Remote Tutoring Software – Screen Sharing and Video Call Showdown

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    Date Posted:
    Apr. 04, 2020
    Last Updated:
    Apr. 04, 2020
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Table of Contents

Intro

Due to recent events (Covid-19), my mom, a bit of a technophobe, has suddenly taken an interest in using technology as part of her tutoring business. She tutors children (K-12, with a focus on elementary), so her requirements are different from college professors that might only need basic video conferencing tech to lecture for an hour at a time.

As she asked me questions about what she could use, I started to realize that a lot of her software needs are actually going unmet by the industry, and there actually exists a strange gap in the market for quality educational collaborative software. Since others might find it interesting or helpful, especially if they have similar needs, I thought I would document my research here, and outline what is available and what is not, as well as what I thought the best option was.

Arrow showing which way to continue

Different Types of Software

First, a discussion of what types of software are out there that could be used in her tutoring business. These categories are also applicable to dozens of other industries:

Type Description Examples
Video Conferencing Software where the focus is on video conferencing, video chat, etc. Might also include features such as screen-sharing, remote control, or other built-ins, but these are often are not full-featured. Zoom, Skype
Collaboration Platform These are usually marketed directly towards businesses, and meant to serve as a one-stop shop for collaborating with peers. Common features are text chat channels / instant messaging, video chat, project planning, calendars, and enterprise software integrations.

These are usually overkill for smaller businesses, and especially for tutoring.
Microsoft Teams, Zoho Cliq
Screen Sharing Software that lets you share what you see on your screen with another user, or vice-versa.

This is rarely ever its own category of software, and usually just an included feature in either Video Conferencing (see above) or Remote Control (see below) software.
Screenleap, Slack Screenshare
Remote Control / Remote Desktop / VNC Software where the focus is on letting one user control another user’s computer. Does not usually allow for more than two concurrent users at a time (not meant for conferencing) TeamViewer, GoToMyPC, Windows RDP, Chrome Remote Desktop
Cobrowsing A way for multiple users (2+, but often limited to just 2) to synchronize browsing of the same web page and/or web browser. There are variations in how this is done, and some cobrowsing software is geared towards technical support or live customer assistance chat (e.g. web commerce), not educational or personal use. Samesurf, Surfly, Acquire, Upscope, Vectera
Shared Whiteboarding A shared digital whiteboard or notebook where multiple users can edit content and have changes reflected live in all participants’ views. Ideally the content that is created during a session can be persisted (saved), and edit history preserved.

This feature is baked into many video-conferencing solutions, such as Zoom and Teams.
Twiddla, Miro, LiveBoard, Microsoft Whiteboard, OneNote, Google Drive (to an extent…)
LMS (Learning Management System) LMS software is an extremely broad category of product offering, so features vary greatly from one software platform to another. For example, some LMS programs offer built-in video conferencing and meeting tools, while others focus only on content and webpages (which makes them basically just an expensive educational focused CMS…)

Most LMS are focused on building a “virtual classroom”, with core features centered around content, moderation, and support for a large number of participants. LMS are often purchased not by the educator, but by the institution (college, high school, etc.). These factors combined often make it a bad choice for tutoring software.
Open edX, Google Classroom, Blackboard, Canvas, Electa Live
Virtual Assistance Usually this software is sold to tech support teams / call centers, and not geared towards education use. This type of software allows an “operator” or “agent” to provide virtual assistance to a “client” or “customer”, in order to walk through a specific problem.

Common features are co-browsing (“let me control the webpage you are on to show you how to use X feature”), live chat, remote desktop control, and multi-agent / ticketing system support.

These are often missing collaborative features, like webcam sharing, whiteboards, or allowing more than two participants at a time.
Zoho Assist, ConnectWise, AnyDesk, BeyondTrust, LogMeIn Rescue, TeamViewer
Sales, Sales Funnel Assistance There is a specific niche of collaboration software that is for salespeople pitching to potential clients / customers. Core features might include slide decks, video conferencing, co-browsing, email integration, etc.

Features that are often left out are annotation, whiteboard, and other “creative” collaboration tools, since the goal is to sell something existing, not brainstorm a solution.
DemoDesk, CrankWheel

Note on Applicability

If you are looking at the above table and feeling lost, I can offer a few pointers. In general, each of the software categories above is marketed towards a certain industry and/or type of occupation, but that doesn’t mean it is only useful for that industry. For example, Remote Control software is always heavily marketed to tech support and IT professionals, but it has a million uses beyond that field. So, focus on what the software does, not how it is marketed.

Looking at Advertising Billboards

Another example: DemoDesk, which markets itself for sales and customer support, was remarkably close to what I was looking for, and I have a feeling a lot of educators might actually find it useful.

And hey, marketing departments? Take note; you don’t always know your target demographics as well as you think you do.

Deciding

Requirements

Here are the main features that we consider required in our search:

  1. Video chat that can stay up throughout session, even while switching to remote desktop control

    • Tutor can see student, student can see tutor, entire time
  2. Support for remote desktop control, where host computer can be controlled by participant

    • Student can control tutor’s screen, in order to share browser / educational desktop apps
  3. Mobile / Tablet / Touchscreen Support: There must be touchscreen support, and that includes the requirement that remote desktop control support “click-and-drag”, just like how you can with a mouse

    • Necessary because lots of elementary school activities require drawing or writing, instead of typing

    • This is where most offerings fell short, especially on click-and-drag support – see recurring issues section.

These would be nice bonus features, but not required:

  • Native browser support (no client to install)
  • Built-in whiteboard and annotation support

The basic experience I was looking to find was one where the tutor would feel like the student was sitting next to them, sharing the mouse and keyboard of their own computer.

ALT_TEXT

Screen Sharing Software Comparison – 2020

Based on the above requirements, the software category that best fit was screen sharing, in places where it overlaps with Remote Control and Video Conferencing software. Knowing this, I researched (and actually tried out!) a multitude of options, and compiled the results into a comparison table.

Click here to view the raw Google Sheet document in a new tab.

Embedded:

Side Note: Web RTC

Technical: Web RTC is a set of web APIs and standards that enables and streamlines the process of capturing and streaming multimedia (including video, such as from a webcam) data streams, in an efficient and robust manner. It allows for zero-install setups, since these are native browser APIs (albeit still changing).

Web RTC, in my view, is an incredibly strong indicator of how on top of modern technology a given video chat / screen sharing program is.

In fact, to my knowledge, the three pieces of software that I’m going to recommend for my use-case all rely on Web RTC to deliver their streams. Jitsi Meet, one of three, and an amazing piece of open-source video conferencing technology, even published a post on how they can out-perform Zoom with Web RTC.

Summary: Web RTC is awesome, and usually means there is no software for your user (student, client, etc.) to install or setup.

Close Fits & Honorable Mentions

  • BrainCert – LMS
    • Looks like a really cool LMS, but no mouse sharing / remote control is a deal-breaker for our use-case
  • BigBlueButton – Education Focused Web Conferencing Solution
    • BigBlueButton (aka BBB) is an extremely impressive piece of software, even more so since it is both open-source and free. It has been put to the test as well; it is the default video conferencing solution baked into the Canvas LMS.
    • BBB combines video conferencing, interactive shared whiteboards, and screen-sharing, with a focus on educational features (such as polling and special presenter controls)
    • One major drawback to BBB is that it is only self-hosted, meaning that you need to have access to a (powerful) dedicated server you can run it on. As a nerd and open-source supporter, I’m a big fan of having a self-hosted option, but… I would not expect the average teacher or tutor to know how to provision a Linux server, interact with bash scripts, and setup port forwarding…
  • Join.Me
    • Superior to Zoom in that it supports “no-install” use; guests can jump into a meeting and get access to all features from their web browser, without installing any software. This includes the use of remote control and share screen.
    • UI is very intuitive and pleasant to use
    • Mobile client (app) does not support remote cursor control at all
      • You can get around this by opening the meeting link in Chrome for Android, in an incognito window, with “Desktop site” emulation setting checked.
        • However, this has the same “click-and-drag” issue as Zoom 🙁
  • DemoDesk
    • This was pretty close to being exactly what we needed in so many ways:
      • No bulky software to install
      • Co-browsing support
      • Mobile touch screens support click-and-drag
      • Built-in video conferencing
      • The “playbooks” feature is a neat way that a tutor could preload content that is going to be worked on during the session
    • Pretty much the only reason why this was not a suitable fit is because remote control / mouse sharing only works for co-browsing webpages or uploaded documents – it does not work for sharing your desktop or OS applications
    • I still think this is a very unique and powerful web-app that might be the perfect for other use-cases.

Our Picks

Runner Up:

  • Screen.so
    • WOW! So close to being exactly what I was looking for!
    • Similar to USE Together, but adds video chat and annotations
    • Blockers:
      • Buggy. This is understandable, as I was testing it just days after it was released to the public
      • Odd touchscreen to mouse mapping: trackpad mode
        • Clicking at point 0,0 on your screen does not place the host mouse at 0,0 – but dragging your finger from 0,0 to 100,0, will move the host mouse 100 units to the right (scaled) – just like a trackpad
        • To click-and-drag, you first long-press, then start moving your finger
        • Maybe in the future they will support multiple mapping modes and let you switch between? That would be nice!
    • If the blockers are ever addressed, I will probably recommend to my mom that she instantly switch to using Screen.

🎉 Finalist 🎉

The final pick is actually a combination of two pieces of software together:

Piece A: Video Conferencing – One of…

  • Skype (yes, it’s still around)

    • Most important feature: picture-in-picture support on both mobile and desktop!!!
      • As already mentioned, this is crucial so that tutor and student can keep seeing each other even as other applications are taking focus
    • Supported on many different devices, been around forever
    • Negative: Cannot set password on ad-hoc “meet now” meetings that don’t require participants to login

    < ==== Or… ====>

  • Jitsi (aka Jitsi Meet)

    • Open-Source!!!github.com/jitsi
    • Powers 8×8 video conferencing
    • Jitsi has a lot of features that other video conferencing apps are missing:
      • picture-in-picture support on both mobile and desktop!!!
      • Optional self-hosting / server control
      • No clients to install (native browser support)

Piece B: Remote Desktop Sharing:

  • Remote desktop sharing: USE Together
    • I found it to have the smoothest cursor sharing experience – very little lag
    • Unfortunately, basically the only feature offered is cursor sharing; there is no video chat built in, or annotation support
      • This is why I have to combine it with a video chat app, so that the tutor can see the student (and vice-versa) while sharing control of the computer
      • There is built-in audio chat, so if you don’t need video, you could get by with just this application

Using these two pieces of software together feels very close to what I was hoping for; the experience of simply sharing the keyboard and mouse with the other person, while seeing them the whole time.

Research Scratchpad

Search Terms I Used:

  • Collaborative web browser
  • synchronized web browsing
  • live webpage sharing
  • lms with rdp
  • video conferencing with shared cursor
  • tablet share mouse control video conference
  • android share mouse control video conference
  • web rtc rdp
  • android video chat “SYSTEM_ALERT_WINDOW” OR “pip” OR “picture in picture”

Lists I found helpful:

Recurring Issues

Click-and-drag on Mobile

A constant recurring issue I ran into when looking for suitable software was that many pieces of software that allow remote control don’t allow click-and-drag from a mobile touchscreen (particularly Android). This is a deal-breaker for educational uses, since many interactive games and applications (such as SmartBoard software) require that the student click and drag things across the screen.

I wrote up a summary of my research and conclusion as to why this feature is so often omitted – you can find it here. The short answer is “because it adds complexity” 🤷‍♂️.

Mobile PiP Support

For those not familiar, Picture in Picture, aka PiP, is a feature supported in both the iOS and Android operating systems that allows an application to continue displaying a video in small box overlaid on the screen, while you, the user, navigates to and uses a completely different application. Here is the demo from Google’s dev page on the topic, which just happens to be for a video calling app:

Here is the perplexing thing; despite PiP support on mobile having been a thing for a while already (Android: August 2017, iOS: ~2016 ), barely any video conferencing apps support it as of 2020.

The most damning current example I can give is Zoom; the company has a market cap of +$40 billion, and over 1,900 employees, and somehow hasn’t gotten around to supporting PiP. For example, on Android if you have the Zoom app open, and then switch to a different app (the web browser, for example), you can keep talking to and hearing the person on the other end, but you lose video.

The lack of PiP support in video conferencing apps is particularly annoying for our particular use-case, because we needed to combine a video chat app with another app for remote control, so PiP (or something like it, such as split-screen or floating windows) was a necessity.

And it’s not like supporting PiP in a video call app is impossible; it is the sample demo video provided by Google, and already implemented in these Android apps:

  • Whatsapp
  • FB messenger
  • Skype
  • Google Duo
  • Netflix
  • YouTube
  • Mixer
  • Etc…

As another, very positive example, the open-source video conferencing app Jitsi Meet supports Android PiP flawlessly.

Technical side note for Android: Some apps might use the SYSTEM_ALERT_WINDOW (aka “draw over other apps permission”) and generate floating windows instead of using the actual PiP API. Or they might not support PiP, but support split-screen. Any of these are acceptable to me, although PiP is definitely the preference.


Final Note:

I hope writing all this up helps others in their search for software! If you think there is a piece of software that I overlooked or missed, please leave a comment and let me know!

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