A Very Low Cost Solution for Distance Learning

This post and a previous one tells about a combination of programs that will give you all you need to conduct distance learning in real time at very little cost, or (depending on how you establish your audio connection) no cost whatever:  Join.Me, Skype, and Usteam.

student_at_computerIn a previous post I explained how to use Join.Me and Skype to conduct absolutely free online meetings.  I saw that this combination would be very useful as a distance learning tool for small not-for-profits on meager budgets.  The only component missing from that combo was a live streaming image of the teacher.  I’ve discovered another free resource, Ustream.com, which supplies that missing component.

If you sign up for a free account at Ustream.com you can broadcast live streaming video, using either a webcam or a DV camcorder.  The former is the easier hardware to set up, but the latter gives you the ability to video remote subjects and produces clearer video because the camera is most often of higher quality.  The one drawback in using Ustream is that users have to be members of Ustream to see the broadcast.  It’s always a hassle getting people signed up  to conduct online meetings.  However, there’s another way that you can use Ustream which alleviates this problem.  Read on!

If you’re the distance learning teacher, here’s the procedure: Start Ustream and get the video playing in a window on your desktop, either video from your webcam or a DV camcorder.  (Of the products I researched, Ustream provides the easiest free way to capture DV camcorder video for live streaming.)  Once you have the Ustream video playing on your desktop, open a Join.me meeting, as explained in my previous CyberKenBlog post.

When your students click on the meeting link in their emails they will immediately see your live image on their screens, since the Join.me software is enabling them to see your desktop.  I have tested this technique and found that there may be a slight delay between the movement of lips and the spoken words, but this delay is not off-putting.  If you are using a DV camcorder, you can train that on yourself at a blackboard, or, if you’re broadcasting from a large room, you can pan the camera around it to show your students whatever you wish.  If you have a good webcam you might try doing this and discover that the quality is pretty good, in which case you don’t need to worry about using a camcorder.  Experiment with a webcam first, and if that doesn’t provide what you want, try a DV camcorder.  (HD camcorders so far do not work for live streaming.  Too much information coming in too fast!)

With Join.me and audio connections established via Skype or telephone (explained in my previous post) you have everything you will need to do excellent distance teaching:  live video, real time audio connections with your students, a chat window where they can type comments or questions, in case you would rather not be interrupted in your lecture, and the ability to show the students anything you wish via your own desktop:  videos, slide presentations, still pictures, whatever your heart desires.

All this is free, unless you choose to use telephones for the audio connections.  In this case, fees are paid by each student at his or her long distance phone rates.  Many people these days use cell phones which have long distance rates built into the contracts.  But in any case, long distance rates have become very competitive, so that if a student is using a standard land line connection, participating for an hour is not likely to cost much over five dollars.

So here’s a very low cost solution for distance learning with all the necessary components: live video, reliable audio for all participants, and a text chat.  Now all you need is to train your teachers and students to take advantage of these marvelous tools!

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