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Gear for the HyFlex Teaching and Learning Space

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A great debate rages today in the tech and educational communities and more broadly across the knowledge work sector of society. Media outlets have reported widely that 7.7% of workers in April 2022 worked from home, down from 35% in May 2020. It’s worth noting that the survey behind that number specifically asked about telework due to the pandemic, not for other reasons, and so it’s an underestimate to some degree.

Even accounting for that, the number would seem shockingly low for knowledge workers. Knowing our own staff, and reading comments on Y Combinator’s Hacker News forum discussing any article about remote vs. on-premise work, it’s clear that the flexibility of work-from-home arrangements is a major factor in attracting and retaining a sizable portion of our labor force. The same is true for university-aged students, some of whom prefer online courses, and many need the flexibility of online options to meet their scheduling demands. Other students and workers prefer the on-premise experience, which demands a hybrid and flexible approach, and means the right tools for the job must be brought to bear.

As discussed in a previous column, the name of the game for designing a hybrid classroom or meeting space is balancing inclusivity of the remote and on-premise audiences that a colleague sometimes refers to as the “zoomers” and “roomers,” respectively. Also, we know that for a remote audience, the primary concern is quality audio: if students or meeting participants can’t hear one another, the meeting is a frustrating waste of time.

One of the top selling videoconferencing cameras is the Meeting Owl 3 (formerly Meeting Owl Pro) from Owl Labs (Figure 1, below). The primary selling point for this device is the AI-driven punch-in feature on the 360 camera dome on the top of the unit; the video sent from the classroom or meeting space to the remote audience is a well-framed shot of whoever around the camera is speaking, or up to 3 people speaking to one another. An optional panoramic strip at the top allows the remote audience to see everyone present. The on-premise display should show the remote audience in “gallery” view so everyone knows who’s attending (and so that the Owl doesn’t mistake a zoomer’s face on a TV for a roomer.) The Owl even has a follow-the-primary-speaker feature to support teachers who prefers to walk around while interacting with their classes.

Figure 1. Owl Labs Meeting Owl 3

A feature that’s even more impressive to me is how the Owl handles audio. It has an 8-microphone array that it uses to identify probable roomer speaking locations to punch in the camera on that does an excellent job of capturing audio that’s reasonably close to the device. The Owl also has clear speakers built-in, so the sound of your remote audience comes from the direction you should be looking toward when you interact with them.

Another unusual feature that promotes zoomer inclusivity allows the remote audience to interrupt the local audience. Usually a videoconferencing system would privilege its microphone over its speaker to avoid echo, but this “Double Talk” setting reverses that bias.

Another tool well worth investigating is the Logitech Spotlight Presentation Remote (Figure 2, below). This device is a hybrid-friendly laser pointer and slide advancer that promotes inclusivity when it comes to sharing visual aids with remote students or meeting attendees. If you were sharing screen and highlighting portions of the screen with a traditional tool like a laser pointer or a yardstick, the remote audience would have a significantly degraded view of what you intend to call attention to. The Spotlight functions fairly similarly to a Nintendo WiiMote or JoyCon, detecting motion to move a virtual laser pointer around the visual aid that can indicate or even magnify the target of your gestures.

Figure 2. Logitech Spotlight Presentation Remote

It takes a little getting used to, but this feature substantially improves the remote audience’s experience, not only in real time for meetings and synchronous class sessions, but also for recorded lectures where you want to walk around while interacting with your visual aids instead of annotating them with a tablet or mouse.

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