This past week I’ve been testing out some tools for audio and web conferencing for our Informl Learning Unworkshop. The platforms range from free, to pay, to open source, and each option has its pros and cons. Free programs, like Skype for audio and Vyew for slide presentations and text chat, are just fine if you want something that is quick and simple to set up. There is a still a learning curve, as I learned with our skypecast, but little technical skill is required. The problem with these free systems is that they don’t scale well. For instance, you can’t run a private skypecast, nor can you run Vyew on your intranet (at least not for free).
If you are planning on using a system inside your company or your Intranet/Extranet then you may want to start with an open source system. It will require more technical expertise to get the software operating on your server, but you will own the installation and code and will be able to grow it according to your business needs. One of the few available open source web conferencing tools is Canadian-made ePresence. I haven’t tried it out yet, but it appears to be fairly stable.
Another option would be to pay for a service or proprietary system. The trade-off with these proprietary systems is that you will have a packaged solution, but you won’t own the code. System upgrades may cost you more money than anticipated, and you can’t “look under the hood”. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of web conferencing systems on the market. These range in price up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Unfortunately, you don’t always get what you pay for. One of the lowest cost systems, which also interoperates with skype, is Persony, available for a one-time cost of $299 and recommended by the web collaboration guru, Robin Good.
There’s a good range of options available today but you have to test these tools within the context of your operations. For instance, certain platforms work better with international conferences. Others are great when all of the participants are in North America, but break down when you add people from across oceans. Try them out first.