September 1, 2020
Garrett College dramatically upgrades classroom technology for fall semester
CARES funding, cross-divisional collaborations make changes possible
Lucy Manley, GC's associate dean of academic affairs, is shown testing out the newly installed classroom technology in preparation for Garrett's upcoming fall semester, with the assistance of Matt Bernard, GC's coordinator of network systems. Utilizing CARES funding, Garrett College has created state-of-the-art video conferencing systems in 10 classrooms on the McHenry campus.
When COVID forced colleges and universities online midway through the spring semester, Garrett College was determined to finish.
This fall, GC is determined to flourish.
"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.
"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."
GC's business, finance and IT departments were considering the same questions.
"With the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act, the Department of Education made available funds to help colleges create the necessary infrastructure to expand distance learning platforms," explained Dallas Ouellette, GC's 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."
Utilizing that funding, Garrett College has created state-of-the-art video conferencing systems in 10 classrooms on the McHenry campus. Matt Bernard, GC's coordinator of network systems, said the biggest challenge was "finding a cost-effective system that was easy to use and met the needs of our students and instructors."
"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."
Lucy Manley, GC's associate dean of academic affairs, said creation of the high-tech classrooms addresses current challenges while providing future opportunities.
"The system gives students flexibility in their learning – not only in this uncertain pandemic time but also looking to the future," said Manley.
"GC students are parents, full-time employees and involved in a variety of campus and community activities," continued Manley. "Flexible learning gives students multiple options to attend class and interact with their professors and classmates."
Carolyn Deniker, professor of biology, said the system has a number of exciting features.
"I like the recording capability and especially the captioning capability," said Deniker. "The recording capability will be so beneficial to our students who have jobs and other responsibilities outside of class, as well as those students who just want to review the lectures. The captioning capability will be a great tool for all students, but especially for those requiring accommodations."
Manley said the biggest challenge is the speed with which the college needed to implement the expanded learning options.
"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 biggest challenge is learning the system as we prepare for the fall semester," said Deniker. "So, this semester will be ‘building the airplane as we are flying it.' But our students are super-understanding when faculty are learning new tools, especially when they see the benefit from them."
Bernard said the project required cross-divisional partnerships with academics, facilities and distance learning to succeed.
"The facilities staff has played a very important role in reconfiguring the classrooms for a synchronous learning environment," said Bernard. "They provided innovative and creative solutions for converting the rooms into virtual classrooms. "We worked closely with academics to test the system to ensure functionality and performance," added Bernard. "Fred [Stemple, director of distance learning] was a great asset in testing the system's remote capabilities in a virtual setting."
Kathy Meagher, the college's director of campus facilities and security, said the facilities staff "has really shown an ability to work through challenges and figure things out."
"That resourcefulness, as well as the teamwork with other departments, has been great to see," added Meagher.
Technicians Greg Dawson and Brandon DeWitt indicated they've enjoyed the challenging aspects of the project.
"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."
While this unanticipated project came during what's already a busy time of year, DeWitt said it's been an interesting project.
"It's in the scope of what we already do," said DeWitt, "but it's nice being able to work with the new technology."
The classroom technology is a critical tool in GC's plan to offer four modalities of learning this fall:
Garrett College is currently enrolling students for the fall 2020 semester, which begins September 9th.