This is a follow-up post to the one I made yesterday on Best Practices for Video Conferencing. There are so many choices out there it can be hard to know which platforms are good for what you need to do with students. If you combine the information in my best practices post with the information in this post you should be able to determine the best setup for your needs. If you do a Google search for video conferencing the list of choices will be mind-boggling at best! I am going to quickly limit those options down to three, Google Meets, Skype, and Zoom. It is not to say others out there do not do a good job but in education, we need to be very mindful of what solutions we choose. At the bottom, I will quickly mention some audio-only solutions for those that are not allowed to use video conferencing or just don’t want to use it.
As an educator, the first thing you need to do is check with your technology department to see what is allowed and available for students to use. Some schools will only allow you to use one platform so you won’t have a choice and others will allow you to use anything you can find. If you find yourself in a district that mandates only using one specific platform it does make the choice easy. Putting my Technology Director hat on for a moment the reason many districts go this route is the ease of use. If everyone is using the same platform it is much easier to support and less confusing for students and parents. Allowing multiple platforms can be more challenging for your IT department to support and can sometimes be confusing for students and parents. Multiple platforms require the students to keep track of which teacher uses which platform for video conferences.
Google Meets, Skype, and Zoom are the big three in the education world and if I had to narrow it down to two, it would be Google Meets and Zoom as most districts use G Suite. Districts that use Office 365 might gravitate towards Skype as it is a Microsoft platform. If your district uses G Suite, Google Meets is very easy as students can use it out of the box since it works with the Google account, providing your administrator has opened up the Google Meet capability for students and staff. If you find it isn’t working for you contact your IT department. Zoom allows you to use your Google account to log in so for you and your students it is very simple to get going. The issue is Zoom is a paid service so if you are looking to do group meetings of 3 or more people you can only go for 40 minutes unless you pay for the service. They do offer plans that are a really good deal for school employees in Maine through Actem, again, talk to your IT department. Other states may have similar deals but even their paid plan is not too bad for the basic level which removes that 40-minute restriction. Skype is a Microsoft product so you will need an Office 365 account or create a Skype login. If you are not an Office 365 district it will be a lot more time consuming to set it up for you and your students. It is still very doable, it just requires more time to set up and get going.
Next, I am going to talk through some of the pros and cons of each platform which will hopefully help you in deciding which best suits your needs. Again, all of these pros and cons could be wiped out if you do not plug your laptop in and use the WiFi as you can easily be at the mercy of audio and video issues and possibly serious lag, depending on how good of a wireless system you have installed.
This part is just intended for music teachers, do not plan on teaching any group lessons through any of these platforms and don’t even try to run a rehearsal, it will not work! You can do group lessons if you have one student play or sing at a time and have the other participants muted. The lag makes it impossible to do any type of playing or singing with two people or more unless you are trying to go for a Charles Ives effect. If you are planning to do one-on-one lessons, the lag will not be as much of a problem and I have done many lessons in a one-on-one environment with no issues at all.
Google Meets is the first platform and is available to anyone with a G Suite account. If you can not access it make sure your school technology administrator has enabled the feature. It is available by going to https://meet.google.com and logging in with your G Suite account. If you are doing basic video conferences with just speaking audio and video Google Meets does a good job, especially if you have an external mic and webcam. If you are a vocal teacher Google Meets will work just fine for your audio, I think the other two platforms are a bit better from an audio standpoint but it’s very minor and most, especially your students will not hear much of a difference if any at all. Instrumental lessons I would lean away from Google Meets if possible. The audio compression they use to speed up the sending of the signal between you and the other participants in addition to some adjustments they do to “improve” the audio does not work well for instrumentalists. If you don’t have a choice, it will work, but if you have a choice I would keep reading! Google Meets does work on all major operating systems including Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, ChromeOS, and Android. If your students have newer iOS or Android devices the audio will be a bit better then the built-in microphone on your laptop so your audio will be a tad better on those devices. The one major glitch right now in Google Meets is when you end a meeting. This is supposed to be fixed very soon but right now when you end a meeting and you hang up, students can stay in there and continue to chat. There is no way to end it and boot everyone out. This can be a major issue for many and might be the sole reason for looking at Zoom or Skype.
Zoom is the next platform and I have not had a lot of opportunities or need to use it till more recently. I have used it a little over the years but in the past month or two I have really dug in on it. Personally, it has become my favorite platform, I feel like I’m jumping on the Zoom bandwagon but if it works and does it well, who cares! I believe it does a bit better job with the video compared to Google Meets, the quality is a little higher as long as your connections are good. The audio is where this becomes much better than Google Meets but you do need to make two setting changes. The first is you do not want the mic to automatically adjust the volume. This can get really annoying when playing an instrument especially or if you are trying to demonstrate dynamics, you do not want your mic volume going up when demonstrating pianissimo or turning down when showing forte, kind of defeats the purpose. That setting you can change in the Zoom app on your computer. The second change which is the most important needs to be made through the web browser in your Zoom account. Under Settings go to In Meeting (Advanced) and enable Allow users to select original sound in their client settings. This prevents Zoom from using their echo cancellation tool, which is not needed if you are following my tips from the Best Practices post, and also prevents Zoom from doing other audio enhancements. All you want to hear is the original sound source coming into the microphone and those setting changes will improve the audio quality. Just like Google Meets, Zoom works on all major operating systems including Windows, Linux, macOS, Android, ChromeOS, and iOS. Zoom is my personal preference for any and all video conferencing, especially when teaching lessons. Unlike Google Meets, when you end a meeting, it boots everyone out with no chance for students to stick around and continue talking.
The final video conferencing platform is Skype which is also free. The video quality I have found is similar to Zoom along with the audio. I do find the video quality is good but there sometimes are more lag issues or stuttering problems. The main issue I find with Skype is it can be glitchy, when the audio works and the settings are correct it works great and sounds very good, oftentimes better than Zoom but you almost have to be in the perfect conditions. If you know what you are doing from a technical standpoint and can really have everything connected with good equipment Skype is probably the best choice. If you are not comfortable with those things it can be more challenging to have a good quality video conference. Just like the other two options, Skype works on all the major operating systems including Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS, ChromeOS, and Android. Personally I would think of Skype as more of a technical solution and if you like that type of thing you will get very good results. I feel for most I would lean towards Google Meets or Zoom due to the ease of use.
To those looking for an audio-only solution, there are a few choices. First, know that you can use Google Meets, Zoom, and Skype as audio-only so all three of those are very good options. Google Hangouts is a chat solution for G Suite that is a wonderful quick communication tool. It does have video capability which would be the same as Google Meets for the quality but it also has a call feature so you can use it as a phone. A Google Hangouts call would have the same pros and cons as the audio portion I discussed in Google Meets, it will work if you do not have a choice and won’t be terrible but not great either! There are a number of phone apps that allow you to make calls from the app, Google Voice and GoDaddy Smartline are two of those options, plenty of other out there though. Again, it will be similar issues, the quality will be all right, not great, not terrible. If you are limited on choices due to the availability or administrative restrictions anything you use will be better then nothing. If I had to do just an audio-only call I would use either Zoom or Skype.
The one last tip that I forgot to include in my original Best Practices of Video Conferencing post was to not use the Google Chrome browser while you are video conferencing unless you are video conferencing within Google Chrome. Honestly, you want to keep everything completely closed out unless you really need it so the video conferencing platform can use as much of your system resources it needs since that is the priority. Google Chrome is a computer hog and is known for causing many issues when video conferencing.
I hope this helps you in deciding what solution best works for you. I routinely use all three depending on what I am doing and overall they all work great. As you read this post hopefully it will help you in your decision. If you have any questions, additional information, or just want to put in your thoughts please leave a comment below!