The Problem with Free

As you know, I keep processing Skype vs. H.323 and other ramifications and changes in the videoconference world.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is how stable and sustainable a videoconference cart is. Our Polycom Viewstations from 1999 are for the most part still running! And teachers haven’t had to relearn how to use them in 11 years.

Some Free Videoconference Services

On the other hand, free services can be challenging. Free services I’ve heard mentioned in the last couple years include:

  • Oovoo
  • DimDim (oops, it’s gone already!)
  • Skype
  • TokBox (oops, it’s gone too!)
  • TinyChat
  • Can you think of any others?

Challenges of Free

  • Free services can have flaky, unreliable service. Think of the December 2010 2 day outage of Skype.
  • Think of the Delicious scare last December. The service could disappear just when you’ve gotten attached to it. (See Doug Johnson’s blog on tech longevity in the context of the Delicious scare)
  • Sustainability. You might try all these other free little VC tools. The quality is iffy & the site may go away.  You can certainly dabble in using it in your classroom; but if you want to do anything sustainable you need something you can count on.
  • Some teachers are happy to change up tech tools every six months or so. But many other teachers will not waste their time learning something they can’t count on being around in the future. Changing tech tools often jades them on technology and soon they don’t want to try anything new.
  • With free sites, often the product they are selling is YOU! Read more here. Do we really need that in education?!

What do you think? Does the “free-ness” of free tools outweigh the disadvantages? Or do you think we should be cautious and thoughtful about investing time and energy in free tools?


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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3 Responses to The Problem with Free

  1. Ben says:

    I don’t think that the “free-ness” of tools outweighs the disadvantages that they pose, because you’re going to be paying more in either time or support to make sure those free tools are working. However, there is certainly a place for those types of tools, as we need to continue pushing the boundaries of ed tech. That and perhaps make the communities surrounding VC a bit more open and accesible (like Skype for Education).

  2. Jan Zanetis says:

    I think Skype is trying hard to break into the education market with its new global directory for teachers. However, I do agree with you that “free” is not always such a good thing. When you’ve got a roomful of expectant students, you need reliable!

  3. Curt says:

    Having been around SIP, IP H.323 and ISDN H.320 systems (Polycom, Tandberg etc.) for many years, I have had struggles getting each to work on their own and to talk to one another. Integrating the desktop/laptop into the mix often can make your head spin (xmeeting, netmeeting, livemeeting, Skype etc.) When “free” tools are considered, I find that the availability (not affecting the IT budget) of the application often out weighs the poor video quality. Convenience and portability also is a large influencer now with smartphones and front facing cameras (iPhone etc.) The key is testing, setting expectations and recruiting advocates at the far end. I have had good success with the threat of “without testing, it may not work”. Even executives will get involved in late night testing at the risk of something going wrong the day of the show.

    Free tools can add flexibility to classrooms, labs, in-the-field and meeting rooms from anywhere. Even considering a little forethought on POV, camera placement, and multiple sources, free tools can offer enriched engagement for Virtual Classrooms, remote presenters for meetings, and even iReporting in the field to internet broadcasts.

    BTW – BlueJean Networks looks very interesting as a hybrid solution having recently tested it with H.323, laptop skype and iPhone skype in a multipoint conference (no firewall issues). Full disclosure – I am not affiliated with them.

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