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C'est la Z

Zoom alternatives that aren't from MicroGoogle

As we scrambled to move online in March we used what we knew, what we heard of and what we were allowed. This usually meant Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams.

I settled on Zoom. It worked and worked pretty well. There were a few things I felt they could improve on but given that Zoom wasn't designed as a teaching tool I've been pretty happy with it.

Now that the emergency rush has passed we have time to see if there are some better alternatives. First up is BigBlueButton. I'll write up another cool platform that's based on BigBlueButton in some future post.

To start, BBB is open source. That's a big plus in my book. This means we can self host it. Now, this can be a problem if installation and maintenance is a pain but so far, it's been carefree.

Next, it has some nice features. It supports pretty much everything that Zoom supports including:

  • join passwords

  • waiting room

  • Brady Bunch view

  • chat

  • reactions (raise hand etc.)

  • a shared whiteboard

  • screen sharing

  • breakout rooms

  • optional session recording.

  • polling

and adds a few:

  • a shared note space

  • shared whiteboard is really a presentation that you can upload

  • A simple html5 client

BBB is also based on "classrooms" rather than meetings which as a teacher seems cleaner and makes more sense.

If you want to try it out and I highly recommend you do, you can do so on their web site.

Hosting is also pretty easy. I was originally turned off by the strangely specific requirement of Ubuntu 16.04 but since Digital Ocean - my preferred cloud provider lets me directly install that or many other versions it wasn't a problem. You'll also need a box with 4GB memory and 4 cores.

You can follow the install instructions on the BBB home page but it was easier to follow these instructions. Here's exactly what I did (culled from the longer explanations on the bbb-install site I just linked):

  1. Create the DO droplet or install an Ubuntu 16.04 mathine.

  2. Log in and run apt-get update, apt-get dist-upgrade and apt-get upgrade.

  3. Set up DNS for the box so you can get to it by name. To do this I went to Google domains and added an entry for bigbluebutton.huntercs.org.

  4. I ran (all one line):

wget -qO- https://ubuntu.bigbluebutton.org/bbb-install.sh | bash -s -- -v xenial-22 -s bbbtest.huntercs.org -e zamansky@gmail.com -g
>}}

This downloads and installs BBB and also uses certbot to set up ssl for secure connections.

After this was done, I created an admin account:

cd greenlight/
docker exec greenlight-v2 bundle exec rake admin:create
>}}

At this point I was up and running so I went to the host and logged in using the admin credentials that the above command gave me.

Next, log in, go to the user profile and change the admin account's login and password. I also went to the org site settings and changed registration so that people had to be invited - this only affects who can create classrooms. Anyone can join as long as the teacher lets the in.

As a last step you should remove the demos: apt-get purge bbb-demo. The home page and install web site has more info on those.

You're now ready to go. Make classrooms, invite your students and you're off.

Check it out. so far, I'm liking it better than the non free non open source alternatives offered by Zoom, Microsoft, and Google.

Next, well look at another platform that's based on BBB that adds some very cool features for CS Teachers.

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