Continuum of Videoconferencing

For the past several years, I’ve been using a slide with the continuum of videoconferencing technology in my workshops. I decided it’s time to write up my thoughts about this so we can all refer others to the choices for videoconferencing. This post was co-written with guest blogger Lori Colwill.

The continuum starts at the lowest level and moves up from there.

Desktop VC: Skype, iChat, etc.

  • Free
  • Proprietary (i.e. Skype only connects to Skype, iChat only connects to iChat, etc).
  • Disadvantage: Lack of echo-cancellation or stability of the call can make it difficult to use with a classroom of students
  • Disadvantage: Some security concerns for classroom use
  • Disadvantage: Lower quality and inability to connect to most content providers
  • Options: Skype, iChat, GoogleTalk, TokBox, TinyChat, FaceTime and others

Desktop VC: Open Source H.323

H323 is the standard for what is also referred to as IP based videoconferencing. With H323 you can connect to any other H323 device (in theory).

  • Free
  • Ekiga and XMeeting
  • Connects to most H323 standard videoconferencing units
  • Disadvantage: No echo-cancellation can make it difficult to use with a classroom of students

Desktop VC: H.323

  • LifeSize Desktop: software only; no server required (8/12/09: It’s SIP only; not H323) (3/4/11: If it’s installed with a server and bridge, you can connect to H.323)
  • Polycom PVX software: $120 ish plus webcam
  • Polycom CMA: desktop software that requires a server
  • Tandberg Movi: desktop software that requires a server
  • Echo-cancellation may be a problem
  • Rigging audio and video from a desktop system to work in a classroom can be challenging

Small Room Systems: Fixed Camera H.323

  • Under $5000
  • Polycom V500, VSX 5000
  • LifeSize Express w/Focus camera
  • Cameras have limited or no movement
  • Designed for small conference rooms, 3-7 people
  • Easy to receive content from content providers etc., but difficult to use to have students present for events like Read Around the Planet and other collaborative projects

Classroom Systems: H.323 SD

  • SD is standard definition
  • Range from $3000-$9000
  • Ask your vendor for an “entry level” unit
  • As of summer ’09 most of the schools and content providers I connect with have this level
  • The older units are “set top” units that were designed to sit on a TV; newer units separate camera & codec to accommodate flat screen monitors
  • Ability to connect a computer and document camera for presenting
  • Great camera movement, ideal for classrooms
  • Polycom VSX 7000  and 8000 series (older)
  • Polycom QDX (newer, faster, better, cheaper)
  • Tandberg 770, 880, 990 MXPs (older)

Classroom Systems: H.323 HD

  • HD: High definition.
  • To take full advantage of HD, calls need to be at 1-4 M. Most schools don’t have that bandwidth available; most content providers still make calls at 384K.
  • It’s an investment in the future of the technology. In theory, soon we’ll all have the bandwidth to upgrade to HD.
  • Lifesize Express, Express 200, Team MP, Team 200, Room, and Room 200
  • Polycom HDX 7000, 8000 9000 series
  • Tandberg QuickSet C20 (newer, entry level HD unit)
  • Tandberg Edge MXPs 75, 85, 95

VC CartCarts vs. Rooms

A few words about installing a “cart” vs. installing a “room”.

  • A cart installation is usually a classroom system (see above)
  • plus a monitor (or a projector i.e. Tandberg Media Place)
  • installed on a cart
  • with one microphone on a 30 foot cord that can be moved around the classroom easily as needed.
  • A simple remote can be easily learned by the videoconference coordinator.
  • It might include a document camera and a way to connect a computer.
  • A cart installation is usually under $10K.
  • A integrated room installation is often a classroom system
  • plus two to four monitors
  • with a presentation stand for teaching over videoconferencing
  • plus ceiling and/or desk microphones
  • plus a fancy lots of buttons touch panel for controlling the system (usually AMX or Creston)
  • plus lots of peripherals: computer, document camera, extra inputs, DVD/VCR

Classroom teachers are intimidated by room installations! So are students. The cart is much simpler and easier if you plan to use VC for curriculum videoconferencing. The room may be better for full length courses.


  • really fancy expensive executive meeting systems designed to make you feel like you’re in the same room
  • includes special paint and lighting
  • can’t see them used in schools anytime soon, but this is why you want to expose your students to VC – they will use it in their business work

Videoconference Network Infrastructure

If you are part of a videoconference network (through your state, region, or large school district), you may learn about videoconference network infrastructure.

  • MCUs: Bridges which allow multiple participants in multiple conferences at the same time
  • IP VCRs: Allows for recording and streaming of videoconference content
  • Firewall transversal units: Used to solve the challenges of H323 through your firewall (only get this if you can’t make it work any other way in my opinion)
  • Gateways for IP to ISDN, H.323 to voice, H.323 to SIP and H.323 to proprietary protocols (Thx Craig!)
  • Gatekeepers: for dialing plans
  • Management software: for places that manage many units: for scheduling, upgrading software, providing directory services, etc.

Freaked out?

Now that you see the big picture, what should you do? If at all possible, try for an entry-level unit or classroom H323 unit. Talk to your school district or regional tech and see what the plan for videocoferencing is for your area. You may have access to VC and not even know it!

Comments, thoughts? Favorite VC vendor missing? Please comment, share and add to our knowledge!

Revision 8/6/09 with LifeSize based on comments below.

4/9/10 Addition: You may also be interested in the VC Continuum in My Schools


About Janine Lim

Janine Lim, PhD, currently serves as associate dean for online higher education in the School of Distance Education at Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, MI. She and her team support over 200 online courses, provide training for faculty teaching online, and work with the campus infrastructure support of online learning. Her department also provides educational technology and Moodle support for faculty and students. In addition, Janine is responsible for the faculty and courses of the Consortium of Adventist Colleges and Universities. Janine has taught over 15 unique graduate educational technology classes online numerous times over the past 15 years, with some classes attracting participants from all over the world. Her undergraduate teaching includes social media courses for communication and digital media majors. Janine has served on the board of the United States Distance Learning Association since April 2015. Prior to her work at Andrews University, Janine coordinated distance education for 22 K12 school districts in southwest Michigan for 14 years. In that position, as one of the co-founders of TWICE, Michigan’s K12 Videoconferencing Organization, Janine has spearheaded popular international K12 videoconference projects such as Read Around the Planet and MysteryQuest. While still serving on the board of TWICE, she was instrumental in designing and implementing the CAPspace website for collaborative videoconference projects. Janine also served on a team of Michigan educational technology trainers providing a workshop called ATA Technology Academy. Her current online learning research interests include successful teacher behaviors, quality online discussions, and student activity patterns in self-paced courses.
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20 Responses to Continuum of Videoconferencing

  1. No LifeSize mentioned at all? We have some schools using them.

  2. On the cart model, some schools just hook the vc unit into a projector. Tandberg has a MediaPlace

    That is a bit different than with the monitor(s).

  3. Mel says:

    LifeSize actually just came out with a new Desktop product as well.

  4. I was coming over here to add the LifeSize desktop product. We are about to move to 64bit machines and I was glad to see their product was compatible, except it lists 64-bit Vista. Our machines will run Windows 7.

    am checking on Polycom PVX also, b/c we have to keep Shane singing with kids! 😉

  5. Chris Harmon says:

    The LifeSize Express w/Focus camera fits in the ‘Small Room Systems: Fixed Camera H.323’ category as it is under $5000 but it also supports HD. The LifeSize systems that go in the ‘Classroom Systems: H.323 HD’ category include the Express, Express 200, Team MP, Team 200, Room, and Room 200. The LifeSize systems that go in the ‘Desktop VC: H.323’ category include LifeSize Multipoint Extension and LifeSize Desktop and both are HD capable as well.

  6. Lara Wood says:

    When video conferencing is part of a classroom, it is no longer defined by walls and desks. It enables teachers and students to share lectures, ideas and experiences ultimately expanding the world of learning to anywhere. Below is a cool video from Dr. Lance Ford of TANDBERG with his perspective on how video can make a difference in every student’s life.

    Video link:

    • Janine Lim says:

      Thanks for the comment & link, Lara. Do you think the cost of VC will come down far enough anytime soon so that every classroom could have VC? Just curious what you think….

  7. Lara Wood says:

    Hi Janine,

    Good question. Absolutely, we believe you will see a proliferation of distance learning deployment at the classroom in the near future.

    The cost of video codecs is certainly coming down to an affordable level, but the need to add additional peripherals drives the cost back up. As a result, most schools resort to purchasing a distance learning system that acts as a shared resource – think of the old overhead projector that you checked out of the library. So price often limits the numbers of video systems available in a school or district, but then the fact that the system is a “shared” resource keeps teachers from making video a part of their day to day instruction.

    State, Federal and Foundation grants of all shapes and sizes are available to schools across the country, both public and private. Stimulus dollars targeted at educational technology, assistive technology, and transformational education are available through formula and discretionary grants. The trick is to understand first what you want to accomplish, and then to find a grant that’s a good fit. Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole! It’s important to focus on grants that truly mirror your objectives and the demographics of your project area. TANDBERG has a team of grant specialists that can help you identify those programs, and provide guidance and assistance as you explore the application process. Hundreds of schools across the country have used grants as a way to bring video technologies into the classroom. And certainly that addresses the issue of affordability!

  8. Craig Mollerstuen says:

    “Gateways for IP to ISDN: Rarely necessary anymore”

    Gateways can be used for H.323 to voice, H.323 to SIP and H.323 to proprietary protocols. I think we’ll have gateways for a while yet. 🙂

  9. Pingback: Day 2: Getting Started with Read Around the Planet | VC Rox

  10. Pingback: Why You Should Participate in Read Around the Planet 2011 « The Wired Classroom

  11. Linda Dickeson says:

    Under the Desktop Solutions, I see you have the LifeSize option crossed out. LifeSize used to be partners with Radvision, now makers of SCOPIA Desktop. LifeSize and Radvision split recently, but we purchased Radvision’s SCOPIA Desktop, server and MCU with our LifeSize implementation. It is really a great solution, and cross-platform. It does require a server with which are included a number of “Pro” licenses. A person with a Pro license controls their virtual meeting room, but others can join with a free download of the SCOPIA Desktop browser plug-in.

    • Janine Lim says:

      Hi Linda – thanks for adding this. We did find that on its own, it doesn’t connect H.323; only SIP. But it sounds like it works fine if you have the bridge as part of the implementation as well. Does that sound right?

      • Linda Dickeson says:

        I can easily invite H.323 endpoints of any type into my meeting, but that may be because of our server solution as you indicate. I’ve never tried it any other way.

      • Janine Lim says:

        Yes, that sounds right. When we tested in 2009, we tried dialing direct without going through meeting room. The bridge is what allows the different standards to connect to each other.

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