During this time of social isolation and quarantine, we have seen a tremendous increase in the use of Video Teleconferencing or VTC solutions. VTC offers a means to meet online, sharing live video and audio via computer webcams or mobile devices. This is a great resource for both virtual business meetings and pastoral activities including communal prayer, online faith formation, and social gatherings. In a time of isolation, VTC offers a means for maintaining social networks and connections while also developing new ones. The information below is a snapshot of a select number of VTC platforms. Many of the VTC service providers listed are now offering free services as part of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you have any feedback on VTC solutions, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zoom has seen an exponential increase in its use over the last few weeks – it is probably the most chosen option. Zoom provides a very modern, clean user interface that supports 100 participants for free. The small team version costs $15/month and supports nine hosts (individuals who can run a meeting). With the free version you can meet for up to 40 minutes at a time before having to restart a meeting. This limitation has been removed for K-12 schools impacted by COVID-19. Zoom offers the ‘raised hand’ feature where participants can ask questions and has the very useful ‘break out rooms’ feature where smaller participant groups can meet before being recalled to the larger meeting. Zoom has been the recipient of some bad press after concerns with data privacy and security were raised by both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. The New York City School system prohibited the use of Zoom due to these concerns. Zoom is working to address these well published issues and have initiated a 90-day campaign to remediate. As part of that plan Zoom has recently purchased Keybase to improve video security. At this time, you should feel comfortable using Zoom for most of your meetings. The recommendation is not to use it for very confidential meetings, e.g., business confidential or private spiritual care. Be aware the some Catholic entities have chosen not to use Zoom for ethical reasons (article).
If your parish, collaborative or school is already using Google G Suite or Google Classroom then Google Meet may be a logical choice. Google Meet is the successor of Google Hangouts. It is a free application that is supported on all browsers including Chrome, Firefox and Microsoft Edge Browser (though there are some reported issues based on the Edge version). You do not need a google account to join a meeting, but you do need one if you want to host a meeting or if you wish to join by using a mobile device. Consistent with Google design ethos Google Meet maintains a clutter free interface which is simple and streamlined. The Google Meet interface can display up to 16 meeting participants in a grid view but can host up to 100 participants. As with all the VTC solutions Google Meet can be used to share presentations and has a chat feature. It also has a very nice caption feature which is both quick and accurate. Captioning turns the spoken word into text which is quickly displayed – a welcome option if you have hard of hearing participants. If you are considering Google Classroom for your Faith Formation and Religious Education classes, then Google Meet may be an appropriate choice to start familiarizing your staff and parishioners with Google applications. For those using G-Suite, Google Meet has dedicated conference room hardware (Meet Hardware Kits) as an additional purchase option that starts at $2,000. Google Meet is positioned as a secure use application suitable for business use.
Similar to Google Meet, Microsoft offers Skype. Skype has been around for many years for both personal and business use. Skype for Business is being replaced with Microsoft Teams but the non-business version remains available. Skype has a meet now feature that anyone can use without setting up an account; you simply start a meeting and share the access code with those you wish to invite. You can have up to 50 participants and there is no meeting duration limitation. The free version of Skype has the typical feature set including chat and document sharing. With Skype you can also create a poll and immediately share it with meeting participants – this appears in the chat window. Downloading Skype provides additional features but with this you will need to create an account. Meetings can be recorded, and, like Google Meet, there is a caption feature. Skype also offers Voice Translator for voice and text translation. Voice translation currently includes English, Spanish, French, German, Chinese (Mandarin), Italian, Portuguese (Brazilian), Arabic, and Russian. Skype can also be used to make phone calls to landlines. For those wishing to develop a professional grade media studio type environment, Skype for Content Creators and Skype TX supports broadcasters and media production companies. Finally, if you are an Outlook user then Skype will integrate with your Outlook application.
Microsoft Teams (MS-Teams) is best understood as a comprehensive collaboration solution that incorporates VTC capabilities. It is a business class application that is robust and secure. Data protection and privacy are important aspects of this solution. It is available as a program or a web-only application. MS-Teams provides many of the same features as the other VTC solutions listed here but in addition has additional capabilities aimed at working effectively as a collaborating team – it is fully integrated into the Office 365 environment. For those who already subscribe to Office 365 MS-Teams is part of the packaged solution and is immediately available to you. Although you can certainly invite external groups and parties to participate in an MS-Teams meeting our experience has been that MS-Teams is more effectively used for intra-organizational or special project type meetings needing document sharing, collaborative authoring, and general real-time communication needs. For infrequent or casual pastoral type meetings you may wish to look at some of the other VTC solutions listed in this IT Notice. To becomes familiar and expert in the MS-Teams full feature set it will take a little investment in time and effort and even some staff training. RCAB, through the office of Parish Financial Services, offers Office 365 implementation services for those parishes and collaboratives who wish to move to a business class solution for email, cloud document storage, MS-Teams, etc. If you are interested in MS-Teams for its collaborative work options, you may also want to evaluate slack.com.
GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar and GoToTraining are all online event and meeting related products of the LogMeIn company. These products are aimed at the small to large business sector but certainly the GoToMeeting solution can be put to good use in the parish and collaborative setting. There are several plans that support different meeting size needs and different types of features. Prices start at $12/month. As expected, there are no limits on the number or duration of meetings. Invited participants are also provided with a phone number to call if needed to join a meeting. Compared to Zoom and some of the other alternatives listed in this document GoToMeeting looks a little dated but is deemed secure for business use and has many of the same features and capabilities. This is the product we use at the Pastoral Center for all our large group meetings including the most recent Covid-19 related events. From a security perspective we can recommend this solution for secure meetings or small pastoral/spiritual care type needs.
A Note on Accessibility
Screen readers are used by the visually impaired to work with computer applications. These solutions scan screen content and read aloud what is being displayed. Not all applications are built to be ADA compliant and some are better than others. Microsoft Teams and Zoom appear to work well with the Jaws screen reader whereas both GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar do not work so well. Similarly, it has been reported that Cisco’s Webex is difficult for the visually impaired to use. Cisco Webex was not included in this IT Notice.