To close out 2011 and start 2012 I’m starting a series of “lessons learned” blog posts. In this first one, I’ll share some of my takeaways using the extremely innovative BlueJeans.com videoconferencing service for professional development workshops. This month I offered a series of “videoconference PD” sessions I called “The 12 Days of Playing with Media,” and all of these were bridged by BlueJeans Network. Five of those recorded sessions are available as 99¢ podcasts on learn.playingwithmedia.com. Many of my offered videoconference sessions are listed with the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration. (CILC)
The best way I can describe videoconferencing with BlueJeans in a few words is this sentence:
Bring your device and meet me in the clouds.
By “clouds” I don’t mean cumulus or stratus versions… I’m talking about cloud-based computing, where asynchronous data as well as live, synchronous communication channels “live” on Internet-connected web servers.
BlueJeans videoconferencing is qualitatively different from “other” kinds of videoconferencing options because it supports diverse videoconferencing platforms which are NOT otherwise interoperable. In addition, BlueJeans does NOT reduce call quality to “the lowest common denominator.” For me this month videoconferencing with BlueJeans, this meant I could teach with a Tandberg H.323 videoconferencing codec (which supports great computer screensharing) and participants could connect with their choice of either:
- Skype (on either a desktop/laptop computer or mobile device like an iPad or iPhone)
- a H.323 videoconferencing endpoint (from a vendor like Tandberg/Cisco, Polycom or LifeSize)
- Google Video on a desktop/laptop computer
This month I had workshop participants connect with both Skype and H.323 video endpoints. I taught primarily with a H.323 video connection, but one time taught over Skype. (The BlueJeans H.323 connection screen changed and I didn’t remember how to properly use my remote control to enter access codes…) I created a series of instructions for people videoconferencing with me using BlueJeans to explain the process. The screenshot below shows the webpage display for a Skype connection with BlueJeans. Skype videoconference participants have to download and install Skype, login with a free user account, and then click the CALL button on the BlueJeans webpage for the meeting which is emailed to them in advance.
For people connecting via H.323 endpoints, an IP address is provided (the conference bridge IP) and after connecting, a “pairing code” is displayed which participants enter into their web browser using the emailed meeting link.
Once the call is underway and participants are connected, as the meeting host I had a browser-based control panel where I could view call quality information for each person/endpoint and also change call layouts if desired. This permitted me to be the only video image received by participants, or let participants see each other with my screen showing up larger than the others.
Last spring I used BlueJeans several times for professional development workshops in the Tulsa area when the service was still in beta and free. This time, however, I had to pay to use the service and it took awhile for me to figure out what model was best. At the end of November 2011 when I signed up for a paid BlueJeans ‘plan’ there were four available options.
I actually created a simple spreadsheet and tried to figure out what made the most sense for me, planning to offer multiple workshops during the month. BlueJeans has a very different pricing model than other videoconferencing services, because if you’re not on an ‘unlimited’ plan you are charged for EACH INDIVIDUAL MINUTE EACH PARTICIPANT uses in a call. This means if I teach a 45 minute workshop over a BlueJeans videoconference and connect 15 minutes early with two different participants, as THREE separate callers for sixty minutes we’ll consume 180 “BlueJeans minutes.” The best way I figured to cover my costs for videoconferencing this month was to bite the bullet and pay $200 for the (now old and no longer available) “unlimited plan” which permitted an unlimited number of videoconferencing minutes during the month with a maximum of five participants in a call at the same time. That five seat maximum included me as the host. During the ten videoconferences I hosted on BlueJeans this month, participants and I collectively consumed 1661 minutes of BlueJeans time.
When I cancelled my BlueJeans monthly plan last night (since I don’t have scheduled videoconferences in January) I learned they have changed/simplified their billing plans. Now there are two options instead of four. The “unlimited” option still costs $200 per month, but is limited to THREE total call participants instead of five.
Overall I was very pleased with BlueJeans videoconferencing and would like to use their service again. I used EventBrite to handle online billing/payment and registration for my videoconferences, along with the CILC. The main “curve ball” I ran into with BlueJeans happened about 3/4ths of the way through the month, when they changed the H.323 login screen and I was unable to connect. Their tech support team called me back and explained the new procedures, but I ended up connecting and teaching over Skype for that call which turned out fine.
The instructions which BlueJeans provides to participants in an automated email sent after you schedule a meeting online are very thorough. No one had much trouble connecting to the calls with either Skype or H.323 video. In my videoconferences this month as well as the sessions I shared during the BlueJeans beta period last spring, I had participants in calls which used Skype and didn’t have access to H.323 endpoints. This meant they effectively couldn’t have participated in the videoconference “but for” BlueJeans bridging. I think the opportunity to connect with good quality to people using different videoconferencing systems is FANTASTIC. I really hope BlueJeans “makes it” as a technology company and remains financially viable. Although Skype and iChat both offer multi-point videoconferencing, no other service I’ve seen, read about or experienced supports a unified videoconferencing experience for participants on Skype, H.323 endpoints and Google Video. BlueJeans is alone in the industry with this capability, as far as I know. It works slick, it was very reliable, and I LOVE it. I plan to use it again.
The main disadvantage of BlueJeans Network videoconferencing is the cost. There are no free calls, other than the free “30 day trial” they offer. This is really bad for K-12 classroom contexts. When your school purchases a H.323 videoconferencing codec, the unit itself is expensive but “calls” you make after that are free unless you connect to a content provider who charges a fee. In the case of BlueJeans, the cost of the connection is borne by the content provider. For me, that worked this month since I scheduled so many different calls and had enough participants that I didn’t lose money. (I made a little, but not enough to really impress my wife. Sort of date money, really…) In the future, if I want to use BlueJeans I’ll need to schedule multiple calls in the same month to make it cost effective to pay the monthly fee. While I theoretically could “pay by the minute,” I don’t think that will be a cost effective solution. It also discourages connections 15 or 30 minutes in advance for participants, which are really essential for videoconferencing.
My main suggestion for BlueJeans overlords is to come up with an educational pricing scheme that would be VERY affordable and generous for classroom teachers. I think a flat, annual fee rather than a monthly cost would work better for schools, and some kind of limited conferencing option which didn’t involve “by the minute” charges.” It was too difficult to figure out how many “BlueJeans minutes” a particular call was going to “cost me,” when in most cases I wasn’t positive how many participants I’d have in the final call until a few days in advance. A flat fee structure for classroom use which provided something like the following might work better for classroom settings:
– Free educational account: 1 hour long conference per month, max of five participants in each
– Starter educational account: flat $20 per year, max of 3 hours / 180 minutes of videoconferences per month, max of five participants in each
– Intermediate educational account: flat $50 per year, max of 5 hours / 300 minutes of videoconferences per month, max of five participants in each
– Pro educational account: flat $100 per year, max of 10 hours / 600 minutes of videoconferences per month, max of five participants in each
There could be other options for schools and districts which would want to use BlueJeans bridging more extensively. I don’t know if the prices above would fly for BlueJeans, but they certainly would be more reasonable for classrooms. Any cost for videoconferencing is challenging for classroom teachers and schools, but the current cost model of BlueJeans is completely off the chart to be reasonable there. I hope they’ll continue to tweak their pricing models and come up with education-specific pricing similar to commercial services like VoiceThread.
As a final lesson learned, I’ll share that Screenflow software worked great for me to record my videoconferences this month on BlueJeans. This was not a true “conference recording,” but that was beneficial since the screen resolution was much higher than a call recording could have been. BlueJeans does not presently offer call recording as a feature. Last spring I experimented by using Call Recorder on a separate computer connected to a bridged BlueJeans call using Skype, but the quality wasn’t great. I have access to a Codian bridge for videoconferencing and recording, but I only know how to dial INTO the bridge. The BlueJeans bridge can’t call out, participants have to call IN. So, my call recording experiences were good this month but they were not directly done using the BlueJeans connection. Screenflow Software is Mac-only and costs $100, but in my book it’s worth it. To see a free example of a recent, edited screencast I created with ScreenFlow, check out the video tutorial on the post, “Create Clever Information Traps with Zoo Tool, Posterous, & ifttt.”
If you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy post, here’s a closing treat for you. I’ve created a new, 100% discount code for any of my 99¢ “Playing with Media” videoconference podcasts/screencasts. Use this link to select a 60 minute podcast you want, and apply the discount code “2011bluejeans” to your shopping cart. This discount code will work for the first twenty people who use it, and will expire at midnight EST on December 31, 2011. Beware the file size of each podcast is over 1 GB, so depending on the speed of your Internet connection it will likely take over an hour to download each one. If you download one or more, enjoy! And Happy New Year! 🙂
Have you used BlueJeans Network connections for videoconferencing? If so please share your experiences and perceptions. Do you think the pricing suggestions I’ve made for K-12 classroom teachers and schools are reasonable? I’d love to see more students and teachers collaborating more regularly using network services like BlueJeans, but for that to happen their pricing model will need to keep evolving.
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