Since the beginning of spring, school authorities and other educational institutions have been faced with the challenge of continuing their teaching with no or only limited face-to-face interaction. This article introduces the web conferencing system BigBlueButton, which may be a possible solution to this problem. In the first part of the article I would like to give you an overview of the most important functions of BigBlueButton and briefly discuss what you need to pay attention to the sizing of the servers and how to deal with problems caused by NAT and firewalls of the users. In the second part, I will explain how to integrate BigBlueButton into your UCS environment step by step so that users can use it with their usual credentials.
What is BigBlueButton?
BigBlueButton is an open source project that focuses specifically on the needs of online teaching. The project aims to make participation in video conferences easily accessible. All that is usually required on the participant side is an end device with an up-to-date browser.
The project was founded in 2007 at Carleton University. Since then, it has been continuously developed. During the development, the stability of the software was a priority.
The last major release was in March 2020, when the client-side part of the application was completely renewed, so that now, thanks to HTML5, only end devices with an up-to-date browser are required to participate in conferences. In times of corona, the demand for BigBlueButton has been growing rapidly and so every few days smaller updates were released for BigBlueButton , which improve and extend BigBlueButton.
It’s easy – Organize a video conference with BigBlueButton
After creating a conference room in BigBlueButton, the moderator of the conference must make the URL of this conference room known to all participants, e.g. by mail, so that they can join the room through their browser. If desired, access to the conference room can also be protected from unwanted participants with a PIN.
When joining a conference, BigBlueButton automatically performs an echo test, which allows you to test your own audio setup before you actually join. Those who frequently participate in video conferences will appreciate this feature, as it avoids waiting until every participant has activated his or her microphone successfully. In addition to the audio transmission, the video transmission of a webcam connected to the computer can of course also be activated, so that all participants can see each other.
But BigBlueButton also offers the possibility for participants without audio/video hardware to join the conference using their normal telephone. Participants can follow the visual content through their browser so that a lack of audio equipment does not become an obstacle. The prerequisite for this is the configuration of a VoIP provider that automatically forwards incoming calls to the BigBlueButton server.
Further features: presentations, whiteboards, recording, chat…
In addition to these features known from video conferencing systems, there are others that are especially useful for educational purposes:
- The presentation of slides (PDF, Open Office documents, PNG, …)
- A whiteboard, which can be shared with all participants in writing if required
- Screen sharing for sharing a selected application or the entire desktop with the other participants
- Breakout rooms, which can be used to start sub-conferences for subgroups for a limited period
- Synchronized video players – for watching e.g. YouTube videos together (the moderator’s video player also controls the video players of the participants)
- Conducting surveys among the participants
- Shared notes via an integrated etherpad
- Common chat room for all participants and private chat rooms for each participant pair
- Recording of conferences including slides, whiteboard and mouse movements
If necessary, almost all of the features mentioned and many more can be configured more precisely by the administrator of the BigBlueButton system.
If you would like to test BigBlueButton , you can conduct your own demo conference. The duration of these conferences is currently limited to 60 minutes due to corona.
Required resources for up to 100 participants
Depending on the hardware configuration, a single BigBlueButton system can serve up to 100 participants, which can be distributed over a single or multiple conferences. The maximum size of a single conference depends on many factors, such as number of participants, number of active webcams, quality of the video streams, hardware equipment of server and participants or even the network connection of the server, so that no general statements can be made here. The project has compiled some key points:
I therefore recommend setting up a test environment for a practice-oriented test.
If it should become bigger – The BigBlueButton cluster
For larger environments, such as universities or school boards, a single BigBlueButton system is not sufficient. With the help of the open source load balancer Scalelite, which was developed especially for BigBlueButton , several BigBlueButton systems can be combined into a cluster on which the individual conferences are distributed.
For the automated rollout of such large environments, there are ready-to-use Ansible Playbooks available both at the project and on other websites, which do the work of installing the cluster for you.