IT/AV, Unified Communications, Video

Educator’s View: The Realities Of Pandemic Education

Hybrid Learning

‘I’m going to share my screen’: A teacher’s perspective on hybrid learning.

“Mute yourself.”

“You’re muted.”

“Turn on your camera.”

“Put it in the chat.”

“I’m going to share my screen.”

Those are five phrases that no public-school teacher uttered before March 12, 2020. It was the first time most of us had even heard of the term “asynchronous learning,” as contrasted with “synchronous learning.”

When I was thrown into remote teaching last spring, my husband bought me a wireless mouse and a Bluetooth headset. He said I was going to need them, even though I thought that the extra purchases were unnecessary. My husband is an IT guy, so I thought he was just making an excuse to buy some new gear. I thought we’d be going back to the classroom after two weeks. I thought wrong. (As it turned out, I needed a lot more “unnecessary purchases” before we were through.)

Teaching 25 students on a laptop, while my five-year-old and 17-month-old children were running around in the background, was like what Jake Tapper from CNN would aptly describe as “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” And yet, I managed to teach my fifth graders for three months like that. We crawled our way through to June and prayed for a return to normal school in the fall.

Enter another new phrase: “hybrid learning.” It was the last option that any teacher I knew wanted when we were surveyed last summer. There was nothing appealing about having one-third of my students in the classroom and two-thirds of them at home on a Zoom or Google Meet call. And yet, that’s where we found ourselves at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. My school district at the time actually started full remote—partly to stagger the start of various grade levels, and partly to give ourselves time to finish installing air conditioners (and to allow for the weather to cool). The last thing we needed was for someone to faint from having to sit, masked, in an eighty-degree classroom.

Here’s where my high-tech setup, straight out of NASA, came into play. My husband—who, if you haven’t guessed already, is my own personal tech advisor—was champing at the bit to help. If I have to livestream instruction for five hours a day, shouldn’t I use what every YouTuber and Twitch streamer has? Dual screens? Check. OBS Studio? Check. ProPresenter? Check. A good-quality webcam? Check. Wait…I have to teach math, and I don’t want to write numbers with a mouse. Wacom tablet? Check. I could have launched a rocket from my dining room table!

With the remote-only weeks ending and the students returning to school for hybrid learning, most teachers were filled with anxiety. It wasn’t only about their health and safety (and that of their families) but also about how all this was actually going to work, from the standpoint of technology. Webcams were apparently on backorder because every school district was making a mad dash to buy additional equipment for the start of the school year. The technology department’s temporary solution was to hand us an extra Chromebook as the “webcam” until the devices ordered came in. The camera on a Chromebook, coupled with an old SMART Board that had a fading display, just wasn’t going to cut it for my students or me. I needed more.

What ‘More’ Looked Like

I made my husband lug all our personal equipment into my classroom. I might or might not have had permission to do so. I wanted to be able to see all my students while screen sharing, so we brought in a second monitor. I wanted to be able to move out from behind my desk, which was encased in Plexiglas, so I could teach at the board. We brought in an actual video camera with a wide view and the ability to zoom in and out in order to make that happen. I wanted my remote learners to be able to see their classmates in school, so I brought in an additional webcam. I had to be able to switch between the cameras and the multiple computer displays, so we added a Stream Deck to the mix.

Then came the sound issues. The best adjective to describe the feedback that occurred if you forgot to mute when you were logged into the same Zoom on multiple devices? Ear-piercing. Meanwhile, I couldn’t hear my students (and they couldn’t hear me) if I walked too far away from the computer. The remote learners couldn’t hear the students in school at all. I wasn’t about to repeat everything they were saying in class, because parroting student responses is one of my greatest pet peeves as an educator; it completely takes away the students’ voices. (And, in this case, when you have no choice but to repeat what each student is saying because they can’t hear each other, it does so quite literally.)

So, why not throw a streaming microphone and an external speaker into the circus that had become my classroom? Honestly, I even contemplated mic’ing each in-person student, but I worried that that might have been over the top. The audio piece of the puzzle, by itself, nearly drove me over the edge. I needed a sound engineer. Actually, what I really needed was a TV studio with a full crew!

So, how did I manage all that while actually trying to teach children? I didn’t! It was insanity. As much technology as I had in my classroom, I felt like I had to split myself in thirds to try to manage the equipment, the in-person students and the remote learners on Zoom. I couldn’t be my own cameraperson while also trying to cram academic
content into my students’ heads. Did all this effort actually elevate the hybrid-learning experience for my students at home, in spite of the technical issues? Absolutely! Was it sustainable? Nope. Was it replicable in other classrooms? In my dreams!

I finally came across a solution during the last few weeks that I spent in the classroom; it came in the form of a video and sound bar. This high-quality, roving camera had speakers and a microphone array built into it. It simplified all the different pieces that I had concocted together in order to create a more natural teaching experience. I could hear my students from home. They could hear me from across the room. The camera was powerful enough that it captured what was on my SMART Board without me having to screen share through Zoom. Now, I could use my laptop to view all my students in grid view. The camera would track me as I walked back and forth in the front of the classroom.

I did still find a need for a headset, though. When I would jump in and out of breakout rooms during independent work times, I could confer with students without the whole class hearing the conversation. If I had to address a student in class privately, the mute button on the headset came in quite handy. It was finally a workable, if not an ideal, solution.

Lessons From The Classroom & Beyond

As a newly minted administrator who had the unique experience of starting the school year teaching in a hybridlearning environment, I have been working with teachers in my current district to try to help them with their classroom arrangements. Some of them have turned around their desktop computers so they are facing the class and their students don’t have to stare at the back of their heads. Others are using their phones and home devices—that likely have better cameras than their Chromebooks do—to display what’s on their interactive boards (rather than screen sharing). That way, they can see all their students at the same time in grid view on a secondary screen.

I managed to get my current district to pilot a couple of the cameras I had used. We provided these to unshackle teachers from their desktop cameras. I suggested that teachers get themselves a good-quality headset for breakout rooms. I inquired as to why teachers have basic Chromebooks instead of devices with the processing power necessary for multi-participant videoconferencing sessions. Although I firmly believe that all this should have been provided for teachers already, the reality is, it simply wasn’t.

Educators across my state have scrambled to piecemeal together technology to meet their students’ needs. Unfortunately, technology departments in school districts with limited budgets have been playing catch-up since the pandemic hit (through no fault of their own). Technicians fully understood hardware, but not the applications that teachers needed. Teachers knew what they needed, but lacked the technical knowledge to make it happen. For less tech-savvy teachers, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. As a result, communication surrounding what would be ideal educationally and what was available technologically largely broke down.’

Instead, schools invested their money in prepackaged videos from major education publishing companies and/or subscriptions to online content. Teachers spent countless hours digitizing the curriculum, as well as making prerecorded videos of read-alouds and other lesson content. Building principals and central-office administrators had to focus their attention on the health-and-safety measures that had to be put in place in order to welcome back staff and students even at 50-percent capacity. Some districts have struggled even to open their doors at all. There was a missing link to bridge the gap between pedagogy and practical reality.

Prior to the appearance of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), no one in the last century has had to teach during a global pandemic. There wasn’t any clear roadmap telling us how to transition from a hands-on, interactive and social learning environment to one based on a screen. We didn’t know how long this was even going to last, so we weren’t sure if all the investment in new technology was going to be worth it. We did know that inequalities existed along socioeconomic lines in relation to technology access, but school districts were still caught off guard by how deeply such divides would affect the education quality for those remote learners.

I was sitting in a classroom just the other day, conducting an observation of a teacher. A remote learner was trying to participate, and the student’s Wi-Fi and/or device just wasn’t cooperating. No one could make out a single word that the student was trying to say. The teacher was frustrated and the student was frustrated. No one had the time to find or fund the solution. Ultimately, the student wasn’t heard and the teacher had to move on.

Our days of forced hybrid learning are coming to an end, and schools have started to open back up at full capacity. So, what elements of the hybrid-learning environment are we going to keep? What knowledge that we have attained this past year will we retain? What lessons have we, as educators, learned by weathering the pandemic storm together? One thing we should be grateful for is that this happened in 2020. Can you even imagine if it were 10 years ago, and teachers were asking grandparents to set up a Skype call for their grandchildren in order for them to participate in virtual learning? The infrastructure to handle this kind of videoconferencing was nearly nonexistent back then (at least, on this scale). Sure, there were videoconferences happening in the private sector, but it just wasn’t a thing that public schools did, period.

Luckily, the skills that educators have acquired climbing the steep learning curve they had to face down can never be taken away from them. Teachers have shown immense flexibility, creativity and grit, and I’m proud of what I see every day in the classrooms that I visit.

My hope and dream for public education is that we reach out to our private-sector partners in the AV and IT worlds to foster true collaboration and open conversations about the ideal technological setup for 21st-century classrooms. In essence, every teacher should have been engaging in conversations with their respective school and district’s technology department, just as I was with my husband. I told echoes scatter throughout the room, and some of them wind up going back into the microphone, delayed in time from the initial impulse. Almost anyone reading this missive has encountered a conference call during which it sounded as if the other person was talking in a fish tank. By acoustically treating the room, one can dampen the reflections and significantly improve audio quality. There are many options available, ranging from purpose-built acoustic treatments to adding more absorptive and diffusive material in the room.

Network Connection

Unlike a poor-quality microphone or unfavorable room acoustics, it’s easy to identify poor network quality. The stuttering, buffering and occasional dropouts create a disjointed experience. For those who aren’t network savvy, it’s easy to blame the internet service provider (ISP) for terrible network quality; however, in reality, the ISP is
likely not the culprit. It’s more likely that the cause is a mediocre router/access point. Because there are only a few allotted frequencies available, many Wi-Fi access points compete in the same electromagnetic space. To avoid those challenges, use a hardwired Ethernet connection instead of Wi-Fi, whenever possible. Utilizing a hardwired connection eliminates interference and allows for full-duplex communication, which means the computer can send and receive simultaneously. Wi-Fi is innately half-duplex, which means it transmits and then receives. If a hardwired connection is not available, the next best bet is to upgrade the modem/wireless access point (WAP) from the model that the ISP provided (at little or no cost) to a higher-performance device. Using a Wi-Fi mesh network system, such as Ubiquity or EERO, is likely to provide more consistent results than a singular modem/ WAP—in particular, in larger buildings or homes.

Hearing The Spoken Word

Another parameter to consider is how to hear the spoken word. Sound reproduction is difficult to predict, as students’ listening environments vary wildly. It’s for that reason that the recording portion is so critical. Headphones are the most effective solution, as having students use them takes the room out of the equation. However, if students have to wear headphones for hours, this can cause fatigue; thus, expect some students occasionally to listen using speakers (whether they’re laptop speakers, tablet/phone speakers or monitors).

If students use headphones, they should be comfortable and of decent quality; there’s no need to recommend a $300 pair of headphones, though. And when students are not using headphones, it’s a good idea for them to use computer or desktop speakers. Speakers found in laptops, tablets and phones have incredibly little room for the drivers, making them often sound tinny. Teachers should encourage their students to take classes in a quiet room— preferably, one filled with soft, fluffy objects and/or carpeting (as opposed to hard surfaces).

For professional educators, there’s no doubt that the last year has been incredibly challenging. The same can be said for full-time students, as well as corporate employees suffering from video fatigue. Although there’s now light at the end of the tunnel, the truth is that COVID-19 has changed our world forever. If we take simple steps and focus on enhancing audio quality, we can improve the distance-learning experience and increase student comprehension.

To read more from Sound & Communications, click here.

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