Camera, Mic, Connectivity: UIT readies University for flexible fall courses

University IT works hard to set up the tech needed for simultaneous in-person and online instruction

The camera atop the monitor and the Wacom graphics tablet below it are among the technology upgrades that University IT is bringing to UND classrooms. Image courtesy of University IT.

By now, nearly half a year into the coronavirus pandemic, teaching and learning remotely are hardly new skills to pick up. Yet, the incorporation of these activities into the flexible course delivery model the University of North Dakota has established for the upcoming fall semester is a task on its own, one that requires a lot of work.

At UND, where students will engage in a blended online and in-person coursework this fall, most of the effort to seamlessly mix the digital and the physical has fallen onto three divisions: University IT (UIT), Facilities and the Teaching Transformation and Development Academy (TTaDA).

And so, for UIT, the past few months have been a very hectic time, said Chief Information Officer Madhavi Marasinghe. Her team has had to reshuffle its duties so that it could equip nearly 200 classrooms as well as labs with the technology needed to carry synchronous online and in-person classes before the start of the fall semester.

With the tragic news of former Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Tom DiLorenzo’s passing last week, UIT’s work has acquired new significance. “In memory of former Provost Tom DiLorenzo, UIT dedicates the ongoing fall preparation to a leader who understood the importance of technology in the classroom and beyond,” said Marasinghe, who used to report to DiLorenzo before his retirement in June. “Tom’s support allowed us to be in a better position in these unprecedented times.”

As buildings and classrooms are readied to welcome faculty and students in August, UND Today caught up with Marasinghe to learn more about the tech upgrades that are taking place.

(The below interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

University IT integrated its tech upgrades with other classroom elements, such as the plexiglas shield and green boundary tape at the teaching station shown here. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today,

 

What has UIT done so far to ensure that most of UND’s classrooms can sustain lectures that have both online and in-person students attending every time?

Madhavi Marasinghe

When we went remote on March 16, we had to flip the switch overnight. So, once we had everybody settled in, we started preparing for the fall, knowing that COVID-19 was likely not going to go away soon. We started by getting an assessment of all of the classrooms on campus that were scheduled for classes in the fall. Then, we looked at usage because we had to prioritize the highly utilized classrooms and buildings. We looked at what technology we already had, knowing that it was very likely that we would be at least partially online – or hybrid – in the fall.

Our basic premise was that there was going to be at least one student who was going to join the classroom remotely, online. With that premise in mind, we started to think about what every classroom needs. It needs a microphone and a camera. It needs to have the computer setup for Zoom and YuJa.

We had nearly 200 classrooms and labs to upgrade. We have ordered more than 170 microphones for the classrooms and over 120 cameras.  In addition to microphones and cameras, we needed to order digital whiteboards such as Wacom tablets as we realized that if faculty write on the standard whiteboard on the wall, the online students will not be able to see it. We ordered more than 70 Wacom tablets and a few doc cams.

Inside the drawer of this teaching station is an Elmo document camera, which lets an instructor project a two- or three-dimensional image onto the classroom and students’ computer screens. Image courtesy of University IT.

What were the challenges of doing this?

Putting the mic, camera and protective screen at the teaching station was a conscious decision, made in the interest of student and instructor safety. Image courtesy of University IT.

Our biggest challenge is the market running out of equipment. That’s one of the reasons why we started planning early. Our planning started actually in April. Because of that, we have already received more than 95% of the equipment that we have ordered for the classrooms and the labs. There are a few items we are waiting for, but the majority of what we need, we have on hand. This is a good place to be. If we had to order this equipment now, we would be in deep trouble.

Another challenge is having to adapt really fast to the changing safety measures of COVID-19. When a mask or a face covering became a requirement, we had to test our mics wearing a mask to make sure the sound isn’t muffled. We tested the mics with different types of face coverings, disposable, clear, and face shields.

We also had to make sure that there is appropriate physical distancing between the students and the faculty. We decided that the best way to do this is to have the mic and camera set at the podium and have faculty not wander off too far from the podium. If faculty move around in the room too much, they may get too close to the students. Also, the students online may not be able to hear what they are saying.

We also wanted to make sure that we can accommodate the maximum COVID capacity in the classroom, which is actually approximately one-third of our original capacity. In most classrooms, we can have only a handful of students that can be in the classroom.

What technological changes did UIT make to UND’s lab spaces?

Labs are where students are learning hands-on. We needed to see how students can get that experience within the COVID-19 safety measures. We had to be creative with that. Working with Mark Hoffmann, associate dean for research at the College of Arts & Sciences, we outfitted the labs to have virtual lab partners. That means while one student will be physically in the lab, the lab partner will be virtual. To accommodate the need, we added extra cameras and mics for the lab stations. Then, in some rooms, we actually had to increase the wireless capacity as well, because now you’re introducing more technology in a lab that previously didn’t need that much technology.

University IT did its best to balance convenience, efficiency and safety in its design and equipping of UND teaching stations. Image courtesy of University IT.

What about faculty offices, where they might have to hold virtual office hours for students in addition to participating in an online meeting?

We asked faculty, ‘What is it that you need so that you’re ready for fall, not only to teach but also to interact with students outside the classroom?’ Virtual meetings are encouraged – and for that, you need a camera, a mic, or a headset available to faculty. We have reached out to faculty, and they have submitted their requests. We are currently evaluating the requests.

How about students who may not have the technology they need to take hybrid classes? Can UND help?

We have the technological standards for students listed on the UIT website, so students know what technology is recommended for student success. I do believe that faculty are also including that information in their syllabi as well to let the students know that to be successful in a particular class, there is recommended technology.

If students have technology needs, I would encourage them to speak to their faculty and reach out to UIT (777-2222). When we went remote in spring, we had about 10 students who needed laptops and internet access. We were able to provide that for them. For students in need, reach out, and we will do our best to accommodate and help you succeed at UND.