Over the past couple of days I've had a chance to briefly try out a couple of co-browsing tools I mentioned last Friday. Vyew doesn't look like it'll be of use to me - no opportunity for co-browsing that I can see - it just allows me to share a whiteboard and files, but Unyte has some real potential!
Unyte is a plugin for Skype, and is Windows only. I first tried it with Greg on Tuesday and learned that it's best used with voice instead of chat, as the chat window does obscure the display. At that time it appeared to me that I could show Greg anything I wanted, but that he couldn't drive, but since then I've learned that I just missed a setting.
So let me back up a minute. Co-browsing is the ability to share a web browser with a remote user, and be able to have that user both see what you're doing and to drive your web browser so you can see what they're doing. Obviously you only want to do this with someone you trust, but the implications for distance students are great. Most of the virtual reference packages have this capability, but from what I understand they work to varying degrees of success. Right about this time last year I started fiddling with a service called Jybe, and it worked fairly well, though required a toolbar to be installed by both users, and they haven't updated that toolbar for Firefox 1.5, so I haven't played with it in a while.
While Unyte requires Windows to initiate a share, a session can be shared with any platform (verified this AM as I shared a session with Sherri, who's on a Mac), and according to Unyte, the other end doesn't even need Skype! (unverified by me so far). So what we've got here is a tool that should work for any distance student, as long as you, the librarian, are running a Windows 2000 or XP machine with Skype installed.
The way it works is that I can either initiate a shared session from within Skype, or can do so from the little application tray icon that Unyte installs. If within Skype, the user on the other end is sent a link to click, and after a moment we're both in business. If from the application tray, you can choose to share with a Skype user or a non-Skype user, and if the latter is chosen you'll get a box with a URL you can email to someone, and again you should then be in business. You can choose to share any individual program you're currently running, or your entire desktop (useful for remote troubleshooting in general, but so far I've stuck to sharing just a single browser window). You can choose to share so the other end can only watch, or you can choose to share and allow them to drive as well - this option is called Allow Remote Control.
Once you're both connected, if you've allowed remote control, both users can trade off running the browser. The big big plus with this whole system is that in all three trials I've run, the remote users was able to access and drive U of C databases w/o any hassle, which means I've now got an easy way to co-browse my databases with any of my distance students!
Incidentally, this is what the screen looks like if you are running Skype but with only the chat (not voice) enabled:
So it works best if you can be talking about what's going on rather than texting about it. If you're sharing with a user who doesn't have Skype, that probably means having a phone connection would work best.
I'll keep playing with this, and hopefully will get a chance soon to use it in a real world trial. Definitely worth a looksee though!