BigBlueButton is a free, open source web conferencing system that allows remote presentation with slides, audio, video, chat and desktop-sharing. The developers vision for this is to make starting a web conference as easy as clicking a single metaphorical big blue button. While that was certainly my experience with their public demonstration, I wanted to go a bit further an try self-hosting an install, so this post will touch on the hosting and management aspects, as well as the user-experience.
BigBlueButton is aimed at educational institutions to help them facilitate remote teaching and learning. By releasing the software for free under the GNU Lesser General Public License, which allows integration within educational or commercial applications, they also claim this will be at a significantly lower cost than commercial web conferencing systems. That makes it a system worth considering at a time when costs are something all HEIs will be all too aware of. If you need another reason, then there is also the issue of the perhaps uncertain future of the established Elluminate and Wimba systems following their acquisition by Blackboard.
So what do you get for free? Let’s start with the user-facing end.
At this point we are in a BigBlueButton meeting runing as a Flash application within a browser. The interface feels slick and less clunky than some other systems I’ve used. It may lack some of the bells and whistles of those systems, but in my experience, they are tools that are less often needed in remote presentations.
The big panel in the middle is the presentation area. This holds slides which can be uploaded in formats including Powerpoint, PDF, MSoffice or images (not Keynote), which are then converted to a format optimised for display. You can upload multiple documents and switch between them during the presentation. The image quality is good (compared to elluminate), although the conversion process can mess up some formatting (like slideshare), so make sure you check your fancy slides! There are some nice presentation features, such as a filmstrip view for slide navigation (see below), a slick zoom and pointer. I’m less convinced by the whiteboard tools, but that’s more about the utility of online whiteboards than BBB implementation of one.
The Chat panel alows all participants to conduct public or private chats. The private chat is nicely implemented in a seperate tab to avoid any accidental back-channel incidents! The size of the font can also be altered on a per user basis.
This lists participants that are using audio – as in listening and using their microphone. If you’re first in here, you get some rather ambient Muzak while you wait for others to join. Once they do, multiple users are able to have live conversations, although presenters can selectively mute participants or even eject them from the voice conference.
Multiple participants and a presenter can be sharing their video simultaneously. The quality was OK, but did sometimes suffer from a bit of pixelation. However, that may be an artefact of running this on my desktop PC (more on that later).
Presenters can share their desktop with other participants (via a Java Applet). This allows you to demonstrate activities in any application you have on your local machine, including of course a browser.
At present, there is no way to record and playback sessions, which is something that elluminate does very well. According to the BBB roadmap, this is the most requested feature and is planed to ship with v0.8, although as with much OSS, the timescales for that aren’t set in stone.
Not the sexist of topics, but practicalities of scheduling meetings, setting passwords and inviting participants are a key part of making a web-conferencing system work. I must confess, I was a little shocked to discover that BBB does not ship with a front end to allow you to do this. Instead, it offers an API to allow institutions to develop their own interfaces or integrate with existing systems that manage courses/users.
Luckily, for those of us who are code-shy, extensions have already been developed to allow simple integration with widely-used open source systems like WordPress, Sakai and Moodle. Setting up one of these systems to manage BBB might be a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but for those institutions that already have them in place, integration should be trivial. To test that assertion, I installed local instances of Moodle and WordPress and had a go. The process was easy and the results of the Moodle integration below show how the plugin gives you a simple interface with Moodle to schedule meetings, invite participants from a course and provide them with access in a familiar way as just another moodle activity.
So, overall, I’d say from a user point of view BigBlueButton is an interesting development in the web conferencing field and certainly worth investigation by any institution considering systems. What I can’t really comment on is how it would scale. I’ve tested this on a server running on a pretty basic desktop machine and haven’t put much strain on it. There are some published details on requirements for hardware & bandwidth in the FAQ, but I’m not sure how these would translate into different real world settings (if you are, let me know!).