BigBlueButton

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BigBlueButton is an open source audio and video conferencing tool geared towards education but it's also fantastic for many other uses, from collaborating on software development to conducting remote conferences. Make sure you read the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy as well.

Usage

I'll try to cover how BigBlueButton (BBB) works but the best resources are the official guides from the project itself.

Basics

When first joining a BBB meeting, all users will be asked how they want to join audio. If Listen only is chosen, BBB will not attempt to gain access to the microphone and you will just be able to listen and participate in chat. If this was chosen by mistake, simply leave audio by clicking the button at the bottom of the screen and rejoin with microphone.

After selecting the Microphone option, you will be connected to the echo test to ensure you can both hear and be heard. Following this, you'll enter the meeting.

The pane to the far left is for expanding the chat pane (opened by default), showing the shared notes, and interacting with users. Chat is very basic and doesn't do link previews or any markup. However, note that the entire chat history for that session can be saved and will appear in recordings. The shared notes have nice rich text support but they are not saved across sessions and will not appear in the meeting recording. If they need to be kept, someone will have to copy and paste the notes elsewhere before the meeting is ended. In the user pane, clicking on your profile will reveal a dialogue that lets you set your status. This is a way of interacting with the presenter or moderators without disrupting the meeting/presentation; when you have a question, raise your hand, when the presenter asks for feedback, use thumbs up, thumbs down, etc. It's pretty self-explanatory. You're also able to mute yourself.

The next UI element is the presentation area. In the top middle, you'll see the room name in addition to whether or not the session is being recorded. To the right of that, the kebab menu (three vertical dots) reveals a settings page along with links to the official guides, keyboard shortcuts, and a logout button. Moving to the bottom, you'll see buttons for muting yourself, leaving audio, and sharing your webcam.

Moderator

One of the odd things about BBB is there isn't actually a level higher than moderator. The person who starts the session is the only mod by default and can appoint others. However, the appointed moderators can also demote the one who appointed them and take over the session so be careful who you promote.

Moderators have full user management privileges. By clicking another user's icon in the list, they're can mute, demote, promote, and remove people from the session. By clicking the gear icon at the top of the list, they can

  • Clear status icons (the emojis such as thumbs up, raised hand, etc.)
  • Mute all non-moderators
  • Mute everyone except the presenter
  • Prevent users from changing their names
  • Globally restrict non-moderators
    • Click the Lock viewers item to view what can be enabled or disabled
  • Create breakout rooms (more on this later)
  • Add closed captions

A plus button has also been added to the bottom left of the presentation area and this allows moderators to take presenter status from whoever currently holds it.

Breakout rooms are an interesting feature and once I've used heavily in forgeign language courses. You can break participants up into a specific number of groups randomly or by assignment and configure how long the breakout rooms will last. After they've been created, users will be prompted to join the room and a new item will appear under the Notes section in the far left pane. Clicking that item will expand a Breakout Rooms tab where moderators are able to join the audio of any of the rooms and listen in or fully join the room to interact with the participants. At the bottom of the pane is a button to end the breakout rooms early. Doing so will bring all users back to the main session and prompt them to join audio again.

Presenter

The presenter has additional options under the blue plus icon in the lower left. Starting a poll is fairly straightforward but the question and options will need to spoken as there's no way to enter them. Polls will not show up in the session recording. The second option is to upload a presentation. This can be any document format but PDF is strongly recommended and the most reliable. Slides will be shown in the recording as well as used for marking sections of it: when transitioning from one slide to the next, that timestamp is saved so it can be jumped to when watching later. In the middle bottom, there's another button that looks like a monitor and it's for screensharing. On the right side of the screen, there is a whole new panelwith various buttons. I recommend simple exploring these to see what each does. The bottom button, Turn multi-user whiteboard on, will allow any participant to annotate the presentation, undo annotations, and clear them all. Clicking the button again will disable the feature.

Note that there can only be one presenter at a time. If someone else needs to share their screen, either the current presenter or a moderator needs to click that user's profile and select the option to Make presenter.

Recordings

BigBlueButton recordings are simultaneously very useful but also somewhat limited. As noted above, shared notes and polls are not saved so they will need to be copied elsewhere if desired. To record the session, as the presenter, simply click the red button at the top of the screen in the middle. To pause or end the recording, just click it again. After the meeting has ended, BBB has to process the recording and this can take quite some time depending on its length and complexity as the speaker's video has to be transcoded, the presentation added, timestamps applied, chat logs added based on those timestamps, etc. It can take anywhere from a few minutes to multiple hours. Once it's finished processing, the recording will be shown on the room's home page. By default, they're unlisted so no one but the room owner can see them. Changing its privacy to public will list the video on the room's homepage where anyone can see it.

Tips

Browsers

Unfortunately, there are some bugs with using BBB in Firefox. I've tested in two different machines, both running Firefox Developer Edition. One works flawlessly while the other just throws an error about not having permission to access the media devices. To fix this, use a Chromium-based browser such as ungoogled-chromium, Chromium itself, Brave, etc.

Using system audio

When demonstrating something locally that has audio output, it can be useful and desireable to send that to BBB as audio input. The processes are different for every operating system and some are easier to set up than others.

Linux

The best way to send system audio to BBB is with JACK. If you're already familiar with the tool and its suite of applications, simply plug the output of your program into BBB as input. If you're unfamiliar with it, take a look at the Arch Wiki's setup guide though it will likely be easier to just use PulseAudio.

After connecting to audio and going through the echo test, open pavucontrol and head to the Recording tab. There should be an item named after either BBB itself or after the browser you're using. To the right of the name, there's a button with your current input source. Click that and set it to Monitor of XXXX where XXXX is whatever physical device you're using (headphones or earbuds are essential if going this route). BBB will then record audio from that device. Keep in mind, however, that you won't be able to narrate or talk until you switch the Recording device back to your microphone.

Mac

I don't know anything about audio on Mac so I can't write anything here. If you do, please feel free to edit this page and add the relevant information!

Windows

I don't know anything about audio on Windows so I can't write anything here. If you do, please feel free to edit this page and add the relevant information!