Sunday, October 2, 2011

Doing a library session online - some options considered

We live in a world where it seems we have countless ways to communicate with our users. Recently, I have added a new one to my toolkit - WebEx a popular web conferencing software. At our institution we also have other tools/services options such as Camatasia Relay, Ink2Go, Adobe Breeze,Live sessions can be recorded as  "webcasts", while the free tools like Skype, Hangouts in Google+ gives us even more options.

With the diverse tools available I find myself  confused- what is the best tool to use? For example, if I am thinking of conducting a remote library orientation or perhaps a meeting. Should I screencast/webcast/videocast/slidecast/cast ?

Beyond the exact definition of each term more importantly when should each tool be used? This is my attempt to clarify all these tools in my mind.

One to One vs One to many

To me, one fundamental way to differentiate online tools is to consider whether the tool is meant for one to one sessions or one to many. In this blog post, I will discuss tools for one to many online sessions. The focus here will be on librarians sharing slides, videos, documents , browsers, displays of *their* screen to large groups online and narrating with their voices and sometimes showing videos of their faces from webcams.

Of course if a tool can be used for broadcasting to groups it can be used one-on-one. 

But arguably, one on one sessions often differs from group sessions usage. In particular one-on-one might use functions like pushing of pages (librarian sends user to specific pages) and cobrowsing (automatic synchronization of pages) or even remote desktop/access/assistant tools (user cede control and give full access to remote librarian which is great for troubleshooting).

Cobrowsing is a related but different technology to screensharing.

"Co-browsing differentiates itself from screen or application sharing because it is not achieved by sending a high rate of screenshots of the presenter screen to one or more participants but by distributing in a synchronous fashion the URL(s) being visited by the presenter to all participants' browsers."

My understanding is that libraries in the past have done cobrowsing/remote assistance usually in the context of one-to-one sessions via chat services like Questionpoint, but demand for this isn't particularly high compared to straight textual chat for various reasons.

To add further confusion there is a difference between "screen sharing" and "application sharing", where the later is "more specifically the ability not just to show specific applications to other connected participants but the combined ability of screen sharing with remote control.", though the distinction usually isn't made.

But for most use cases I am considering the focus is usually for the presenter to share the view of his screen to a group of audience rather then to look at the audience's screen and seldom is the audience allowed to control his screen either. 

While some advanced services do allow both screensharing, application sharing & cobrowsing type facilities, with higher bandwidths and technical issues with cobrowsing, screensharing is the main method of presentation.

In what follows I will focus on librarians doing screensharing ie sharing their screens or presentations to others rather than cobrowsing/remote assistant type functions.

Prerecorded sessions

The main decision you have to make is whether you want to have something prerecorded so your users can watch it anytime they want. This would be asynchronous type of session. The advantage is that you can have "digital extensions" of yourself that is always ready to help 24/7. The disadvantage is that it is all prerecorded so any element of interactivity is gone.

Some presenters are more comfortable with prerecorded sessions compared to "live" sessions because they can ensure that whatever they do is "perfect", recording over and over again until they are happy. On the other hand the pursuit for perfection can be very time consuming and often can also lead to a very boring presentation that lacks a certain spark a real live presentation includes.

Hybrid ideas include doing a "live presentation" which is also recorded for future viewing. So for example WebEx a web conferencing software generally meant for live seasons has build-in recording functions.

Another interesting idea for presenters who are afraid of making errors in real-time is to prerecord certain sections, play them in the "live" online season, then react in real-time to questions sent online. Of course this whole thing will then be recorded. Again Web-ex does allow this.

Below are some tools that are I believe purely meant for prerecording with little or no live casting capabilities.

Tools you can do to prerecord include anything from full-blown powerful tools like Camtasia/Adobe Captivate to free/freemium services like Camstudio, Jing or webbased ones like
Screencast-O-Matic, ScreenCastle, Screenr (comparison on Edtech blog). Though many of these webbased tools have limited session lengths for recording.

They all have similar elements, you can record whatever is on your screen (which is usually a program or a browser screen), you can add a voiceover, usually you can add text captions etc. The more advanced ones allow better editing functions, zooming, auto-upload to Youtube, maybe even inserting webcam pics on top (picture in picture)

The above software/services records whatever is on your screen, so you could record powerpoint slides, videos, browser screens, programs or a mix of whatever you want. But there are tools that are presentations tools that are for one type of presentation only (e.g Powerpoints).

It is of course possible to use pure pointpoint plus audio recording for video over (using built-in powerpoint "Record narration function") but you can also use software like Breeze powered by Adobe Presenter (now replaced by full webconferencing Acrobat Connect Pro). These are basically software designed around a certain type of presentation typically powerpoint slides rather then recording everything on your desktop.

Compared to desktop screenrecording this can be more "professional" because your screen/desktop is often cluttered with a lot of additional irrelevant items.

Livecasting tools

For tools that allow you to do live online sessions there are many options , and they differ in terms of capabilities including
  • Audio support (Some of the basic versions only allow the main presenter to speak)
  • Support of webcams overlaying main content (slides/videos/documents etc)
  • Screensharing  (presenter only or anyone, control of desktop etc)
  • Other interactive options e.g Whiteboards, annotation sharing options etc.
  • Supports viewing on mobile
The most flexible options are I believe top tier enterprise level web conferencing software like Webex, Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate), Adobe Connect etc. I only started using Webex (subscribed by my University) and it is a very powerful software bursting with features. You can share desktop, a specific program, or documents, there is built-in support for multiple webcams, you can easily change presenters, chat options including Q&A functions for sessions where there are many attendees and chat is likely to get too noisy, polls, interactive whiteboards, ability to divide into smaller "breakout" groups the list goes on and on.

Essentially you can use this for anything from webinars with hundreds of attendees to one on one sessions (though that might be overkill).

MSN options are Microsoft Office Live Meeting (formerly NetMeeting)
I haven't looked at many free or near free options, many free tools I tried in the past such as dimdim and yugma have gone paid and some free tools like Zoho meeting are limited to 1 on 1 for free versions. seems to be one viable option on par with Webex. The free one is adsupported but does up to 10 people only. Mikogo is a free webconferencing software those is selfhosted.

Another one to consider is Google+ hangout. A recent update, Google+ hangout with extras allows you not only to hangout via videos but allow you to share your screen. It is limited to 10 people but you can broadcast your hangout live to many more. But it's pretty limited and is not a full blown web conferencing software.

Google hangout with extra here I am sharing a google doc

If you are not looking for the ability to do full blown desktop sharing, there are tools like zipcast from slideshare allow you to have online meetings over slides posted on slideshare (voice only + slides on Slideshare - no other screensharing) , tools that allow you to watch youtube videos together (synchtube etc).

The key thing about such tools is that they should be as easy to use as possible. Ideally all you need to do is to give out a url for users to click and it starts to run on their browser with as little additional installation as possible. 

Webex is very powerful but is relatively slow and complicated for users to join the session. Google+ hangout is on the other extreme is relatively easy to setup (though you may need to download a googletalk plugin).  


I have only considered one use case, librarian presenting a library orientation or information literacy session online to a group of users. For other use cases such as teams doing collaboration online there are other collaborative tools which basically involve collaborative tools (office suites, wikis etc) adding videos and voice. Another area I haven't explored is the idea of packaging recorded live sessions or prerecorded sessions as video podcasts (does that make sense?)

Kiosk-like systems stationed at places were librarians are not around for users to contact us would be yet another use case which would require a different mix of functionality.  Would users want to see the librarian's face? Hear their voice? Or would text based chat be enough? Should it be a full 2-way video call so the librarian can see and hear the user or just one-way? My guess is for such devices to work it has to be almost seamless, as easy to use as a light switch (idea from David Lee King's presentation at NLS5), loadup time must be almost zero, otherwise no-one would use it.

Would be interested in librarians experiences with Kiosk-like systems, do users use it? Or is it too troublesome compared to the ease of opening one's mouth to ask a real life librarian standing in front of you?

Sources: An excellent blog on such tools is 

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