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    Have you spent your life blissfully unaware of virtual conferencing, only to have it suddenly be the cornerstone of all social contact outside your house? The current quarantine has uprooted so many aspects of day to day life it can be hard to keep count. The widespread encouragement of social distancing has led to an enormous reliance on the internet and teleconferencing to compensate for the loss of physical contact. As birthday parties, classrooms, office meetings and library programs shift to virtual spaces, many people are scrambling to keep up with the transition. Even I was caught off guard by the sudden necessity of virtual chat platforms.  I thought I would share some of what I learned in hopes that it helps you on your way.  

 

The Apps

    A brief list of popular teleconferencing programs you may have come across. Many of these apps are offered for free, but have premium versions with extra features. The free versions have everything needed to participate in virtual meetings, so I will stick to those.  

GotoMeeting - The Brentwood Public Library’s preferred conferencing software, GotoMeeting’s easy to use App allows participants to join from either their computer or smart devices. While joining meetings is free, hosting groups on GotoMeeting requires a paid account.

Zoom - Among the most popular options on the market. The free version has all of the features necessary to join and host Zoom meetings, and comes with a number of fun and useful addons like background effects and real time video touch up.  

*For Teachers and Students taking classes remotely, Zoom has temporarily lifted some restrictions on free accounts. Zoom has disabled the 40 minute time limit on accounts associated with educational institutions. Go to https://zoom.us/education for more details and to see if your account is eligible.

Teams - Microsoft’s popular Teams App comes with its own Teleconferencing software. Its integration with Microsoft’s suite of office products makes this app more oriented towards use in the workplace.  

Google Meet – Google’s own contribution to the list allows smartphone and tablet users to join meetings via the Google Meet app. A free Google account is needed to use Meet with a smart device. Users without a Google account may join Google Meet meeting through a web browser. Like GotoMeeting, Google Meet requires a paid Google Suite account to host meetings.  

The others – This list barely scratches the surface of available teleconferencing apps.  Some apps, like facetime and Facebook messenger, have outside requirements for their use (needing an iOS device and a Facebook account, in the last two examples). These requirements limit their usability in the public sphere.  Other free apps, like Skype, are also available and widely in use.  

The Hardware

 The type of gear you can use to join in on the conversation.

Smartphones and Tablets

 Advantages -      

  • Most smart devices have all of the equipment needed to record and transmit audio, text and video to conferences.  
  • Minimal setup is required to use a smart device for teleconferencing.
  • Most popular teleconferencing apps are compatible with smart devices.

Drawbacks -  

  • Smart devices have less features available compared to a computer.  
  • Small screens can make video presentations harder to see.  
  • Using a smart device will require Wi-Fi or a mobile data plan.  

Desktop or Laptop Computers (PC or Apple) 

Advantages -      

  • Desktop and laptop computers are compatible with most teleconferencing programs and are ideal for hosting and attending meetings.
  • High level of customization. Additional programs can be integrated into your presentation to provide slideshows, background effects and more.

Drawbacks-      

  • Depending on your device, additional equipment may be needed in order to teleconference. The increased demand for webcams and microphones during quarantine has made the availability of these items spotty at best.  Be sure to double check your equipment! Many laptops and some desktop monitors have web cameras and microphones built in.  
  • Can require slightly more set up than a smart device.  

 

A “Non-Smart” Phone

Some teleconferencing programs allow you to join by dialing a specific number associated with the meeting.  

Advantages -  

  • Does not require a computer or smart device.

Drawbacks -  

  • Audio only. You cannot see people and they cannot see you.
  • Not usable with every conferencing app.

How to join a Virtual Meeting

    Each teleconferencing app will have its own way to join virtual meetings, but there are some common methods shared by many apps. Perhaps the most common way is to receive an invitation in the form of a clickable link. These will commonly come via email from the host of your event. Another method is to receive a meeting ID number from the host of your meeting. This number is then entered into the appropriate app in order to join.  

Best Practices

Tips and recommendations for your first video chat.


Use headphones or a headset. Speaker phones can create echoes and other unpleasant feedback noises.  

Be aware of your surroundings. When videoconferencing your fellow callers will be able to see and hear whatever is around you. While occasionally hilarious, inappropriate background activity can be very distracting during meetings.  

Make note of the lighting in the room. Having too strong a light in the background will obscure people’s view of your face.

When using a Desktop or Laptop, make sure to “allow” the app to use the camera and microphone if requested.  

 

    Hopefully this brief introduction will make you more comfortable entering the world of virtual conferencing. Change invites new opportunities to learn. And if we take those opportunities to learn, the change will be for the better. We might be learning this new technology now because we have to, but it in turn unlocks a dynamic space where we can share our ideas, our art, our memories and our smiles from miles apart!