ET&S Begins Zoom-capable Classroom Project

May 26, 2020

by UNH IT Staff

A man with grey hair wearing a mask and holding a clipboard looks at a classroom filled with empty desks

Marshall White, the new ET&S director for learning and collaboration space technology, surveys a classroom at Keene State College as part of the Zoom-capable classroom project. 

Technology upgrades in 73 classrooms across University System of New Hampshire (USNH) institutions this summer will add flexibility for students and faculty in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Enterprise Technology & Services (ET&S) audio-visual services staff is partnering with local vendors to engineer and transform a number of classrooms into "Zoom-capable" teaching and learning spaces. 

The two-phase project will involve the design and installation of high-tech audio and video systems that will allow for students to either attend classes in person or remotely, while also providing faculty the flexibility of teaching from home. 

In phase one, ET&S will aim to upgrade 25% of all classrooms at each campus by mid-August. Phase two will involve a much more aggressive approach that could see up to 50% of all USNH classrooms upgraded with new Zoom functionality. All told, 193 classrooms will be upgraded. 

In early May, a team comprising USNH AV staff and outside technicians visited all perspective sites across the state to gauge the work ahead. Marshall White, the new ET&S director for learning and collaboration space technology, is leading the team.

"This project has an aggressive timeline and where we would normally meet with faculty and future users of the classrooms to analyze needs, engage in a conversation about use cases, we simply don't have time," White said. "We have designed this upgrade to provide a high-quality experience for students or faculty participating from home or the classroom, while also keeping the design simple and repeatable."

Technicians will fit each Zoom-enabled room with state-of-the-art equipment. A camera at the back of the room will automatically detect the instructor's face and follow them whenever they move. A second camera in the front will capture students sitting in class.

Intelligent microphones mounted in the ceilings will pick up audio as it is produced, providing a live feel for remote viewers. Confidence monitors installed at the rear of each classroom will show the "Brady Bunch" web conference grid, helping instructors know they are connected. 

While the visual component of Zoom-capable classrooms is important, capturing good audio is a more significant challenge. Large lecture halls are typically echoey and hard to master when it comes to sound. With this in mind, classrooms selected for the upgrades have a capacity of 60 people, ensuring better quality audio. Classrooms historically with the highest utilization were also prioritized.

Outside of asynchronous instruction, faculty will be able to use these classrooms to record lectures that can later be used in a flipped-classroom scenario, where students first watch pre-recorded videos at home filmed prior to class and then tackle the assignments in class with the background knowledge provided by the content. The Zoom-capable rooms will also make it easier to bring in guest speakers from across the globe. Students, faculty and staff also will be able to reserve these classrooms for special events requiring high-quality web conferencing. 

This project isn't without its share of challenges: the schedule is ambitious; product availability could be an issue; standardizing to one specification that works well for all classrooms will be difficult. But the project's benefits outweigh the risks.

"USNH institutions want to provide safe and engaging learning environments for students, and students want to be back on campus," White said. "Providing these rooms gives students and faculty additional options if one or many should be in quarantine.”

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