In preparation for the upcoming fall semester, New Mexico State University is working to transform learning environments to minimize the spread of COVID-19. As part of this effort, NMSU has outfitted dozens of classrooms and lecture halls across the Las Cruces campus with new technology that enables simultaneous in-person and remote learning experiences.
NMSU’s Classroom Technology and AV Services, a division of Information and Communications Technologies, is implementing a plan developed over the summer to install new camera and microphone systems in 50 classrooms, including five lecture halls, to support hybrid learning environments. The classrooms were selected by the Associate Deans’ Academic Council with input from faculty and department heads.
Installations, which began July 1, are expected to be completed when classes resume Aug. 19, barring delays of equipment delivery.
The upgraded classrooms will feature four strategically placed ceiling microphones and a high-definition, remote-controlled camera with pan, tilt, and zoom capabilities that instructors will use to transmit classes online via Zoom, Teams or other video-conferencing services.
“Students at home will be able to speak over the loud speakers,” said Frank Sage, senior technology support technician for ICT’s Classroom Technology and AV Services, “and everyone in the classroom will be able to hear them and respond to them just as if they were speaking to them in the classroom.”
As part of the installation process, ICT conducted tests on the upgraded classrooms to confirm that the new systems would work with users wearing face coverings, said Diana Dugas, director of Instructional and Research Support for ICT.
“Our studies show that the masks students and instructors are supposed to wear do not change the sound quality,” Dugas said.
The upgraded lecture halls, meanwhile, required a different system altogether because of their size, Sage said. ICT opted against installing ceiling microphones in these rooms as they would have been ineffective. Instead, instructors will wear headset microphones that wrap around their ears and plug into portable bodypack transmitters. To reduce COVID-19 spread, instructors who will teach in these spaces will receive their own microphones and connection cables and will share the transmitters.
ICT is also retrofitting these lecture halls with high-definition cameras programmed to auto-track instructors’ movements without a remote control so that students can watch classes remotely.
“This system is very smart and requires less work for the instructors on the camera side,” Sage said. “Instructors need only know how to use their microphone, how to turn it on, and how to plug it in. Then, they can get started with lecturing because the cameras should already be tracking them.”
A recorded workshop on using the hybrid classroom technology is available at https://bit.ly/30SK4Gl.
¬¬NMSU is using funds from the federal coronavirus relief bill to pay for the technology upgrades.
“ICT has been using CARES Act money to improve classrooms so that people can have face-to-face interactions if they wish,” Dugas said. “We’ve also been purchasing additional laptops with built-in mics and cameras so that students will have everything they need to attend their classes from home. The price to rent a laptop was slashed to $20 a semester to make it more accessible to students.”
The university is spending about $600,000 on upgrading classroom technology and purchasing laptops, Dugas said. She added that upgrades to the first 40 classrooms totaled slightly less than $375,000.
For more information on ICT equipment rentals, visit https://studenttech.nmsu.edu/equiprental/.