In late April, word spread on social media that, from 2nd May 2022, Zoom was going to start limiting 1-to-1 calls on free accounts to 40 minutes. Time to start looking for Zoom alternatives!
Many of us in the tutoring community only work on a 1-to-1 basis and therefore had never had reason to pay for a Pro subscription. I’d have been happy to pay maybe £5-6/month for what I acknowledge is an excellent service, but the cheapest paid tier comes to £14.39 a month once VAT is taken into acccount, and includes far more capacity than I’m ever likely to use.
If Zoom had had the courtesy to email me and advise me of the forthcoming change then I might just have coughed up for a Pro account. However, not only did very few of us receive emails; they even kept it very quiet on their own website. When I heard about the change, less than a week before it was due to happen, there was no hint of it shown on Zoom’s pricing page. They did update the site just a day or two before the limit kicked in, but only in the form of a subtle change to the description of the free tier.
Since they’d been so sneaky about it, I decided to shop around and see if I could find any viable alternatives out there before giving Zoom my money. So I set to investigating Zoom alternatives.
So far, I’ve stuck with Zoom, just restarting the meeting at a convenient point 30-40 minutes into the lesson. The majority of my current tutees are just starting their GCSE and A-level exams and will be finishing in the next few weeks anyway, so I don’t want to have to move them onto a new platform. But having the meeting split into two doesn’t look very professional, so in the longer term I do need to either settle on an alternative or fork out for a Pro account.
So here are the results of my investigation into Zoom alternatives…
The main items on my wish list were:
Time limit of at least 90 minutes on 1-to-1
My lessons are an hour long but I often go over by a minute or two, so I don’t want to be cut off after exactly 60 minutes. There have also been occasions where, by mutual agreement, I’ve had a shorter lesson with a tutee one week and we’ve made up the time the following week.
Ability to schedule recurring meetings with the same URL
With Zoom I just hold all my lessons in my personal meeting room, but some people prefer to use a dedicated, recurring URL for each tutee. I’m happy to do either, but I can’t be doing with sending a new link to the tutee for every lesson, and I’m sure they won’t want that either!
Participant’s image to float on top when screen sharing
I screen-share – BitPaper, PowerPoints and various other resources – most of the time, but I like to be able to see my student too. If they go quiet then it’s good to be able to see whether they’re busy working something out on paper, looking puzzled, or distracted by something going on in the background. With Zoom, a small box with the student’s image floats on top of whatever else I have open, and I’d like to keep that. It’s also good if the student can still see me and my gestures while I’m screen sharing!
A built-in screen annotation tool is nice to have but is something that I don’t often use and could easily manage without. BitPaper and PowerPoint have their own in any case.
I’m not bothered about a built-in whiteboard as I use BitPaper for that, and I also very seldom use the facility in Zoom that allows you to give remote control to another meeting participant. I think that very few platforms provide that facility, so if it’s something that you use regularly then that might be worth paying a Zoom subscription for… but see the bit on Chrome Remote Desktop, under Google Meet.
The Zoom alternatives I’ve considered
Google Meet has the advantage of familiarity: most people at least know that it exists, even if they haven’t used it, and already have a Google account. The interface is browser-based, so there’s no need to download any software. It’s free for far more than I need in terms of meeting attendance and length, and I’m glad to see that the meeting host can now end the meeting for everyone; the last time I used it, the meeting didn’t end until the last participant left the room.
You can set up recurring meetings and it’s fully integrated with Google Calendar. Like all the Zoom alternatives I’ve looked at, it allows screen sharing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the floating student image while doing so. This seems to be a drawback of all the Zoom alternatives I’ve looked at that use a browser-based interface. The student can’t see me while the screen is being shared, either.
It doesn’t have an integrated remote control facility but I understand that it’s possible to set up the Chrome Remote Desktop extension for this purpose. I think it’s probably even possible to use Chrome Remote Desktop with other Zoom alternatives, since it’s independent of Google Meet.
Jitsi Meet is free and anonymous, so it’s handy for off-the-cuff, informal meetings. It can view your Google Calendar if you give it access, and you can assign a meeting link to an existing calendar event – but there doesn’t seem to be any facility for scheduling recurring meetings. It’s browser-based and there’s no floating image when screen sharing.
From the very limited experience I have of Teams, I’m not a fan. But since it’s one of the best-known Zoom alternatives, I thought I should give it a chance, so I investigated the costs first… only to find that the free version is limited to 1-hour meetings. It’s £36 + VAT (£43.20 in total) for a year’s subscription to the “Essentials” package (they advertise it as £3/month but there’s no option to subscribe monthly) – considerably cheaper than Zoom but enough for me to look elsewhere first.
Now this one looks very promising. Voov Meeting is almost a Zoom clone, and is currently free, though it’s advertised as a “Free Trial”, and the banner on the Pricing page says, “VooV Meeting will continue to be free to the public during the COVID-19 outbreak,” so it may not remain free in the longer term.
It does require you to download a client app, like Zoom does, and the interface looks very similar to Zoom’s. You can default to using your own personal meeting room and can set up recurring meetings. But when I tried it with my dad, for some reason he was unable to get into the meeting. That was with the password (actually a numerical code) enabled, and I tried it later with my son with the password disabled and it worked for him. So I’m not sure whether that was just an unfortunate temporary blip or a problem with the password functionality.
Getting set up is a bit of a headache for the student because of the need to download the app, and the fact that meeting links don’t work as smoothly as with Zoom. The student clicks on the meeting link in their email, and this opens a web page asking for permission to open the app. When you grant that permission, the app opens up but you still have to put the meeting ID in manually, even though it was in the link.
Once you’re in the meeting it seems to work well, albeit perhaps not quite as fast as Zoom, and is probably the best of the Zoom alternatives I’ve looked at. It ticks the floating image box, though the only choices seem to be to have either just the speaker visible (which means that when I’m speaking I can see only myself rather than the student – though it may be that that’s something I can change in the settings somewhere) or both/all participants (which takes up more space on the screen than I’d like). It has a screen annotation tool too, and a built-in whiteboard and breakout rooms; the only facility that Zoom has but Voov Meeting seems to lack is the ability to hand remote control over to the student.
RingCentral Video is part of the RingCentral office communications suite, but is available as a standalone service. On paper it ticks all my boxes and looks like one of the best Zoom alternatives: a very generous free package, ability to use personal meeting room or schedule recurring meetings (can sync with Google or Outlook), floating window when screen sharing – and even a remote control facility! Pretty sure there’s also an annotation tool but I didn’t really investigate that.
It requires you to download an app for full functionality, but there’s also the option of a browser-based interface; no need for the student to download an app unless they want to. They don’t even need to register an account.
Unfortunately, in practice I found it clunky and nowhere near as slick as Zoom. For me it was quite laggy and took several seconds for screen sharing to kick in. What’s more, the shared screen was very reluctant to load at my dad’s end; on the first couple of attempts it told him it would load when his connection improved, and did do so after maybe 30-60 seconds, after which it seemed quite stable – but on subsequent attempts it wouldn’t load at all. I’ve tutored from his address with no problems so I know that his connection is adequate. Not much point in having screen-share if the person at the other end can’t see it!
I’ve used Skype occasionally in the past but only socially, and wasn’t all that keen. The last time was on a group call hosted by someone else back at the beginning of lockdown, when Zoom was gaining popularity but wasn’t yet a household name, and Skype didn’t cope well with having 20+ people on that call. But a couple of other tutors recently said they were using Skype for 1-to-1 tutoring and finding it very good, so I’ve given the latest version a try and have been surprised at how well it works for what I need.
There’s a downloadable app but also the option of a browser-based interface, so the student doesn’t need to download any software. They do need to register an account though, because Skype works in a different way from the others: rather than setting up recurring meetings, you have to set up contacts and call the contact (just a matter of selecting their name and clicking on the Video Call icon) when it’s time for their lesson. You can also set up groups, which work in the same way.
There’s a floating image of the student while I’m screen sharing. Skype keeps a record of the calls that have taken place (participants and times, but not content), and you can record calls if you want to (some of the others allow this too). It does lack a screen annotation facility, but I can live without that.
Other Zoom alternatives that I’ve heard mention of are Whereby, Brave Talk and Koala Go.
Whereby is browser-based and, I think, fairly similar to Google Meet and Jitsi Meet.
Brave Talk is built into the Brave browser, which it appears you need to download; it markets itself as an alternative to Chrome.
I get the impression that Koala Go is more suited to teaching younger children in an entertaining way than supporting those preparing for exams.
Of the Zoom alternatives I’ve looked at, my front-runner is Skype and I’m planning on rolling it out over the next few weeks for those students who will be carrying on with lessons after the current exams. Many people already have Skype accounts from pre-Covid days, and for those who don’t, it’s not difficult to set one up.
Voov Meeting also shows great promise, assuming that it’s normally more cooperative than it was when my dad tried it. The other main reason I’m not pursuing it at present is the palaver involved for the student in setting it up.
RingCentral Video would be great if it were slicker, but my experience of it was disappointing.
In case of any difficulty with Skype, I intend to use Zoom or possibly Google Meet as a backup.
If you’re interested in finding out more about BitPaper, the online whiteboard that I use, take a look at this blog post.
Update – December 2022
By the beginning of September I’d migrated all my continuing tutees to Skype (and gone straight to Skype with the new ones), and it’s been working well for me. Zoom is still there as a backup if needed, but if I’ve ever had to use it then it’s been very seldom.
In advance of the first session, I send out a document with instructions on how to register a Skype account and set me up as a contact, which they’ve all managed to do without issue. I ask them to send me a brief Chat message so I can find them easily, and then once they appear in my Skype Contacts I save them to my Favourites.
When it’s lesson time, I just select the relevant student and click on the video call button. If they don’t answer then I send a Chat message asking them to call me when they’re ready, and get on with other work while I wait. Usually they were just running a little late and call me back within a few minutes.
A nice plus that Skype has over Zoom is that the Chat contents don’t disappear, so there’s a full record in there of all call times/durations and any messages and attachments sent, which either party can access at any time (though attachments become inaccessible after 30 days). As well as for making it easier for the student to access links and resources after a lesson, this could be helpful for safeguarding and for checking whether a lesson took place at a particular time. (With Zoom, the Chat disappears when the call ends.)
I have read somewhere that Skype uses bandwidth less efficiently than Zoom for calls with multiple participants, but for 1-to-1 there’s no difference so it’s not an issue for me – though if I were to run any group courses then I’d consider reverting to Zoom (and paying the subscription fee) for that. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it!
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