Simulating Covid-19 Classroom Conditions

[Updated: This post describes my experience delivering a simulated classroom lesson, part of my university’s effort to evaluate potential solutions to the challenges posed by the upcoming fall semester — a process that is, or should be, occurring on your campus as well. Testing is a necessary part of the iterative design process, and the process of evaluating potential solutions rarely goes as expected in its initial iterations.]

Last week I simulated fall semester teaching with some students in the physical classroom and others connected remotely via Webex. My main objective for the demo was to identify possible points of failure in the technology that my university is thinking about purchasing, and in this I succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.

The lesson was organized as follows:

  1. Lecture with PowerPoint running on the classroom computer:
    a) Slides projected on a wall screen, with image captured by a video camera placed in the center of the room and transmitted to remote participants on Webex through a classroom computer.
    b) Slides displayed via screen share, with image projected on the wall screen for students in the room and transmitted to Webex participants via computer.
  2. Breakout discussions among three small groups consisting of, respectively, in-room students only, remote students only, and a mixture of in-room students with laptops and remote students.
  3. Oral reports to the entire class from each breakout discussion group, with me writing notes under a document camera, and the camera’s image screen shared from classroom computer to Webex.
  4. A class-wide discussion that included PowerPoint slides projected on the wall screen, with me writing notes on a white board beside the screen and both the screen and white board captured by the video camera.

The video camera was programmed to shift between three preset shots that could be selected by the instructor: the computer console, the wall screen, or a wide angle showing the entire front of the room. The camera could also zoom in and out at each preset. There were four omni-directional microphones hanging from the ceiling so that remote students could hear both my and the in-room students’ voices. A very large monitor was placed at a 90° angle to the front wall, across the room from the computer console, so that I could have a “Brady Bunch” view of remote students’ faces. All of this equipment and more was connected to some kind of signal transfer board. Total cost of the kit, not including the pre-existing classroom computer, projector, and wall screen: ~ US$2,500-3,000.

How did it go? From a pedagogical perspective, terribly.

The first thing I noticed upon entering was the small number of students (actually other faculty and IT staff) scattered about, because social distancing will reduce the capacity of our existing classrooms by one-half to two-thirds. (Cal-Tech has a visual rendering of what this looks like in an auditorium and a converted dining hall.*) Large gaps between occupied seats meant I could not quickly make eye contact with random people in different areas of the room. Everyone in the room was wearing a mask, which reduced my ability to observe facial expressions.

Remote students immediately made it known that the volume of my voice was too low. It became very awkward for me to speak upward at the ceiling microphones while trying to engage people in the room. I rapidly found the need to constantly shift my attention between in-room students, the remote students displayed on the second monitor, the classroom computer, the video camera, and my voice to be cognitively overwhelming. There were constant interruptions to what I consider my natural flow of teaching. For example, when I was at the white board I could not see students’ faces or read their chat messages on the large monitor on the other side of the room, so I had to cross the room to look at it and then walk back to the white board.

More significant problems:

  • Remote students could not see PowerPoint slides displayed on the projector screen because of high glare and low contrast in the video camera image. Since none of our classrooms are professionally-lit performance spaces, this makes screen share the preferable method of showing visuals, but for some reason toggling to screen share turned off the audio feed from people on Webex.
  • The audio signal from the room to people on Webex cut in and out, with voices garbled or completely inaudible. Remote participants said that they couldn’t understand my instructions because of the bad audio quality.
  • The small-group discussions were a total failure. Webex is the only videoconferencing tool officially supported by my university, and instructors are supposed to access it as an LTI from within our Canvas LMS. Yet the IT support staff who were present could not create the breakout rooms from inside a Canvas course shell. Meanwhile, some people were inexplicably dropped from the Webex meeting and could not reconnect. As one participant put it, we couldn’t demo a Webex demo over Webex.

For me, it was a frustrating instructional experience, and it confirmed my belief that productive interaction between in-room and online students is very difficult to pull off successfully. Online students quickly tune out if they can’t hear and can’t participate. Physically-present students suffer when instructors are forced to interrupt class to try to manage malfunctioning equipment. It is my belief that both student populations lose when universities require that all campus courses be configured for simultaneous in-person and online delivery.

*With a distance of at least eight feet between students, which reduces classroom density even further.

5 Replies to “Simulating Covid-19 Classroom Conditions”

  1. Dear Chad,

    Thanks a lot for sharing this. It is very interesting. It feels like there were some issues in the way that the rooms have been designed (just 1 camera + quality of the microphones), plus having Webex definitely did not help. The instructional design that you describe seems really great and adapted to this situation, but it is the room’s design and the IT support that were missing. I am pretty sure that you may have lived this situation differently if you had had different microphones and support 😉

    1. Hi Loic —

      This demo was part of a series of tests that our IT department and a faculty committee are running to evaluate different classroom technology set-ups. Mine was the first demonstration using an actual instructor (me) trying to teach a lesson. The hope is to identify equipment and software that will allow for reliable involvement by remotely-connected students.

  2. Thank you very much for sharing this. Your experiment confirms what I observed from watching a demo of this technology at the last university Zoom meeting. This fall, if my classes can be capped at the number that will fit into the room under COVID restrictions, I will teach f2f. Otherwise, I will teach DE. I will not do both because the technology is not ready.

    1. Hi Leigh,

      Can you give a few details about what was being demonstrated and what didn’t work? I’m curious because many instructors began using Zoom when campuses closed in March — but that was an environment in which all students were online, rather than a simultaneous mix of online and F2F.

      1. Surely! At IT guy stood in a classroom and demonstrated how a f2f lecture would look and sound to people tuning in remotely on Zoom (as we were). The audio was distorted and distractingly out-of-sync with the video, to the point that I doubt my students could sit through the whole thing, let alone follow directions. And he wasn’t even masked as I would have to be in front of a real class.

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