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Using NetMeeting for Tutoring

Introduction Netmeeting is the Video Conferencing software provided by Microsoft. On paper it offers interesting possibilities for not only cheap phone calls round the world but also for teaching with electronic tutorials becoming a real possibility even without any special equipment. For those who know nothing about it offers over a standard dial-up TCP/IP link.

How to get it: Version 2.1 is included with Internet Explorer 4.01 and Internet Explorer 5 - if you did not load it initially you can rerun the CD setup and add it. Version 3 is free via a 2 Mbyte download from Microsoft - see http://www.microsoft.com/netmeeting for details, download and information. This document mainly describes version 2.1 - version 3 seems to offer a few new facilities but does not seem to have the direct cable connection option we found useful for testing so it may be best to start with 2.1.

Audio: It is disappointing that even version 3 does not support one to many for audio which reduces it's effectiveness for online teaching and conferencing. A new system is being developed by the Open University called Lyceum which concentrates on the audio aspects. It is at an early stage but see First Impressions of Lyceum and Requirements for Online Conferencing if you are interested.

Video Camera: There are many cheap video camers available for videoconferencing on home PCs at about £100 but we we found that our existing video camera can be linked via our Hauppauge WinTV PCI card to NetMeeting saving cost. We needed to download some new drivers to get this to work from the Hauppauge site. Audio and Video will be ideal for one on one meetings and general conversation round the world.

The Whiteboard seems the most useful feature for tutoring. One can have multiple pages and load an existing file at the start which one can then use as a "presentation". A trial 8 page presentation in Vugraph type format with a few "pen" drawings is only 10K and updates fast but even a couple of small screen grabs took it over 500K - they seem to be stored as uncompressed bit maps which take up a huge amount of space and transfer time.

Servers: The connection for videoconferencing is made via an Internet Location Server (ILS) which one logs into and it displays ones EMail address and what sort of meeting you are looking for (Business, personal or adult). The type of meeting is not supported in version 3 as far as I can tell. You can also log in without being displayed for contact with people who already know you address and they can "ring" you which is much better. We have found a big list of servers as well as the Microsoft ones and there is one in UK managed by Demon which seems quiet (10 in directory on Sunday) with a low percentage seeking Adult entertainment which seems to dominate the Microsoft fora. Demon is also on the Internet backbone so it should be fast. Address is ils.demon.co.uk.

Online System tests: I have had my first meeting with someone from Edinburgh who was also looking for someone to try the system out whilst I was using the Demon ILS. It confirmed that our system was functional, that our video could be received and that we have full audio - duplex is best. We tried chat and the Whiteboard which confirmed that only one person needs to open the Whiteboard or chat initially - I am not sure what happens when extra people join when the links are running.

Local Tests: More important from the development point of view I set up a link to our Libretto using a null modem cable. Audio and video did not work locally, possible because the Libretto does not have a microphone so the setup could not be completed but one could run Chat, the Whiteboard, share programs and send files. The local trial confirmed that unsynchronising allows simultaneous use of different pages. The serial link was set slowish deliberately (56K) so one could estimate what would happen over a TCP-IP link. I will run some more trials with reducing speeds down to a more realistic speed of say 9.6 Kbaud.

Thoughts on NetMeeting for Tutorials: The Whiteboard seems to have most to offer for tutorials with several students. The secret is going to be keeping the workload on the tutor down and getting interaction and inputs from the students in a controlled manner especially as everyone has simultaneous access to the board. When it comes to exercises one can unsynchronised so each student/group can work on a different page for a period.

Trial Whiteboard Presentation: I have written a short Whiteboard presentation to introduce "students" to Netmeeting interactively. It introduces the various useful features and is designed to be interact. To download it click on Trial NetMeeting Whiteboard Presentation - it is best to right click and save it. You will have to have NetMeeting loaded and running to try it and then Open it on the Whiteboard file menu. It has been tried out online with another OU tutor showing the concept works however it also showed that the management of an online tutorial will present a number of challenges. The existing presentation potentially has too big a workload with the progressive exposing of bullet points if one is talking and interacting with even one other person. It is clear that a briefing plus one or more introductory sessions will be essential before any real work could be done. We will try it out again with a larger number if we can find some volunteers.

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Copyright © Peter Curtis
Most recent revision: 31st July, 1999