Teleconferencing for meetings and informational training of remote staff has been in use for many years. A newer tool, Web conferencing, is being used for training and collaborative projects. The technology is similar to using phone conferencing in that it fosters collaboration between staff members in remote locations. But Web conferencing also provides several additional functionalities that allow for expanded collaboration through the sharing of visual and electronic data.

First in a series

This is the first of three articles on using Web conferencing software in conjunction with training initiatives.

While video conferencing does allow for the same functionalities, it’s much more expensive than Web conferencing because special equipment and additional ISDN or digital telecom lines are required. This is not the case with Web conferencing. In fact, if you need to train or meet with individuals in groups smaller than 15 people, you can implement a quick training solution with little or no cost as long as remote users have high-speed network or Internet access, microphones, and Web cameras.

In this article, I’ll outline the benefits and limitations of Web conferencing, the necessary tools for implementation, and I’ll discuss various software packages available.

Benefits and limitations of Web conferencing
Web conferencing is a broad term used for technology tools that allow you to meet online through a network or on the Internet no matter what the location. The technology has a relatively long history in relationship to the Internet. Chat rooms, for example, are predecessors of today’s Web conferencing. Web conferencing today has broad appeal in business as it allows you to:

  • Meet with others while being located in different locations—involving a handful to several hundred people.
  • Display online slide show presentations.
  • Interact with others online, using video, audio, and text.
  • Use an electronic whiteboard to visually display ideas.
  • Watch another user perform a task on his or her system as a learning exercise.
  • Take control of another user’s system to walk them through correct procedures for completing a task on their system.

The most obvious benefit is that Web conferencing can cut travel time and costs associated with pulling distributed teams together for a meeting. In certain instances, it can also reduce the cost of long-distance teleconferences. Additional benefits include the fact that anyone within an organization is technically astute enough to set up a Web conferencing session. This bodes well for on-the-job training with one or a few people. I found this particularly useful when there were frequent software updates in which functionality or the interface was changed. After each rollout, I would train team members on significant software changes that affected those people documenting or developing specialized areas of the software.

The primary limitations of Web conferencing are bandwidth and appropriate content. Web conferencing can be used for any training content that is high level—in which lecture and instructional formats are used. It can also be used for demonstrating tasks on a computer system. Highly technical content is more difficult to present during Web conferencing sessions. For those needs, it is better to have a more traditional instructor-led session or self-paced instruction and use Web conferencing for a follow-up question-and-answer session.

Bandwidth is a significant issue when you have people connecting to the Internet or a network at speeds of 56 Kbps or less. You can successfully use Web conferencing with low bandwidth if you limit the types of features you use. For example, showing slides with limited graphics or animations, using audio, and text chat will normally work with any speed greater than 19.2 Kbps. If you want to add video or demonstrations, the minimum recommended speed is 128 Kbps for all users.

Required tools and equipment
If you decide to try Web conferencing, you will need to make certain you have the following tools:

  • Network or Internet connection (speeds over 128 Kbps is optimal).
  • Slide presentation software. PowerPoint will be the most typical software package. However, you can use other software, such as Persuasion, as long as you can export the files to PC and PowerPoint formats. This is generally only required of the facilitator.
  • Speakers and microphone, as both are needed for audio interaction. If using one-way audio, only the facilitator needs a microphone. Most computers come with more than adequate speakers. You can get excellent microphone headsets for less than $30.
  • Web camera.

Web conferencing software options
There are several software packages providing Web conferencing capabilities. The two types that are widely used are self-managed and externally-managed:

  • NetMeeting: This is a free Microsoft Web conferencing tool. Both the facilitator and attendees need the software. This is best for small, informal training sessions with fewer than 15 people attending. Facilitators can set up and initiate meetings directly from within PowerPoint, using the Online Collaboration options available from the Tools menu. One limitation is that the latest versions of NetMeeting will only run on Windows platforms. If you know the IP address or domain name of the NetMeeting host system, you can directly connect to that system via the Internet or a network. The host system should be connected to a high-speed line so that it can handle multiple connections. If you want to handle more people simultaneously, you need to have an LDAP-enabled directory service, such as Microsoft Site Server.
  • Webex: Webex is a Web-based Web conferencing service. It has comparable features to NetMeeting but is an externally managed service. It works for individual or small-scale implementations, as well as large corporate implementations. Many companies use providers like Webex to reduce administration costs. Webex can be used on multiple platforms (e.g., Windows, Macintosh) as long as users have an appropriate Web browser, such as Navigator or Internet Explorer. Other providers include Placeware and Centra

Just by reviewing the full-featured software currently on the market, it’s obvious that Web conferencing has proven to be a viable, economical, and valuable technology to integrate into the IT training spectrum. I hope this first part of our three-part series on using Web conferencing for training programs has provided a solid foundation of the technology, pros and cons for various scenarios, and some insight on available products.

Coming next

In the next article, we will cover how Xerox uses Web conferencing for training and how you can implement NetMeeting for informal on-the-job training sessions.

Do you have a question or related issue concerning training tools? Send them in, and we’ll try to provide the answers.