The free service offered by Skype, the internet phone company, provides video calls, and only requires a webcam. Other free programs include Wengomeeting, SightSpeed, and PalBee, which is web-based and does not require any installation or downloads. PalBee allows videoconferencing with up to five people, and there is a one-hour time limit in a virtual meeting area.

“If the goal is audio … and video quality that you can understand, I think the answer is yes, [free videoconferencing options] work adequately,” said Benjamin Bederson, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland College Park’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab. “[Cisco’s purchase of Tandberg] might not have much impact at all” on college campuses, he added..

Ted Jackson, an analyst for financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald, said the videoconferencing sector is now a “two-horse race” between Polycom and Cisco — a far cry from the pecking order before the Oct. 1 acquisition.

“[Cisco] has been the third player, and a company like Cisco, I don’t think their goal is to be No. 3,” he said. “The company has made a pretty concerted effort to promote video-based communication.”

By purchasing Tandberg, Jackson said, Cisco now has access to Tandberg’s worldwide clientele, meaning Cisco will have a “built-in audience.”

“That definitely had to be a factor in [Cisco’s] thought process,” he said.

Paid videoconferencing usually allows unlimited users and has reliably high-quality video and sound, so if a professor needs to connect with dozens or hundreds of students via video, a free online option would likely be insufficient. But if an educator needs to connect with only a few students simultaneously, there is little need to pay monthly or annual costs to a major corporation like Cisco, Bederson said.

“There isn’t that much value in the visual component of a talking head, given the cost,” said Bederson, adding that videoconferencing is valuable for introductory face-to-face meetings, but voice or text communication is used more often in future long-distance meetings. “People tend not to use it unless they have a very specific need. … Seeing my face doesn’t add that much to the conversation.”

The role of videoconferencing in K-12 schools was examined in a report published last fall by the California Education Department and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The report — which gathered data from businesses, nonprofit organizations, and telecommunications companies — outlines how bolstered broadband internet service can help make videoconferencing more accessible throughout the state. The report advocated that videoconferencing become a “standard teaching tool.”

The report, titled, “A Blueprint for Strengthening K-12 Videoconferencing in California,” said using the technology could help enhance education while the state’s operating budget remains mired in a deficit that has cost thousands of state employees their jobs.

“Today, the value of videoconferencing in education is indisputable,” the report said. “It is no longer difficult to imagine a world where K-12 students in California can travel to an art museum or aquarium and engage with content specialists in real-time discussions without leaving their classrooms.”

Four percent of California classrooms have videoconferencing equipment, compared to one-quarter of classrooms in states such as Texas, New York, and North Carolina that have videoconferencing capabilities.

Webcasting industry experts said Cisco’s acquisition shows the company will continue to appeal to colleges of every size.

It appears Cisco wants “to be a big player in the education space,” said Jon Bischke, CEO of, a site that offers live, interactive video classes. He added that the coming Cisco videoconferencing equipment will be “a high-end option” and might take years before adoption into web-based college courses. “I think it’ll take a long time for it to impact the mainstream of distance learning.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.




Add your opinion to the discussion.