An open source alternative for Zoom

Zoom may have been the default option for teachers who were suddenly forced to go online, but it is neither the only option nor the best, says Dr Tobias Fiebig (TPM).

At the dawn of a new teaching period, Dr Tobias Fiebig, an Assistant Professor at the TPM Faculty, invites his colleague lecturers to have a look at another remote teaching platform: BigBlueButton (BBB). It is open source, non-profit and it doesn’t go hunting for user data. ‘In a crisis you grab the first tools available,’ wrote our columnist Bob van Vliet in April. ‘But as soon as the urgent need has passed, we, as a public institution, should put our efforts into public utilities.’ BigBlueButton might well fill this role as a public remote teaching tool.

What teaching platforms are your TU Delft lecturers currently using?
It varies. Some people use Zoom, and some have used Discord. Then there is YouSeeU, the ‘Virtual Classroom’ in Brightspace. It is kind of a similar software as BBB. There are people using Skype for Business, and people using Teams. At TPM, a large group is using BBB.”

What makes BBB the preferred option?
“It supports more people in each room than YouSeeU. It is easier for students because they don’t have to install yet another application to join. It has more teaching features in comparison to Teams, for example. There’s an integrated whiteboard, integrated polling, automatic breakout rooms. And you can play videos in the attendee’s browser.” 

What is your own role in BBB?
“BBB is an open source software and when the lockdown hit, support from TU Delft was less than optimal. I was teaching a course in March and TU Delft told me that from Monday onwards, you’re teaching remotely. Good luck. Most of my colleagues went to Zoom, they struggled and tried something else. I set up BBB for my own course. I found the open source software on the Internet. I actually programmed quite a lot of improvements to make it more useable for TU Delft’s purposes. Because a lot of TPM colleagues are using it, the MAS department at TPM took over the hosting and now it’s being piloted under the TPM domain.”

Can colleagues from other faculties use it as well?
“Yes, anyone with a TU Delft account can simply log in. The system is scalable. At the moment we can handle 1,000 – 1,500 simultaneous users and the maximum classroom size is 300. But we can always add servers to increase capacity.”

Why should colleagues who are used to Zoom now switch over?
“Do you know what Zoom has been doing? In the USA, several universities have had lectures cancelled by Zoom because Zoom didn’t agree with the content. So that is a big issue, apart from all the privacy issues surrounding Zoom.” 

Is BBB user-friendly?
“There are a couple of things that you can do differently in BigBlueButton. In Zoom, for instance, if you want to present your slides you usually just share your screen, which is highly inefficient because you’re then basically streaming a video across the internet. In BBB you just upload your slides which are then rendered into a PDF that is displayed in each user’s browser. This puts less strain on the infrastructure and allows you to use the integrated whiteboard so that you can draw on the slides if you need to. It’s no more difficult to use. I think it has the same learning curve as Zoom, but you have way more options.” 

What is your message to other TU Delft lecturers?
“My message is give it a try. All these online teaching tools are a question of choice. And this is an option that you can try without a lot of effort.” 

Science editor Jos Wassink

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