New smart classrooms bring both difficulties, connections

Published by Savannah Peterson on

Instructors wear lapel microphones while in class to allow Zoom students better audio as their teacher moves.
Photo provided by The Mainstream.

Fall term marked the start of new beginnings for UCC: UCC started with a new president, a new blended modality class structure option for students and an exponential amount of new technology. Although the new technology allows room for future growth for students and instructors, the process of learning everything sprouted some difficulties. 

Blended modality is a new way of teaching simultaneously that allows students to choose from either face-to-face attendance or remote attendance via Zoom. 

“I do not think that the blended modality is ideal. However, it has provided us with the flexibility we need during these uncertain times,” UCC’s Associate Professor of Spanish, Nick Tratz, said, in an email interview. “I do look forward to a day when more students can once again engage in face-to-face class sessions which I believe to be the most beneficial for learning a second language.”

Alyssa Harter, assistant professor for the department of communication studies, said that for some courses which depend on student engagement, it is hard to create assignments for in-person students, remote students and students watching the class recording. “I feel like I had to tailor it to either in-person or remote learning,” she said.

In an email interview, Jillanne Michell, writing and English professor said, “It’s one more factor to juggle while teaching class, but I’ve been pleased so far with the way it’s allowed students who might otherwise miss class to attend virtually.” 

Students and faculty who did test positive for COVID or were exposed and had to quarantine were still able to attend class fall term because of the blended modality. Because of pandemic uncertainties, many instructors are finding themselves changing assignment descriptions, due dates and more to better accommodate all students.

Although accommodating needs can be beneficial to students, it can be more time-consuming for the instructors. “There’s also the added work of recording the Zoom classes, posting the videos in Canvas, and creating and grading alternative assignments for students who miss both the face-to-face or remote attendance options so that they can make up participation points,” Michell said. “I see the value in offering so much flexibility for students, and I believe this approach can work well to help more students succeed, but it certainly adds a lot more work.”

Over the last spring and summer, the Information Technology (IT) department installed 28 “smart” classrooms; each of these classrooms includes a mounted TV, a microphone that duplicates as a speaker, a camera facing the instructor, a tablet and a dual-screen monitor. Instructors have to manage five screens, a glitchy lapel microphone, Canvas and Zoom at the same time. There are 28 smart classrooms out of the total 64 classrooms on campus, according to Tim Hill, UCC’s director of information technology, said.

Harter said, “I feel like we are asked to be an octopus with eight arms and eight eyes having to walk around the room and see everything while working out the issues.”

The new blended modality added to the new technology is a lot more to work with than previously when it was just in-person classes or just remote classes.

“The initial approach of designing the smart classrooms were primarily made for face-to-face learning; however, we have seen students migrate to only remote learning,” Hill said.  

Additional support had been planned for instructors starting with the new blended technology of the original glitchy lapel mics, classroom Zoom TV screens, dual monitor teaching station controls, and the combination of Zoom chats as well as Zoom break out rooms working in tandem with live face-to-face students. “We hoped to hire students for a co-host student job position in their classes to help their instructors,” Hill said. However, due to complexities within the student application process and the limited amount of students who applied, not enough student positions were filled in order to help the instructors. Some full-time non-teaching staff stepped in to help with co-hosting while other teachers did without. 

The new table microphone allows in-person students to communicate and interact with Zoom students without the instructor repeating students’ questions or comments.
Photo provided by The Mainstream.

Instructors struggled with the lapel mics for various reasons; lapel mics were often glitchy, their battery needed to be replaced anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days for each mic, communication drops happened often and in-person students could not communicate with Zoom students because the microphone had to physically be attached to the instructor. 

Tratz said, “I think the IT department has worked very hard to help us overcome many obstacles. Myles Ferral, for example, worked tirelessly this summer installing equipment in our classrooms so that we could engage with students face-to-face and via Zoom simultaneously,” he said. “Also, when it was apparent to me that a lapel microphone was not working well for my class format, Tim Hill acquired a conference mic, which has helped to better include Zoom students in class discussions and activities.”

Each smart classroom now has a table microphone to prevent communication drops and glitches. 

“I experienced the most stress and difficulty before the term started, trying to get up to speed on how to juggle all the technology in the classroom: teaching station computer with two screens, iPad as an alternate screen to share, data projector screen at the front of the classroom, television screen at the back of the classroom, camera control, microphone, while logged into Canvas and Zoom, remembering to share my screen, remembering to click ‘record,’” Michell said. “All of that was mind-boggling, but after doing it for a few weeks now, I’m more comfortable.  Students have been great and helpful when minor glitches happen.”

Because there are at least six new changes within the smart classrooms along with the new blended modality, the IT department provided classes for the instructors to learn what everything does and how to use it. 

Although there was some preparation for the fall’s new technology, it looked different than instructors thought when the fall term came around. Harter said, “I have had issues with Zoom saying it cannot connect to audio. I then connected my phone to audio and walked around the room with my phone in my hand for two hours before it stopped working,” she said. “Luckily one of my students had her laptop up and connected to the Zoom meeting and she offered her laptop to me, so I could connect to the audio and communicate with my Zoom students.” 

Harter demonstrates wearing the lapel microphone used during classroom discussion.
Photo provided by The Mainstream.

These uncertain Zoom glitches have happened to several instructors. For some the audio doesn’t work, for others the video at times will not start. The cause for this is unknown. 

Oftentimes, after troubleshooting or restarting the system, the problems solve themselves; typically there are ten minutes in between different classes for instructors, so restarting the computer isn’t always possible. “I am showing up 30 minutes earlier every day to get everything turned on and set up,” Harter said. “Sharing classrooms doesn’t allow enough time to troubleshoot any failures.”

“Something that I would like to see is larger turnaround times for blended classrooms; this would allow each professor to get all of their stuff set up and have time to troubleshoot without taking any time away from the students,” Harter said.

The IT department will be hiring one more member by January through the Title III Grant. “The new IT person will be a support tech for students and staff training. Although they will primarily be working in the library, their focus is to help students and classroom staff with any technical difficulties that may arise, including Zoom issues,” Hill said.

The students are the primary focus, according to Tratz, Michell, Harter and Hill. “We are here for you, not you to be here for us,” Hill said. 

Harter said, “Without the support from the students, I would be going home and crying each night.” 

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