Equipment and Setup for Online Collaboration

There are a variety of services and technologies available for online collaboration. For example, Skype offers the ability to have video chat with a group, and also share your screen. Services like Zoom.us, Adobe Connect, BlackBoard Collaborate, and Microsoft Lync have additional tools useful for online conferencing and education. Most of these services perform fairly well with a fast computer and fast internet connection. Here are some suggestions for creating the best experience for an online session using audio and/or video with additional features like screen sharing and multi-user participation.

  1. Network Speed. Regardless of the service used, if the Internet speed is slow, the quality will suffer. With most Internet usage, we receive content (such as watching videos or listening to streaming music), but are not uploading content as frequently. With video conferencing, it’s important that your Internet upload speed (bandwidth) be sufficient.
    • It may be necessary to purchase an Internet service package with more download speed than you feel you need in order to get enough upload speed. Usually, for a typical Internet service package, the upload speed is about 5% to 10% of the download speed. If you have a 50Mbps plan, the upload speed might be 5Mbps.
    • Both people at each end of a one-to-one session will need to have this faster Internet service.
    • With conferences that have many people remotely viewing, such video delivery (one to many) is usually handled by a server so you only need sufficient bandwidth for your own connection.
    • Most services can work with slower connections, but the quality may suffer.
    • The best way to check the quality of your connection is to run a test ahead of time.
  2. Headset. People sometimes use the speakers and built-in microphone on their computer for conferencing. This can result in poor audio. The computer can only do so much to alleviate feedback and background noise. So, the instructor / presenter and individual participants should definitely consider a headset. Or, in a one-to-one session both people should have a headset for the best audio quality.
  3. Group Microphone. For groups sharing a camera, getting the best quality microphone is essential. Having a separate high quality USB microphone can ensure that all participants are properly heard at the other end. Using a USB extension cable is important to ensure that the microphone can be placed in the best location.
  4. Camera Person. From the presenter / instructor perspective, looking at an entire group of people in a room and interacting with them sometimes isn’t that ideal. From a distance it’s hard to tell who is talking. Having a volunteer to work the camera helps. Or, alternatively, if people who are speaking can move forward closer to the camera.
  5. Multi-Camera. For larger groups, a multi-cam session might be helpful. This would require two computers be signed into the session simultaneously where the group is. In large auditoriums, sometimes there will be two microphones where people with questions can stand. This is where you’d want the web cams for a remote participant to see the questioners better. If there are breakout sessions at a conference, a remote participant or leader could engage with different groups.
  6. Fast Computer. While usually the Internet is the bottleneck for video communications, it can really help to have a fast computer.
  7. Quality Camera. Using a 720p or higher resolution webcam can be nice. Some systems may be constrained to using 4:3 image size and lower resolution video image anyway, but if the system supports it, the 16:9 viewing angle can get more people in the shot. If your Internet connection is fast enough, it’s possible to have 720p or higher resolution video.
  8. Independent Camera. Laptop computers, and some all-in-one desktops, have a video camera and microphone built-in. These usually work okay. However, separate components sometimes yield better quality results. Having a separate camera and microphone (rather than a single combined unit) can be nice because sometimes the optimal placement of the microphone will be different than the optimal placement of the camera. The camera may be set back a ways to show an entire group, but the microphone should be closer.
  9. Tech Support. Juggling the above variables requires experience and it’s often a good idea to have a technical support person available to help with setup.
  10. Preliminary Testing. It’s essential to test everything out ahead of time so you can make the adjustments needed for the best quality experience. This sometimes means buying additional equipment.

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