Olin’s audio-visual tech upgrades enhance online instruction for students

  • May 14, 2021
  • By Guest Blogger
  • 4 minute read

This post was written for the Olin Blog by Joe Banstetter, Olin audio visual manager; Chris Hines, from Olin’s AV team; and Lara Harris, Olin’s director of operations.

At the close of the spring semester 2020, the university announced plans for the fall semester, committing to in-person learning for the opening of the 2020-2021 academic year. An unprecedented shift to online instruction left students, faculty and staff reeling, but also grateful to complete a successful spring semester.

With the realization that online instruction would not cease fully come fall—thanks to ongoing physical distancing requirements—an interdepartmental task force convened to analyze the existing audio-visual capabilities of Olin’s classroom spaces.

A collaborative effort toward the third horizon of the pandemic took place between Olin operations, the Center for Digital Education, the Olin AV team and a group of tech-savvy faculty members. With some discovery and research, guided by our AV integration partner, Olin developed a plan to enhance the online student experience in a hybrid learning environment.

Hybrid courses at Olin are taught in either “Hyflex” or “Hyflip” options—each distinguished by how students are scheduled in or out of the in-person classroom. Regardless of the teaching style, hybrid courses take place during regularly scheduled class times with faculty delivering content/instruction to both an in-person and online student population.

While Olin has the technology to deliver courses in this way, online participants are much less engaged and less satisfied with the experience. So we asked ourselves the question: How do we create an online space that enhances the student experience when attending classes via virtually?

Using tech to enhance engagement

There were some immediate upgrades that took place during summer 2020. All Olin classes had floor monitors installed to allow faculty to view their Zoom galleries on a separate monitor. Audio adjustments were made in approximately half of the classrooms to improve the online participants’ ability to hear instructors. Camera angles were adjusted and microphone settings improved.

And we also accounted for seemingly countless COVID operations protocols that had been established for the health and safety of our community. Still, an audio/visual project of the size and scope we needed would take a bit more time.

During winter break, three classrooms in Bauer Hall were upgraded as pilots for enhanced hybrid course delivery.  These upgrades include pan-tilt-zoom facial recognition and audio-responsive cameras, responsive microphone arrays, and full integration of both to allow for a more dynamic and immersive experience for our online students. In other words, the image will follow the speakers to help virtual learners.

Upgrades also included new touchscreen user interfaces and classroom lecterns. Faculty assigned to these rooms for spring 2021 were required to attend in-person training on the new UI’s and classroom controls.

Tech to track speakers

Our new ceiling microphone arrays look like ceiling tiles, but they have nearly a dozen microphones pointed strategically around the classroom. The microphone array is designed to receive audio more effectively, which allows for improved audio quality and clarity for our virtual students and attendees.

The ceiling microphone arrays integrate into the audiovisual system allowing the tracking cameras to find the current speaker and switch the camera view to whoever is speaking in the classroom.

The new touch panel is combined with the computer monitor on the podium. Instructors can change how the tracking cameras react to the audio in the classroom. Three camera modes interact with the responsive microphones.

“Instructor-only mode” is similar to the standard across Olin classrooms.  Instructor mode stays on the individual delivering course content, typically at the front of the room. The new feature of this mode is that the camera will follow the instructor through facial recognition and audio-responsiveness wherever the instructor walks across the front of the room.

“Instructor/student mode” swaps back-and-forth between the instructor facing camera and student-facing cameras in response to the person speaking. Finally, “dynamic Q&A mode” shows the instructor and the student who is speaking in a side-by-side view. Dynamic Q&A mode is great for those instructors who have a lot of conversation or collaboration in the classroom.

These new additions help bring the virtual attendees closer to the in-classroom experience.

Surveys collected in early March indicated that, overall, faculty were pleased with the improvements, finding the tech easy to use. Students were likewise pleased with the upgrades, citing richer audio quality as the most important component.

More AV upgrades are planned for summer 2021 and will include many of the features included in our three pilot rooms. 

Any faculty interested in a one-on-one walkthrough of this new technology, please reach out to the Olin Audio Visual department at 314-935-8864 or AVStaff@olin.wustl.edu.

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