As you ride out the pandemic’s tail end, prep students for a hybrid working world.
GUEST COLUMN | by Paul Richards
The return to in-person learning has been a moving target. Districts reopen in fits and starts, sometimes pausing or reversing the process as Covid-19 cases spike locally. No matter what occurs, though, learning must continue – for both in-person and remote students. The technological tools that have enabled classes to continue in the 2020/21 school year should not be set aside as buildings reopen. Instead, we should lean into remote learning technologies, transforming classrooms into hybrid spaces.
This isn’t just about riding out the tail end of the pandemic. The world we are preparing students for has changed. Pre-pandemic, only 5 percent of Americans worked primarily from home. Now, out of 1,500 workers surveyed by Harvard Business School, 81 percent say they want either fully remote or hybrid work options moving forward. There is no going back. Schools need to prepare students for a hybrid working world.
‘This is a call to seriously invest in education technology, focusing on flexible solutions that support remote participation.’
The new classroom should have a lot in common with modern, flexible meeting spaces. That means that schools can take advantage of tools that were originally designed for collaborative workspaces. Here are five approaches schools can borrow from corporate applications to create flexible learning spaces and prepare students for the hybrid future.
1. Mic Everybody
In the modern classroom, students are expected to learn not only from their teacher, but from one another. If the teacher is the only intelligible speaker in the classroom, the design has failed – the students must be mic’ed as well.
The student mic could be a shared, throwable microphone, like the Catchbox or Qball. Depending on classroom layout, ceiling-mounted or tabletop mics can also be deployed to mic several students at once. Intelligent microphones can even use beamforming technology to detect which student is currently addressing the class and reject all other sounds as background noise. In any case, the teacher should have the push-button ability to mute all students’ mics.
2. Use Smart Cameras for Easier Video Capture
In a space where multiple people are likely to speak, from various locations, capturing the right visuals for remote participants is tricky. Fortunately, modern, robotic cameras can do this automatically. Some cameras, such as the SimplTrack2, have auto-tracking features that can follow the teacher as they move from lectern to whiteboard. Conferencing cameras with autoframing features can reframe a shot to capture only those desks that are occupied, or just those students who are currently speaking. Ideally, a classroom might have one of each, with the instructor simply selecting the appropriate input for the current activity.
3. Allow Remote Participants to be Seen and Heard
The videoconference showing remote learners should be routable to a classroom display. Audio should be routed through adequate speakers – not the teacher’s computer. The point isn’t to see and hear everyone all the time, but to give remote students an equal opportunity to present to the class and participate in discussions. During discussions or student presentations, “speaker view” or its equivalent should be enabled in video conferencing software to focus on whomever is talking.
4. Encourage Collaboration via File-Sharing
The pandemic has made file-sharing platforms like Sharepoint and Google Classroom ubiquitous. Tools that were useful during the pandemic for collecting assignments from remote learners will remain so as students return to school. Using cloud-based files in the classroom emulates working world behavior and increases students’ technical literacy. These platforms also allow students to collaborate, revise each other’s work or contribute to group projects – whether or not they are there in person.
5. Invest in Making it all Easy to Manage
This may sound difficult to manage while teaching a class, but it doesn’t have to be. Cleverly designed presets and macros can help take most of the technical work out of teaching in a hybrid space. I’ve spoken to technology managers who have whittled their classroom control interface down to a handful of physical buttons, labelled “Lecture,” “Student Presentations,” “Discussion,” and “Off.” Selecting the right button activates the proper camera, mutes or unmutes the proper microphone(s), and routes the appropriate video source to the classroom display.
This is a call to seriously invest in education technology, focusing on flexible solutions that support remote participation. A crisis should never be wasted. We’ve learned so much about remote and hybrid learning in the past year; we should use what we’ve learned to invest in our classrooms, both to be ready for the next crisis and to better prepare students for the future. In doing so, we’ll create classrooms that work better for everyone.
Paul Richards, Marketing Director for HuddleCamHD and PTZOptics, is author of “Technology Tools for Online Education,” “Helping Your Church Live Stream,” “The Virtual Ticket,” and “The Online Meeting Survival Guide.” As Chief Streaming Officer at StreamGeeks, he teaches his audience about topics focused on live streaming. In addition, Paul leads a Udemy course, “Technology for Online Teaching: A guide for Educators,” reaching 4,000+ learners interested in flipping the classroom.