When New Mexico State University (NMSU) students return for classes this fall, whether in-person or online, their classrooms will be quite different than when they left school last spring. In an Aug. 13 press release, NMSU detailed all of the new classroom technology upgrades awaiting students and professors.
While the motivator behind the changes is stemming from the spread of COVID-19, the upgrades will benefit students long after the pandemic is over. NMSU IT staff outfitted classrooms and lecture halls with new technology that enables simultaneous in-person and remote learning experiences.
One of the major changes was improvements to existing microphone systems and the deployment of new cameras. NMSU’s Classroom Technology and AV Services, a division of NMSU’s Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), has overhauled 45 classrooms to 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 video-conferencing services.
The new system is designed to make interaction between online and in-person students and faculty seamless.
“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.”
With COVID-19 in mind, ICT staff conducted tests to ensure that the new microphone and video systems would work with users wearing face coverings.
“Our studies show that the masks students and instructors are supposed to wear do not change the sound quality,” said Diana Dugas, director of Instructional and Research Support for ICT.
The ICT team also upgraded five lecture halls, which required a different system due to their size. Instead of installing ceiling microphones, ICT opted to have instructors wear headset microphones that wrap around their ears and plug into portable bodypack transmitters. Once again, IT staff had to consider COVID-19, so instructors in those lecture halls will be given their own microphone and connection cables.
The lecture halls have also been upgrades to include 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.”
To afford the new technology, NMSU is taking advantage of Federal funding from the COVID-19 relief bill.
“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.”
All told, the university is spending $600,000 on upgrading classroom technology and purchasing laptops.