For many colleges – Garrett College in Maryland included – COVID-19 has led to a rapid acceleration of classroom technology upgrades.
However, classroom technology modernization isn’t cheap. Luckily for Garrett College, the school has been able to take advantage of funding available from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security [CARES] Act, passed in March. With the funding, Garrett College created state-of-the-art video conferencing systems in 10 classrooms ahead of the fall semester.
“With the CARES Act, the Department of Education made available funds to help colleges create the necessary infrastructure to expand distance learning platforms,” explained Dallas Ouellette, dean of business and finance, who also oversees the college’s IT department. “Institutionally, our goal was to leverage those funds to expand and improve online learning opportunities going forward.”
Before deploying the new technology for the fall semester, Garrett College’s instructors and staff were forced to innovate on the fly when the school had to move to virtual classes this spring.
“With virtually no warning or time to prepare, our faculty simply wanted to make sure we could help students complete an academically rigorous spring semester,” recalled Dr. Qing Yuan, GC’s dean of academic affairs and chief academic officer. “And they did that, with strong support from our IT staff.”
Amidst the challenging spring semester, the college was already focused on preparing for the fall semester.
“Even while we were in full-blown crisis mode,” continued Yuan, “we were already talking across college departments about how we could use technology to deliver a safe, secure virtual education that was every bit as good as what we offered in face-to-face course sections.”
While there was funding available, Matt Bernard, Garrett College’s coordinator of network systems, was still focused on the budget. He said the biggest challenge was “finding a cost-effective system that was easy to use and met the needs of our students and instructors.”
Bernard also shared the specifics on what technology the college ended up using.
“The system provides studio-quality, ultra-HD video, crystal-clear voice audio with background noise suppression, and RightSight auto-framing tracking technology,” said Bernard. “It’s modular and works with a wide range of video conferencing platforms. The classrooms are also equipped with interactive displays, allowing instructors to engage with students who are both in and out of the classroom.”
As with many other K-12 schools and colleges, while the innovation was spurred by COVID-19, the benefits will outlast the pandemic.
“The system gives students flexibility in their learning – not only in this uncertain pandemic time but also looking to the future,” said Lucy Manley, the associate dean of academic affairs. “GC students are parents, full-time employees, and involved in a variety of campus and community activities. Flexible learning gives students multiple options to attend class and interact with their professors and classmates.”
Manley did say that COVID-19 has not only shifted the college’s technology needs but also the way it is deploying new technology.
“Like all new technology, it’s exciting – but there’s a learning curve,” noted Manley. “The biggest challenge is we’re running so many classes with multiple modalities due to COVID. Ideally, we’d pilot one or two classes with this technology before a full roll-out – but, again, with COVID, we’re rolling with it!”
The project did provide Garrett College technicians Greg Dawson and Brandon DeWitt with an opportunity to liven up their typical workload.
“Every room is a little different, so every job was a little different,” said Dawson, noting they had to build some specialized mounts to enable the mounting of the screens, cameras, and microphones based on the individual room layouts.
“We’re getting pretty good at putting the classrooms together now,” said DeWitt. “And Matt [Bernard] has been great about giving us a hand when we need it.”
DeWitt continued, “It’s in the scope of what we already do, but it’s nice being able to work with the new technology.”