Synchronous Distance Learning and 360 Degree Cameras
By Nate Scherman, Kansas State University
Kansas State University (K-State) operates three physical campuses in the University system with K-State – Olathe (Olathe, Kansas) being the newest addition, opening in 2011. The Olathe campus primarily offers Graduate degree programs and one Bachelor’s degree completion program. Nearly all of these programs are based in colleges and departments at the primary campus in Manhattan, Kansas, with the majority of faculty and administration of the programs housed there. Some faculty work at the Olathe campus with representation from each of the academic units with degree offerings.
This arrangement of faculty and students operating from both locations often requires synchronous distance learning, with distance learning defined as formalized instructional learning where in-person contact is restricted by time or geography (King, Young, Drivere-Richmond, & Schrader, 2001). The majority of classes offered at K-State Olathe connect to students at other K-State campuses and/or students joining from personal devices at locations of their choice. Many of the synchronous distance learning courses utilize some form of blended instruction, typically by way of posting class materials and discussions in K-State’s learning management system.
In 2011, the prevalent video-conferencing technology used at K-State was H.323 standard protocol with Polycom hardware. That technology soon gave way to Zoom videoconferencing as the preferred platform from many of the synchronous distance classes at K-State Olathe; something the originally designed audio-visual equipment was not suited to handle. Another flaw in the design of the classroom was the location of the room cameras, placed on the sidewalls of each room. This worked fine for viewing a presenter or instructor at the podium in the front of the room, but was awkward if the distance participants wanted to view the students in the class because they could only see a side profile, or even the backs of the students.
Changing the Learning Environment
In 2015, following interviews with Olathe based faculty, it was evident that classroom technology needed to change. Students and faculty disliked the available camera angles, especially in courses featuring group discussions. The first major change in course delivery came with the addition of a Polycom CX5500 Unified Conference Station. This camera was designed and optimized to work with Microsoft Lync/Skype for Business, but provides an “active speaker” view. The microphones in the device detect the location of the person speaking and focus one of the five cameras on that person automatically and dynamically as the person moves around the room or the conversation moves from person to person. The CX5500 is a plug and play USB device, making integration into the existing technology seamless, at least for Windows computers, because Mac OS drivers do not exist.
The faculty who agreed to be part of the pilot test for the CX5500 preferred the new addition to their classes. The student experiences were overwhelmingly positive as well with comments like “when I first joined I thought I was in the wrong place because it was drastically different, in a very good way. The quality of the video is so much better. I also really liked how the camera system switched around to whoever in the room was talking. Having those multiple angles in the room really helped things. My feelings of belonging were much improved.” Another student said “best classroom experience yet using (Z)oom!” The Polycom CX5500 was here to stay and received many requests for classes over the next two years, sometimes resulting in conflicting requests. The price point of the camera system was such that investing in a second one to remedy the occasional conflict did not make financial sense.
Then in 2017, with conflicting requests occurring more frequently, an internet search resulted with the discovery of The Meeting Owl from Owl Labs. This is a device with similar technology to the Polycom CX5500, listed at $799. After a quick, impressive demonstration of the technology, the first Meeting Owl for K-State Olathe was ordered and put to use. While the technology in both cameras is similar, including built in microphones, speakers, cameras, and being USB compatible, there are noticeable differences between the two. The Polycom CX5500 is much more expensive, but the video (1080p vs 720p cameras) and audio quality (discussed in Best Practices section in terms of suggested seating radius) are also better than the Meeting Owl. On the other hand, the functionality of the Meeting Owl with Zoom is better. The Polycom CX5500 only shows a single active speaker window when used in Zoom; however, it does display a panoramic view of the room when used with Microsoft products Skype for Business and Teams. The Meeting Owl provides a panoramic view of the room and displays up to three active speaker panels to show more than one person in the room when multiple people are engaged in conversation. In addition, it is compatible with both Windows and Mac OS devices whereas the Polycom unit only works on Windows operating systems. Again, experiences were positive for those who used the Meeting Owl and Apple users when support staff at the Olathe campus requested feedback.
In Fall 2019, Owl Labs introduced the Meeting Owl Pro. The Pro version, listed at $999, enhances video with a 1080p camera, and improved microphones and speakers. K-State Olathe ordered one of the Meeting Owl Pros, but as of the writing of this article, it had not been used in a classroom setting.
In March 2018, students and faculty who had experienced classes using the two cameras received an invitation to give opinions about the classroom experience using the two devices. Nineteen (n=19) people, comprised of faculty and students, responded to a nine question survey. Figure 1 shows the population of respondents who chose to identify as student or instructor and their location during their respective classes.
Figure 1. Survey Response Population
The feedback received in person throughout the semester and as indicated in Figure 2 from the survey, was overwhelmingly positive with two programs offered at the Olathe campus request a 360-degree camera in every class session utilizing video conferencing. Some of the direct quotes from the survey are:
- “The meeting owl does a good job. For me, it allows me to see people in class in addition to the person speaking. I find the multiple views concurrently to be helpful. “
- “It makes the class more interactive and you get a better perspective of the other room/students.”
- “When students are at a distance, the learning experience for them and the entire class is significant. We have several doctoral students at a distance and it helps immensely when we need to connect and show documents.”
- “The 360 degrees camera has helped me have more of a sense inclusion in the virtual classroom experience. Often, I cannot attend courses held in Olathe and can feel excluded from the sense of belonging. This camera helps give a broader view and audio that focus on the group and individuals.”
- “The camera allows the students both in the classroom and video conferencing to focus on the speaker in the classroom as the camera moves from speaker to speaker. This improves communication in that the viewer can see the body language associated with the words.”
- “It is more interactive! Rather than looking at one picture (screen) all of class, the moving around of the camera allows for more interaction and I think it also helps everyone pay attention. “
Figure 2. 360 Degree Camera Experience Results
Not all feedback was positive however. The most common issue identified in the survey and through personal conversation was about the audio quality with the Meeting Owl camera, especially with larger groups using the camera. K-State Olathe’s response to these issues was to use existing ceiling microphones and speakers for audio while continuing to use the Meeting Owl as the video source. The recently released Meeting Owl Pro has enhanced hardware to improve audio quality; but at the time of publication, K-State Olathe has not tested it in the classroom environment. Some of the quotes regarding challenges are:
- “There are many times that there are audio issues. This has caused a few delays in class this semester. “
- “At times, the camera would not move to the new speaker.”
- “I have had participants ask what it is, but then move on. Due to its central placement, it can limit me showing a tray of something that I would typically put in the center of the table. Now, I choose a place and the participants move to the tray. It is more difficult to see their faces for this sort of interaction. I find myself changing my approach/method to accommodate for the camera placement which fixes the issue.”
While data in the study suggests a positive effect for learners and instructors, the majority of respondents courses in which data were collected are conversational in nature, so the benefit of a more personalized audiovisual experience may be more noticeable than in a lecture style course.
Seating configuration matters when using either of 360-degree cameras. The key is to have the camera in the middle of a meeting space. This means placing a camera in the middle of a conference table or on a table in the middle of a U-shape or square configuration. The cameras can connect either to the classroom computer or to a meeting participant’s device. The Olathe campus generally connects the cameras to a room computer that also connects to the room technology such as displays, microphones, and speakers. According to each camera’s product guides, Meeting Owl audio system features and Polycom CX5500 data sheet, participants should sit no more than 12 feet away from the Meeting Owl , 18 feet for the Meeting Owl Pro, and 20 feet for the Polycom CX5500.
If video or audio is shared through Zoom or another platform, be sure that the audio source from the host computer matches the audio selection in Zoom, i.e. if the video conference is using the 360-camera for audio, the computer should also be set to output all sound through the same device. A lesson learned early on was when using the camera as the microphone source and the host computer was set to output through the room speakers, an echo was created when sharing audio because Zoom pushed audio and the microphone picked up the same audio being played in the room. Changing the host computer to output through the camera eliminated the issue.
When possible, use two displays with extended desktop enabled in all meeting spaces. This is preferable, especially in meetings utilizing Zoom’s screen sharing feature. Although Zoom has made great strides in giving users the ability to adjust the size of the shared screen content and video on single monitor configurations, being able to see both at full screen is the preferred option at K-State Olathe.
When using USB extension cables to reach the middle of a meeting space, choose USB active extension cables. In K-State Olathe’s case, the campus elects to purchase certified USB extension cables from the manufacturer of the Meeting Owl, Owl Labs, after experiencing connectivity issues with other USB active extension cables purchased from other sources.
Suggestions for Instructors and Meeting Facilitators
- To facilitate synchronous learning as closely as possible to traditional face-to-face courses, encourage (or require) all participants to use their cameras on throughout the class, simulating attendance in the face-to-face section.
- In periods of a class when screen sharing content is not necessary, stop sharing so participants outside the room can experience the full effect of the active speaker tracking in the technology. This may enhance the ability of distance participants to engage better with conversation occurring in the classroom. This is especially important when participants are not able to join from technology that includes dual monitors.
- Engage distance participants with intentional invitations to participate in the discussion and, when possible, communicate the timing of those planned discussions. Thoughtful facilitation of conversation in a synchronous distance-learning environment is key to an engaging course for all participants.
The addition of the 360-degree cameras at K-State Olathe has changed the way many instructors and students connect and learn from one another by providing a more personal interactive experience in synchronous distance classes. The availability of the Meeting Owl, and presumably, the Meeting Owl Pro, has provided a cost effective, portable, and easy to use solution for the discussion centric programs and courses at K-State Olathe. The Polycom CX5500 also provides an excellent experience, especially considering its outstanding audio performance, but the price point difference has driven K-State Olathe to use the Meeting Owl as the preferred video conferencing solution for synchronous distance learning.
King, F.B., Young, M.F., Drivere-Richmond, K. & Schrader, P.G. (2001). Defining Distance Learning and Distance Education. AACE Journal, 9(1), 1-14. Norfolk, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved January 6, 2020 from https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/17786/.
About the Author
Nathan Scherman was hired as the IT Manger at K-State Olathe in February 2015. Prior to K-State, he work at Park University for 11 years in various roles within the IT organization. Scherman earned his bachelor’s degree in Computer Science in 2003 from Park and a Professional Science Master’s in Applied Science and Technology from K-State in 2018. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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