As research collaboration becomes increasingly common, more and more researchers need to communicate with one another via web conference tools that allow them not only to talk but also to share screens, collaborate on documents and share files. There are a many tools available. Most have the ability to share the screen, and to connect via webcam and microphone.
Cost: Free (basic version – paid versions provide more features)
Skype is undoubtedly the most well known and most popular web-conferencing tool currently available. Even if you haven’t used it in a professional setting, you’ve probably used it to contact friends and family. Signing up for an account is free and very easy: just enter your details and download the software, which is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. There are paid (‘premium’) versions of Skype available but the additional features on offer change quite regularly, so it’s worth checking the Skype website to keep up-to-date.
Once you’ve set up an account and installed Skype, you can connect to other Skype users, anywhere in the world, free of charge. You will of course need a microphone and audio output; your computer’s speakers and microphones might be fine for casual use but if you’re contacting professional colleagues it would be worth investing in a headset and a web-camera, which applies to all the web-conferencing tools discussed here. You can connect with more than one Skype user at a time and create a large-scale web-conference; a maximum of ten simultaneous users is recommended. You can also send files—such as PDFs, Word documents, or PowerPoint presentations—and share your screen with both individuals and groups. Although Skype does require each user to have a Skype account, it is so commonly used that this is rarely a problem. Nonetheless, in a university setting your contacts may not have access to Skype at their workplace. If you’re planning on using Skype for professional web-conferencing, have a look at this really handy blog post from the University of Melbourne for a comprehensive introduction.
Cost: Free (up to 10 attendees and requires a Google+ account)
Google Hangouts has quickly gained a foothold – it’s free and it’s easy to use. Every participant needs to have a Google + account to be able to join the hangout but sessions can be streamed publicly via YouTube using the ‘Hangouts on Air’ feature.
You can use Google hangouts on your mobile or tablet, or by adding an extension to your browser. Simply ‘start a new hangout’, search for users and add them to your conversation.
Cost: Departments (or individuals) pay for accounts.
WebEx is supported by the University’s IT Services, and it allows you to share presentations, applications and your entire desktop. It does not require your attendees to have an account; you just share the URL of your session.
Adobe Connect is a web-conferencing tool that runs via Adobe Flash. It allows you to host an online conference with multiple participants who can view your desktop and communicate with one another simultaneously. Adobe Connect gives you the option to share your whole desktop with the meeting or just one application and it’s also possible for the attendees to view the application you are sharing in full screen while you’re doing something else on your desktop. Like WebEx, it does not require your attendees to have an account; you just share the URL of your session.
Have you ever used any of these tools? If so, what are your thoughts on them? If not, can you think of a time when you might?