Jeans network will hopefully enable more students as well as teachers to participate in interactive, collaborative conference calls and leverage the synchronous potential of the Internet to both bring us closer together as well as help us learn in transformative ways we could not without access to these tools.

Stay tuned for some upcoming workshop announcements from me, powered (I hope) by The Blue Jeans Network!

If you’d like to learn more about the possibilities of using interactive video for learning in professional development as well as the classroom, check out the following K-12 Online Conference past presentations. (They’re all FREE and wonderful, of course!)

If you’d like a ‘blast from the past’ when it comes to videoconferencing capabilities six years ago, check out the March 2005 article I wrote for Technology & Learning Magazine, “Room with a View.” We’ve come a long way in a short time, and it’s exciting to think where we’ll be going with videoconferencing and collaboration in just the next several years!

* Full disclosure: The past two years I’ve arranged a deal with Tandberg where I’ve provided several free professional development sessions through their “Tandberg Connections” program in exchange for the personal, unrestricted use of a Tandberg videoconferencing unit. I do have extensive past experiences utilizing VTEL, Polycom and Tandberg videoconferencing units, but my extended uses of Tandberg equipment have certainly colored my personal biases. I currently offer videoconference-based professional development through the Center for Interactive Learning & Collaboration (CILC) and will be updating my list of available videoconferences there soon!

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