On April 25, 2017, the Baruch College Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) hosted a workshop on web conferencing. The aim of the workshop was to inform instructors about different technology tools available to connect with students virtually. These tools can be used for a number of different purposes, such as to hold office hours online, host an online class, or reach students who cannot physically make it to class.
The workshop covered three different web-conferencing tools. I will give a brief description of each one below.
1. Google Hangouts
Google Hangouts is perhaps the most well-known of the three and is available free of charge. The platform supports basic features such as: video/audio conferencing, instant messaging, and desktop screen sharing. All users must login with a Gmail account and a software plugin installation may be required.
One downside of Google Hangouts is that the free version limits the number of participants in one meeting to 10 people.
For instructions on how to use Google Hangouts, click here.
2. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra
For instructors with classes that utilize Blackboard Learning Management System, this next option offers an alternative to the limited Google Hangouts. This tool can be located by logging into your class’ Blackboard page, clicking “Tools” in the left sidebar, and then clicking “Blackboard Collaborate Ultra“.
According to Blackboard:
“Blackboard Collaborate is a real-time video conferencing tool that lets you add files, share applications, and use a virtual whiteboard to interact. Collaborate with the Ultra experience opens right in your browser, so you don’t have to install any software to join a session.”
Essentially, this tool offers additional features aside from basic web conferencing such as the ability to record sessions, share files, use a virtual whiteboard, poll students, and split up students into smaller groups. Students can even click a button to “raise” their hand.
One of the downsides of this tool is that only users with a CUNY portal account can access it. That means invited guest speakers would not be able to use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.
Additionally, as with other Blackboard tools, the interface is rather clunky and not very intuitive. Instructors should definitely pilot test this tool before implementing it into their classes.
Unfortunately, Baruch has not released an updated manual for Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Blackboard has a help page located here. Unsurprisingly though, that help guide is rather difficult to navigate, so an alternative help guide posted by the folks over at USC may be more helpful.
3. Cisco Webex
The third and final web-conferencing tool discussed was Cisco Webex. This tool appears to be the most powerful of the three. It offers basically all of the functions of the previous two tools mentioned above. Up to 50 participants can join a meeting. Any person can participate in a session as long as you have their email address. The user interface is much cleaner and easier to navigate relative to Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.
However, there are currently no guides posted by Baruch on how to use this service. Furthermore, there are currently only a limited number of licenses available for Baruch College professors. To request a license, contact the Baruch Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). For instructors at other CUNY campuses, contact your local campus tech team to see if they have any licenses available.
To sum up, here are my recommendations:
If you are only meeting virtually with one or a few students and just need basic functions like video and audio conferencing, choose Google Hangouts since it’s widely available and incredibly easy to use.
If you want to do something more complicated like host an entire class online, consider requesting a license to Cisco Webex. If that option does not work out or is not available for you, try Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.
Regardless of what option you choose, make sure you pilot before implementing it into your class! Good luck!