Communications

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Page narration:

On this page I will look at four communications tools that are useful in different ways. At the bottom of the page I’ll also link to other possibilities that you might find interesting. We’ll look at

  1. Instant Messaging (Meebo) and IM widgets (MeeboMe)
  2. Internet calling without a phone (Skype and Skypecasts)
  3. Microblogging (Twitter), a 140-character communications tool that is catching on, and
  4. Group discussion, both asynchronously and synchronously (YackPack)

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Meebo logo

I hate (yes, hate) talking on the telephone. The number of salespeople who think that I should spend my time talking to them is utterly ridiculous. Email isn’t any better. I get so many meaningless emails a day that I shudder every time my GroupWise Notify chimes in to tell me that I have mail.

Those are two of the reasons why I am using instant messaging more and more. So far, (fingers and toes crossed) I have not been subjected to IM-spam and I only hear from people who I really want to hear from (buddies, as it were).

Meebo screenshot

I was never really attracted to IM in the past because of the fractured nature of it all. Some people were on AOL, others on MSN, others on Yahoo, etc. etc. I started using Trillian as a way of bringing all of those together and it works well. However, I would prefer to be able to access my IM services from any computer anywhere and so a web-based service was needed. When I stumbled across Meebo a couple of years ago my problems were finally solved.

From the About meebo page: “meebo.com is a website for instant messaging from absolutely anywhere. Whether you’re at home, on campus, at work, or traveling foreign lands, hop over to meebo.com on any computer to access all of your buddies (on AIM, Yahoo!, MSN, Google Talk, ICQ and Jabber) and chat with them, no downloads or installs required, for free!”

It no longer matters which service your buddies use, you can aggregate all messages in one place from Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, AIM, ICQ, and Google Talk. Meebo has the ability to store chat logs for your user account. Not being able to archive a chat session has been a criticism (an old one) against the use of I.M., but now you can store the ones you want without storing them all. Also this year Meebo added receive and send notification sounds and you can now send messages to people who are not on your contact list.

Another very cool service is the “meebo me” widget, which allows users to embed a chat or IM widget on any webpage, including blogs and wikis on their personal website. I added one to each of my blogs and we also created a widget to use at Lake Superior College for helping online students who need some sort of technical support.

MeeboMe widget

One of the beauties about the MeeboMe widget is that the other user does not have to have any kind of instant messaging account. Basically this is just an open window for them to type in their question. Another advantage is the ability to see if the receiving party (me, or the LSC Help Desk for example) is online and available to respond. This is better than sending the email that you have no idea when the other person will receive, read, and reply. Still one more sweet deal is that you can manage all of your widgets, and your regular I.M. messages all from the same webpage, as shown in the first screenshot of my account. FOR THOSE SO INCLINED, EMBEDDING A WIDGET INSIDE YOUR ONLINE COURSE CAN BE A GREAT WAY TO HOLD ONLINE OFFICE HOURS.

Odds and ends:

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Skype logo

In the previous post about Meebo I mentioned that I hate talking on the phone. That includes regular land-line phones and cell phones. It does not however include talking over the computer using Skype.

I like Skype for some of the same reasons that I like Meebo. It is similar to an unlisted phone number that I only give to people who I want to hear from. I can easily block undesirables (sales people, etc.) from calling me on Skype. With Skype you can make completely free computer-to-computer calls to other Skype users.

I made four trips to Asia in a about one year, and Skype was the main way that I communicated with both family and co-workers who were back in the States. As the picture can attest, it is great being able to see your kids when you talk to them from several thousand miles away.

skype screenshot

You don’t need to use video while using Skype, but it does add to the enjoyment, especially for those of us old enough to remember the video phones from the Jetsons. Any kind of basic PC microphone, even the built-in kind on a notebook will do the trick forwebcam photo audio-only calls. I like to use the Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks for video calls. It is very portable and the tiny integrated microphone works great.Another good thing about Skype is the instant messaging capabilities. You can text chat even if voice chat is not possible or advisable. The screenshot below was captured when I was in a coffee shop with free wireless access but didn’t want to talk out loud with a bunch of strangers around me.Skype IM screenshot

Other good things:

  • I’ve used Skype to record podcasts while interviewing people at a distance.
  • It is multi-platform and works on Windows, Linux, and Mac.
  • Using Skype Out you can call landlines or cell phones. There is now a small charge starting for SkypeOut.
  • You can send SMS messages for a small fee as well.
  • You can have a real phone number assigned to your Skype account (I haven’t yet).
  • While in a Skype call (or chat) you can easily share files from PC-to-PC.

There are a few downfalls:

  • A computer on an open network might be used as a SuperNode, consuming lots of bandwidth and opening security risks (in theory)
    1. See report of a Skype worm as an example of what might happen as it becomes more of a target for ill-doers
    2. University of Minnesota discourages its use
    3. Inside Higher Ed: Skype Skirmishes
  • Others have to have Skype for you to communicate with them (or you pay for SkypeOut to their regular phone)
  • Skype is now owned by eBay which makes me somewhat worried about whether it will be turned into a profit center that makes it more costly to use and less enjoyable as it becomes more “corporatized”
  • Skype is built with closed protocols on a closed network (not an open standard, so it is proprietary, which is never a good thing)

skypecasts logoLast thing, I also really like the potential of the Skypecasts. I have hosted a couple of them myself, and have also joined a couple of others as a participant. Up to 100 people can participate in a Skypecast where the host controls the action by muting participants or handing over the microphone, and can even eject people from the Skypecast if they are being noisy or disruptive or just plain icky.

Skypecasts are free to host and free to join for the participants. Currently the Skypecasts do not allow video to be used, but that is probably not too far away, at least for the host webcam to project out to others. NOTE: YOU DO WANT TO CREATE A “HIDDEN” SKYPECAST SO THAT ONLY THE PEOPLE YOU INVITE CAN ENTER THE CONVERSATION.

Considering all things, I’m still very much pro-Skype. (BTW, Skype does require a download and install on your computer, SO IT IS NOT COMPLETELY WEB-BASED.)

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Twitter is making a big splash these days. Search for it, it’s everywhere.twitter screenshot

From lifehack.org: some good tips on using Twitter productively.

From redmonk: Using Twitter at conferences as a backchannel.

Alan Levine shares his Twitter experiences.

Christopher Sessums: Brainstorming potential educational uses for Twitter.

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YackPack logo

NOTE: I am not necessarily recommending YackPack any longer since they have moved to a primarily pay-to-play model. With a free account, voice messages are now limited to ten seconds or less. That might be useful for a few things, but overall is probably a deal breaker for most people.

Why YackPack? (from http://yackpack.com/education.html)

YackPack can quickly improve educational communication. Motivate students, give quality feedback with ease and communicate clearly with students, parents and administrators. YackPack’s simple and convenient web browser based interface design allow students and teachers to focus on content and not be distracted by the underlying technology.

YackPack gives you a private and secure space that’s safe from outsiders. Once you create a YackPack for each class, you can:

  • Grade student work, giving quality feedback and saving yourself time. See how you can do this!
  • Give assignments for oral practice in foreign language learning as well as speaking and presentation skills.
  • Offer encouragement on assignments.
  • Discuss topics as a class, as staff, as a district, and with other educators.
  • Answer questions from students. Watch a short movie showing teacher-student interactions in YackPack.
  • Collaborate with other classrooms.
  • Invite guests to join in from around the world.
  • You can talk in real time – just push and talk. Everyone logged in can hear you.

Here is a screenshot. The “Live” button allows you to talk (walkie-talkie style) through your computer with anyone else in your group who is currently connected. Otherwise, you can leave them either voice messages or text messages that they will see next time they login to the group. This can be embedded as a live page inside your IMS (at least it works inside Desire2Learn).

Yackpack screenshot

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