Distance learning has accelerated more rapidly during the past year than at any previous time. The trend towards online only instruction and synchronous live stream learning was well underway prior to the rise of COVID. Now there is no turning back
1. Google Meet
Formerly Google Hangouts, this is an extremely popular Zoom alternative for schools, particularly because so many are already using Google Classroom suites. Through July 1, 2020, educators have free access to premium videoconference features for distance learning like larger meetings for grade-wide assemblies, live-streaming, and video recording. .
2. Microsoft Teams
Another wildly popular alternative to Zoom for schools is Microsoft’s Teams collaboration platform. Especially because it you can sign your school up for free right now. It’s actually a part of Office 365 so it integrates with all the other tools you may already be using — Word, Powerpoint, Excel — and those are currently free for educators and classrooms as well.
That’s echoed by Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate with Comparitech, who mentions Microsoft Teams as allowing for more top-down security control. “An IT administrator can set the rules and verify participants. It’s much less ad hoc and easier to secure [than Zoom] from an operational perspective.”
3. Blackboard Collaborate
Because it was designed exclusively for classroom use, Blackboard has an impressively robust range of offerings for schools. It’s a complete digital learning environment (like Google Classroom) that’s already used by 1 in 3 US school districts, with a cutting-edge HD virtual classroom for group video that teachers and students seem to love. It’s also popular at the college level; I spoke with a former university professor of mine who explained they use it school-wide with great success, and even integrate Zoom conferencing through their secure Blackboard platform.
The one downside: Cost. It’s tough tracking down actual costs, but I’ve seen numbers around $160k a year for a school district license. Not sure if they’re cutting that in light of pandemic school closures (hint hint) because a lot of public school districts would struggle to be able to afford this.
4. Skype Conference Call
This isn’t a complete classroom solution, but it can solve for the need for occasional classroom video conferences. Unlike with regular Skype, you don’t need an account or to download the app (though you can use the app of course) — you don’t even need to be signed in. You can just use the web client, or in human terms, click the link for your meeting and just join through your browser on desktop.
5. Cisco WebX Videoconferencing
The online, HD video meeting and screen sharing software that’s popular with businesses everywhere is a Zoom alternative for schools to consider that may not be high on your radar. They just upgraded their free plan for those impacted by COVID-19 closures (thank you!), giving you 100 participants per meeting (formerly 50), and upping time limits from 40 minutes to unlimited. I notice that their online learning page is called online training — an indicator that this really wasn’t developed for education — but is worth a look for more details. You might also look into their business accounts which cost from $13.50- $26.95/month, and may provide more of the security features that schools need.
I’m not as familiar with the Bluejeans platform, but a friend who uses it for business swears by it and I’m so happy that I learned more. One of the big benefits, besides a claim to excellent security and encryption, is the integration of Dolby sound — and as we all know, sound quality can make or break a video classroom session! While it’s not designed specifically for education, you can see in this post how University of Michigan is using Bluejeans for remote learning during COVID-19, and how they virtualized more than 4,000 courses in just four days, and are now using 2.57 million participant minutes per day. Wow. Plans range from $9.99-$13.99/mo, with an Enterprise plan available with unlimited recordings, and a lot more personal tech support. Worth a look.
One reader suggests Whereby, another pay service for video conferencing and group meetings. As with Skype Conference Call, there’s no need to download an app or to even sign-in to join a conference, which again, has plusses and minuses when it comes to digital classrooms. Schools would need a business account, which starts at $59.99/month, and gives you up to 50 participants. Unfortunately, only 12 can be on video at the same time, with the rest on audio. So it’s not so great for performing arts classes, or classes where teachers really want to see their students all at once.