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'Net Collaboration on the Cheap
Published
2008, Q2 (July 10, 2008)
By Nancy Shoemaker, Carolina Chapter Member
Nancy Shoemaker
Nancy Shoemaker

Web conferencing without corporate support — how to take advantage of ways the 'net can facilitate meetings in real life.

Introduction

In the corporate world, conference calls are routine, web conferencing is a standard tool, and even video conferencing is common. You're aware of and may be using tools from wikis to SecondLife, from bulletin boards to Facebook. In your "real life," though, when you want to collaborate with family members or fellow volunteers, you may fall back on seemingly endless email chains to carry out discussions or edit documents. You may restrict presentations to events when all the participants can get together in person. For groups that need to connect with each other over relatively long distances, other solutions can improve efficiency (no more searching for that last version of the document) and effectiveness (higher quality discussions can take place).

This note is to share some of the strategies that I've been using in volunteer settings over the last few years. My collaborators generally start thinking that email is a fine way to share information and documents, but quickly get converted to the benefits of other tools.

Some of the questions to keep in mind when selecting a strategy include
  • How many participants will there be?
  • What's the range of their comfort with technology?
  • What are the needs for a recording of the session?
  • What costs are acceptable?

The services in this area can change rapidly. If you see inaccuracies or have other suggestions, please do use the discussion link at the bottom of the article to add current information.

Audio conferencing

Teleconferencing, connecting all the participants on a phone call, has changed from an expensive proposition to something that is well within the budget of all but the most cash-strapped organizations.

Freeconferencecall.com is the site I use most often to support teleconferences. The word "free" in the name is a bit misleading. What it means is that the conference bridge is free. However, all the participants pay their own long distance charges to reach the bridge. On the other hand, since the participants may have unlimited long distance plans, cell phone minutes that would otherwise go unused, or low-cost pre-paid long distance plans, we find that the average total cost/call is under $.01/minute/participant. If we warn folks ahead of time (and refer them to a site for prepaid long distance like OneSuite.com if they would normally pay more than $.03/minute for long distance), we find that the participants are almost always willing to fund the conference call.

Freeconferencecall.com supports up to 96 callers on calls of up to six hours. The host registers for an account, and will be assigned a phone number and pin that’ll be valid for 120 days. (Renewing the account promptly will generally ensure being assigned the same number and pin.) The host's capabilities include muting the room, and the ability to record the call. Recordings can be accessed via phone for 120 days or can be downloaded for posting on other sites. Toll-free service, where the host covers all the participants' dial-in costs, is available at $.06/minute/participant.

Freeconference.com is a similar service. It allows up to 150 callers, and has both reservationless and web-scheduled conferences. Its toll-free service is $.10/minute/participant. It also offers a recording service. For a comparison of its different services, see this table.

If there are very few participants, and they are all moderately tech-savvy, Skype provides conference calling and can support webcam enabled video conferencing as well. It's currently limited to ten participants (including the host), but is apparently increasing to 25. If your group is apt to be comfortable with this technology, or if any participants are outside the US, it's certainly something to consider.

Finally, if you're using a web conferencing system (see below), it may also provide integrated audio conferencing. Recording the webinar may be easier if you use the suggested phone provider. Check this ahead of time if recording is important to you.

Freeconferencecall.com has been my preferred system since its features meet my needs, some of my collaborators are unfamiliar with Skype, and in late 2007 we saw problems with freeconference.com connections from callers who were using prepaid long distance or Skype connections.

Option Cost Comments
Skype very low Can be difficult for first-timers
Freeconferencecall.com low Simple for host and participants
Freeconference.com low-moderate Has advanced scheduling features
Webinar connection varies Check on this as you select a webinar vendor


Document sharing

One way to edit documents collaboratively without emailing them back and forth is to use Google docs.
When running an audio conference, there's often a need to review or edit documents. While this can be done by emailing copies ahead of time, if those documents change during the course of the conversation, it is easy for participants' copies to get out of synch.

One solution to this problem that doesn't add any cost to the audio conference is to use Google docs to handle the document sharing during the conference. Google docs allows sharing of text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. See Google Docs in Plain English for a video introduction from Common Craft.

I've found this to be particularly helpful for budget planning meetings where it's difficult to get all the stakeholders at a physical meeting. We can be using an audio conference (or just a simple phone connection if there are only two or three people involved), and as we reach agreements on what line items in the budget need to be changed, everyone can see the results on the spreadsheet in real time. To make this work, the meeting host
  • Creates the spreadsheet in Google docs (or uploads an existing spreadsheet)
  • Sends an invitation to “share” the document to all the meeting participants
  • Reminds participants to bring up the document in their browser before joining the audio portion of the conference

The spreadsheet interface also has a “chat” function so it can be used even without a phone connection.

For other types of meetings, the agenda can be shared in the same way. The participants can be sent a link to the published version of the document, or, as above, be invited to share editing of the document. In either case, the agenda as modified during the call can be visible to all the participants. Agreements and other information that might be part of the meeting minutes, can be added as the meeting progresses, just as they might be added to a white board or flip chart if the meeting were in "real" space as opposed to cyberspace.

If the group is collaborating on a specific text document, the draft can be developed as a Google doc, and, like the budget spreadsheet or the agenda/minutes above, participants on the call can see the evolution of the document during the call. On the other hand, preparation for the call can be done individually with people adding comments to the document on their own schedule. I've had good success with some groups creating documents using the following process:
  • One person creates the document skeleton and shares it with the other editors.
  • Everyone adds and modifies text, and the revision history can be used to see changes and roll them back, if necessary.
  • If it's not obvious how certain parts of the document should evolve, the participants can use the “Insert > Comment” function to offer opinions, ask questions, and discuss different options – like an asynchronous “chat." Once consensus is reached, it's easy to remove the comments and leave the document text.

Note that Google docs is a relatively rudimentary word processor, and while it can export to Word, PDF, and other formats, it's likely you'll want to do final edits in some other tool. Note also, that while Google docs makes it easy for anyone to share information on the web (no need for a webmanager to post the info – no need for a web site at all), the document does “live” in the space allocated to the person who created it. If the group is transient, but the document has lasting value, make plans to move it to a more permanent home once it's completed.

Shared presentations

If the meeting is more of a presentation than a working session, a PowerPoint presentation may be a good supplement to the audio conference. Emailing the presentation in advance is, again, one solution, but what if you want to “unveil” the presentation during the meeting or if the edit cycle for the presentation makes it awkward to distribute the presentation soon enough to ensure that all recipients will have a chance to receive it before the meeting? “Publishing” the presentation through Google docs or Slideshare may be a better solution.

The Google docs presentation interface is just like that discussed above for text documents and spreadsheets. The presentation can be uploaded, collaboratively edited, and published to the web. Participants in the meeting can view the presentation with just a browser. You can invite specific participants as collaborators and viewers, or publish the presentation and distribute a link to a public version.

Slideshare.net is sometimes called the YouTube of PowerPoint. It has social networking features and allows for searching for presentations on specific topics or by specific authors. Registered users can “favorite,” comment on, and tag presentations that are found on the site. If your presentation has value beyond the specific meeting, you may want to register, upload your presentation, and distribute the link from Slideshare.

One more 'net-based site for creating documents and presentations is Zoho.com. This site has additional features (a database and even a web conferencing system). Like Slideshare it has an associated Facebook application, so if the group is using Facebook, it may be even easier to use than Google docs. For personal use, Zoho "is free and will remain free" (as in beer), but it's also moving towards a commercial version.

Option Features Other Notes
Google Docs Text, Spreadsheet, Presentation Publishing and collaboration options
SlideShare Presentation only Social networking features
Zoho Office Several formats Additional features include web conferencing


Web conferencing

Sometimes you’ll need features that go beyond having participants view a presentation or file. When demonstrating a web site or an application, the presentation can be much more engaging if you can respond to participants’ questions and show exactly the features they ask you about. If you’re providing remote support or helping the participants learn a new skill, then viewing their desktops (and even taking control of their keyboard and mouse) can provide the “over the shoulder” training that can get questions answered quickly.

Several systems are now available to support online meetings where all participants can view one person’s screen. Aside from cost, there are significant differences to consider:
  • How easy is it for participants to connect to the meeting?
  • How easy it is to transfer to control to other participants?
  • Which computer platforms are supported (Windows, Mac, Linux)? Are they all supported for meeting hosts (those who show their desktops) as well as participants (those who are watching the show)?
  • How easy is it to record the meeting? How is the recording accessed?
  • How is the audio track integrated with the video recording?
  • Is integrated file sharing required?
  • Is it important to be able to transfer keyboard/mouse control to a remote user?

We’ve already mentioned Zoho Meeting which is free during its beta period and can be used for meetings and remote support. More familiar names in this space include Webex (Cisco), Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, and Microsoft Office Live Meeting. Each of those has a free trial, so if you’re familiar with one of them from work and you need the system for just a short period, the trial might be your best bet.

New systems are cropping up and include Vyew, Yuuguu, and Dimdim. These all have free versions (some with ad support), and a variety of features that are still under development (e.g. recording, cross-platform support).

The systems I’ve tested over the last few months include Yugma, ReadyTalk, GoToMeeting (Citrix), and Glance. All worked as advertised and fit different “niches” in my applications.

  • Glance is desiged for demos, and is dead simple for folks to join the meeting – nothing to install, no cryptic codes, just a URL like http://yourname.glance.net that’s easy to distribute.
  • Yugma is free for up to 10 users, and works particularly well for demos (when participants click “view only” instead of “interact” to join the meeting), but it does support transferring control to others. Paid versions have additional features.
  • GoToMeeting works well to share other participants’ screens, and it supports remote access to others’ desktops.
  • ReadyTalk is not as transparent as the others in their pricing. Their free trial includes a consultation with a sales person. I found that they are willing to work with nonprofit organizations and they do offer a flat monthly rate and a significant discount from the quoted $.15/minute for the audio portion of the conference. [Yugma, Glance and GoToMeeting use freeconferencecall.com-like audio connections.] If you need to save and “rebroadcast” recordings of your meetings, you may find that the cost of ReadyTalk is well worth it — others I tested record only the video portion of the meeting.

Option/Overview Cost For # Guests Comments
Yugma Free 10 Easy for viewers; does support transferring control
Glance $49.95/mo 100 Dead simple connection for guests
GoToMeeting $49.95/mo 15 Easy to transfer control and share desktops
ReadyTalk Call Call Great recording functionality


Summary

I hope my experiences have given you some idea of what's possible in your remote collaboration efforts — whether planning a family reunion, engaging the board of a state-wide organization, or helping Mom recover the lost desktop icon for the bridge game. Think through your requirements, figure out how comfortable the participants are with different technologies, and experiment with the different options!

As you learn of new options or have success stories to share, please do consider posting them to the discussion board for this article. Again, the landscape here is changing quickly so without your help, I'd appreciate your help in keeping this document up to date!

Nancy has appreciated STC Carolina's information on new technology, and she joined about the time of the unconference in the fall of 2006. She can be reached at nancy at shoemakergroup dot com. End of article.


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