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A socially distanced class in Strong Hall auditorium

New classroom technology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will create flexible learning environments where many classes can be taught in person and online simultaneously and students can review course content on demand.

“No matter where a student is living or studying, we want them to be able to actually participate in the instruction, so that means having appropriate spaces, updated technology, and robust internet access,” said UT Libraries Associate Dean Teresa Walker, who helped lead the efforts.

Over the summer, a committee of employees from the Office of Information Technology, the UT Libraries, Facilities Services, the Haslam College of Business, and the Tickle College of Engineering began planning, ordering, and installing classroom audio and video technology. Their goal was to improve the in-person and online experience, especially with the prevalence of hybrid courses due to COVID-19.

“We wanted to make sure that those instructors who were teaching to a combination of in-person and online students could do everything they needed to do,” said Walker, who chairs the committee. “We also wanted to ensure that the experience would be good for everyone involved—the sound is right, the video looks good, the communication between the instructor and students and among the students is solid.”

The team has worked to integrate Zoom with a collaboration and presentation system, Cynap, to give instructors maximum flexibility in teaching hybrid courses with a portion of students in the classroom and the rest of the class participating online. Cynap allows instructors and students to connect wirelessly to the classroom’s technology and to display multiple inputs on one screen.

a hand points to a wireless networking icon on a computer
Students and faculty wanted better integration of Zoom and Canvas.

“One of the things we heard in the Re-Imagining Fall Task Force survey was that students and faculty wanted better integration of Zoom and Canvas, since those were the two tools we used the most when we shifted to remote instruction in the spring,” Walker said. OIT has created documentation and videos to help instructors connect Zoom and Canvas—UT’s online learning management system—to deliver course content in a more seamless manner. “We want to make sure students can get to what they need.”

Not all students will be able to join a class discussion live, either in person or remotely, Walker said, so the committee has emphasized flexibility. Wireless connectivity across campus is being expanded this summer, she said.

“We understand that with so much uncertainty this fall, there are going to be times when students may need to miss a class, so they can watch the recorded class meetings by logging in to Canvas.”

Equity of access to instructional content is also very important.

“With so much instruction being delivered online, the university continues to provide laptops and hotspots for students who have demonstrated a hardship in staying connected,” said Joel Reeves, associate vice chancellor and chief information officer. “Since March, we have helped students continue their studies by distributing approximately 600 hotspots and 400 laptops.”

UT students agreed that flexibility is key for this fall.

“I will definitely use my time studying or being in class virtually, and knowing that being on my computer for class is the same thing as being in class and allotting those times during the day,” said Grace Bosworth, a senior in communication studies from Memphis.

Maddy Knoth, a junior in pre-pharmacy from Cleveland, Ohio, said UT students are good at adapting and adjusting to change.

“Going into every new class presents the challenge of what it’s going to be like,” Knoth said. “So this fall, at least we already have the mindset and the desire to take on that challenge. I think I’m going to personally get used to it just by getting comfortable with my teachers, even if we’re not always in person, by creating some connection with them as best as I can and then just using my resources, my notes, my computer to be as involved and in touch with all my classes as possible.”

OIT is offering training sessions in August to help faculty become more familiar with the enhanced technology. For more information, visit OIT’s Technology and Teaching Modalities website.