Distance Learning? We're Doing it Wrong. And Yes, There is a Better Way.
With the prolonged circulation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and remote learning becoming standard operating procedure for K-12 and Higher-Ed, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in interest in the KLIK Boks HUB, because of its live-streaming capabilities. At the same time, we’re fielding questions from educational institutions and AV integrators alike, on how to best execute distance learning, and which technologies are best for this purpose. This article will cover some of the options, and best practices.
Goals & Objectives
Teachers, Institutions, and Parents alike have one overarching concern as the contemplate how children and young adults are going to receive an education during the lingering pandemic; “how do we keep everyone safe?” The evidence supporting distancing is irrefutable, but it is also abundantly clear that the educational infrastructure was built without consideration to maintenance of a 6-foot radius around each student, teacher and staff member. While schools contemplate re-opening, parents become increasingly wary that the math just doesn’t add up.
At this writing, Seattle-area school districts, along with the University of Washington, among other schools have declared that the fall semester will be for the most part, online-only. Increasingly, this is becoming the norm across the country, and indeed the world, as the virus surges in many localities where distancing rules have been diminished in favor of commerce and social activities. Aside from the moral implications of spreading the virus, educators are also contemplating the liability costs of infection flare-ups should schools reopen prematurely.
In the end, there are two dominant reasons for getting students back to a “normal” educational experience. First, face-to-face teaching is more immersive, and more interactive. Both teacher and student can “read the room” and act accordingly; students asking questions, teachers recognizing confusion, or boredom, and adjusting their presentation accordingly. Second, psychologists consistently tell us that socialization and human interaction with peers is critically important for students’ intellectual and social development, and the lack of same can do long-term damage.
Current Thinking & Tools
To say that most schools were not ready for the shift to distance learning, would be putting the subject mildly. District IT departments scrambled to deploy solutions that were fast to roll out at scale, required minimal hardware beyond what was already in educators’ hands, and required minimal training for either teachers or students. The result was jumping into the deep end of the pool with platforms such as Zoom, Meet, Teams, Skype, Webex, etc. In other words, the natural inclination was to turn to the videoconferencing apps many of us use every day for business and social meetings.
The thinking with these solutions is that every teacher, and every student, has a device that will support the use of the platform. That device requires a camera, a microphone, speakers, and an Internet connection. At the same time, all parties must have access to a safe and quiet space, well-lit, that will serve as their virtual classroom during the class session. And everyone must be available at the same time, even though many household schedules have been impacted by the pandemic.
Teachers were forced to adapt to teaching from in front of a laptop, with the camera capturing their face, and not much more. Content curation went from images, text and other materials projected to a display in the classroom, to clutter on the laptop, that was screen-shared in place of the teachers’ video. For most users, there was no meaningful whiteboard functionality, certainly not while other content was being shared, and all the while the same device (laptop) was doing double-duty as the communications device (videoconferencing) and the content device (screen-sharing). Educators went from teaching in a live environment, with access to physical teaching tools and resources, to a “talking-head” that struggled to deliver their curriculum.
The Problem with Current Solutions
As a parent of a college student caught up in the early days of the pandemic, I witnessed first-hand the vagaries of teaching through Zoom. Open mics, causing background noise, embarrassing mishaps, and disjointed classes. After the first week, all of the classes went from live Zoom disasters to recorded sessions available for offline viewing. I’m sure that some schools and individual teachers have mastered the act of teaching through videoconference, but even those who have, are not delivering an experience that matches what went on in the classroom.
Videoconferencing platforms are designed for smaller meetings, with a handful of people discussing business, projects, or planning a wedding. Sure, most platforms support upwards of 50 people, but is it reasonable to expect a video call with 20, 30, or even 50 students to succeed? Even the simple things, like ensuring microphones are muted, and that the camera is always capturing something appropriate, place an undue burden on teachers and students alike. A video call with more than a handful of students doesn’t stand a chance of consistent success.
Then there is the issue of content management and sharing. Let’s talk first about digital content, that already on the teacher’s laptop. That’s pretty easy to deal with, because teachers can share their screen with students, to reveal the content. But, as many have found out, if they’re working on a laptop, with a single screen, screen-sharing may also reveal their Email inbox, or other content that isn’t intended for mass consumption.
And what about other content, like physical objects, books, models and hardware? How do you share those items through a laptop? Twist it around to face the objects in question and hope for the best? You could of course purchase a secondary camera and connect it to the laptop through a video capture card, allowing the teacher to share a live view of physical content. While that is a viable solution, the added complexity would likely prove unwelcome, and just add to the inconsistent results.
Based on the ever-evolving state of re-opening, along with the frenetic rush to deploy distance learning solutions for the fall semester, we have been in touch with educators, concerned and tech-savvy parents, and numerous channel partners, integrators and IT managers, as they try to navigate the raft of “solutions” headed their way. It appears that a lot of the thinking falls into three categories; 1) Reopen schools entirely, and see what happens, 2) close schools and rely on videoconferencing software (and hardware in some cases), and 3) “there must be a better way to do this.”
It is our belief that there is indeed a better way, and it applies to all schools, even those that are focused on opening. Given the ongoing uncertainty about transmission rates among the young, safety of teachers and staff, combined with the very real inability to enforce proper distancing in facilities that lack the physical space to do so, it is entirely possible that some, or in some cases all, students will be located offsite. But there is a way to hedge against this possibility, and at the same time, deliver an education that is worthy of the teachers who deliver it, the students who benefit from it, and our investment in the people and infrastructure that is already built around education.
Teachers and staff, can and should return to their classrooms this fall, and conduct their classes from a location that was made for teaching. This is where the resources are, from robust Internet access, to whiteboards, AV equipment, teaching resources such as books, models, and much more. Schools are built around a quiet and controlled environment, and classrooms are generally well-lit spaces conducive to good video without the need for additional equipment.
In the instance of schools closed to students, teachers and school staff will benefit by a return to some degree of normalcy. Access to a classroom’s physical resources would allow teachers to return to a more natural and effective teaching style, where they could interact with materials that they are accustomed to. Remote students in turn would feel more connected to the classroom, a place they are familiar with, and likely miss. They would also be the recipients of a more comprehensive education, with less time wasted by the distractions of videoconferencing call setup and interruption.
In the case of schools that are looking to open, a hybrid teaching environment would allow the return of students whose guardians trust that the conditions are safe to do so, but would also offer an option to those who wish to opt-out, for medical or other reasons. In all schools, a hybrid on-site/off-site teaching system would allow for the gradual return of students to the classroom, in properly-distanced form, or even on a staggered basis, where a safe percentage of the student body attends in person on given days of the week.
A hybrid teaching system is good for parents, teachers, school staff, and most of all students themselves. A safe re-entry to the school environment, coupled with the option to curtail attendance should infection cases surge, will offer peace of mind to all stakeholders and guard against both the perils of physical proximity and the devastating effects of all-remote learning. And when the pandemic ceases to be the menace that it is today, the hybrid teaching infrastructure will deliver new benefits, such as continuity of education to students absent due to illness, lecture-capture for the benefit of deeper understanding of material in an offline environment, and more immersive learning through simple, touchless content sharing.
The Hybrid classroom starts with one critical component; the separation of the Communications System, form the Content Delivery system. The two do not belong together, and their fusion has led to much of the confusion and failed results we’ve seen to date. Inside the hybrid classroom, there needs to be a communications system that allows the teacher to move about freely, speak to their students—both in-class and remote—naturally, and otherwise conduct a class as they have always done. Technically, this requires a video camera and microphone system, along with the means of transmission through the Internet to remote students.
In addition, the classroom requires a content management system, that allows the teacher to easily share digital and physical content, both with in-class and remote students. This system must be simple in operation, yet allow for expansion as needed. It should also allow teachers to present an extended desktop view of the content on their PC, preventing the inadvertent display of anything other than the intended content. This content sharing system must be capable of being fully integrated into the existing teaching environment, whether that be Google Classroom, Microsoft for Education, or any other classroom management tool.
Additionally, a means of transmission of the hybrid classroom content is required, and it is not a videoconferencing platform. The transmission system should above all else, be simple to operate, and integrated to the greatest extent possible with the rest of the hybrid classroom’s technology stack. Teachers need to be able to start and stop transmission with one click, without complicated setup and configuration procedures. The system does not need to be bi-directional, aside from a messaging system that allows remote students to ask a question via text.
Remote students should be able to participate in hybrid learning sessions from any device, including smartphones, tablets, PCs and even Smart TVs. They should not be required to install an application, pay a fee or otherwise be presented with an obstacle to participation. In addition, the live session should not have any time-limits imposed, and run continuously for 8 hours or more, as needed.
Administrators should have the choice of making class sessions available to everyone without restriction, or to impose restrictions as needed. And finally, the class session should be automatically recorded and archived for later viewing by students who for a variety of reason could not attend the live session. And, all of this service should be free for both schools and students.
The core of this hybrid classroom solution is the KLIK Boks HUB. The HUB offers a variety of easy-to-use features that facilitate live video capture, digital and physical content sharing, integration with existing classroom management systems, and live transmission of class sessions with automated recording and archiving for staggered viewing.
HUB accepts an HDMI video source that can come from any video camera so equipped. For smaller classrooms, a camcorder offers a suitable audio/video source, while for larger classrooms, a discrete camera/microphone combination may be required. In the case of cameras, many choices are available on the market, including those with pan/tilt capability, and face-tracking.
Suitable microphones include wireless lapel models, through to the less-intrusive digital array models that automatically triangulate a teacher’s position, reducing background noise pickup.
HUB supports one-click RTMP streaming to any service which employs that protocol, including YouTube. In the case of YouTube, that service offers a live-stream hosting capability that meets all of the criteria of the hybrid classroom, including Privacy settings, Long Duration Streams, Automatic Recording and Archiving, Messaging capability, all at no cost for Students or Teachers.
Moreover, most Smart TVs include a YouTube app, for direct access to live sessions and recordings, without the need for a PC, smartphone or tablet, making class sessions accessible to a broader audience. In addition, schools may use a re-streaming service (such as Restream.io, or Castr.io) to simultaneously broadcast the stream to multiple destinations, further broadening the options available to remote students.
Despite all of the capabilities of the HUB, there is still a place for Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and many of the other videoconferencing platforms out there, in the hybrid classroom. Teachers can run the app on their PC, then call on individual remote students for their contribution, through audio and video, including content sharing. Only this time, all of the AV and content are easily shared through the HUB to both the local screen and the remote student body.
The hybrid classroom is an efficient, simple-to-deploy and cost-effective way to deliver a curriculum remotely for those schools that remain closed, to support those schools opting to open either in full or in a phased manner, and mostly to deliver better educational outcomes to the students who continue to face uncertainty as the pandemic disrupts every aspect of daily life.
About KLIK Communications
KLIK Communications is an engineering-driven startup with a mission to create technologies that enhance the way people collaborate in offices, classrooms, meeting spaces and anywhere else ideas are exchanged. Founded in the Seattle area in 2015, the company builds the KLIK Boks™ line of wireless presentation systems, sold by a network of dealers, integrators and distribution partners in the US, Canada, and over 20 countries worldwide. Visit www.klikboks.com.