Sunday, October 4, 2020

Zoom and beyond - new variations for online meetings and conferences

Videoconferencing has now become an everyday feature in virtually all forms of education and the there has been a rapid development of new platforms and collaborative features over the last few months. Zoom has been in the forefront this year but there are now alternative solutions that offer wider opportunities for educators, some built on Zoom and others with alternative solutions. Like many platforms and tools used in education, Zoom was originally designed for business rather than education. When I first started using it, I found it frustratingly focused on presentations and one-way communication with the chat function added as an afterthought. However, Zoom have been very active this year in adding features requested by its extremely large customer base in education, but many educators still feel that it still isn't fully adapted to an educational setting. Luckily, Zoom offers other companies the opportunity to build new apps that plug into Zoom and that has allowed niche players the chance to build interesting adaptations.

So now there are a few interesting Zoom-based platforms that are more adapted to class teaching or educational conferences as described in an article in Inside Higher EdInnovators Seek Zoom University 2.0. Building on Zoom, Class for Zoom, offers a more flexible environment for class teaching featuring more flexible arrangement of the class video streams, easy one-to-one sessions, built-in tests, quizzes and assignments, examinations, attendance and performance monitoring and so on. The platform is still in a beta version and is not yet commercially available but it is a sign of a new wave of more specialised spaces for digital meetings. The features of Class for Zoom can be seen in the following short promotional video.

Another Zoom-based solution that I see great potential in is QiqoChat. This is designed for online conferences and combines Zoom with Google Drive and other tools to support asynchronous conferences featuring working groups that collaborate on drawing up reports, documents and proposals. You can offer plenary sessions where all participants can listen to and discuss input and then divide into groups, each with a different task, who then discuss and collaborate over a period of days or weeks using collaborative documents interspersed with group video meetings. Platforms like this offer new horizons for online conferences, escaping the confines of the physical conference and becoming more asynchronous and inclusive.

An interesting alternative to Zoom is InSpace, offering a new visualisation of online meetings and class interaction. The usual features for screen-sharing and interaction are all there but the interaction is much simpler and more intuitive. Here the participants can move their photo avatars around the screen to talk to each other and you have to stand beside someone to be able to talk to them. The article in Inside Higher Ed interviews one of InSpace's founders, Narine Hall

One of Hall's biggest frustrations with Zoom was that as an instructor, she couldn’t easily move between breakout discussion groups. With InSpace, Hall can create multiple breakout rooms, which appear as squares on the screen. Move your avatar inside the box, and you can hear the conversation that takes place inside it. Move outside the box, and you can no longer hear the group.

This features enables conference mingling and group discussions in a more intuitive way than in Zoom and the other standard platforms. 

On a similar theme there is also Shindig, a platform that has been around for a couple of years now, that enables participants to form spontaneous groups and interact with other participants as you would in a physical setting. 

One vital feature of all these platforms is how they deal with accessibility issues such as built-in automatic subtitling. In Europe we now have demands that videos used in educational should have subtitles to help especially those with hearing difficulties. I was recently involved in a meeting in Google Meet and was very impressed by its built-in speech to text function that was almost fault-free for me (at least in English). Hopefully all platforms will soon be able to offer this.

Online meetings are here to stay and the race is on to find the ultimate platform. Each of the platforms I have mentioned here has very useful features and we can hope that there will soon be one that joins all the dots. I haven't even mentioned the use of virtual worlds and virtual reality (see earlier posts on that theme). However, as with all educational technology there will be terms and conditions that apply and educators will have to be careful to check where all the data is stored and what the company plans to do with it.

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