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EXCHANGE: Virtual classroom opens world of possibilities

September 14, 2017

NORMAL, Ill. (AP) — Students at McLean County Unit 5 high schools now have the ability to meet experts and tour facilities from around the globe, all from the comfort of their own classroom.

In June, the Unit 5 school board approved a $170,880 contract with Zdi audio visual company to install virtual classroom software in rooms at Normal Community West and Normal Community high schools.

Zdi, based in Normal, installed high-resolution screens and motion-detecting visual and sound equipment.

“It opens up possibilities for teachers to connect their classes with more people. It also takes away time and financial constraints that might come with field trips. This is another step towards new technology entering schools and I hope it continues to grow,” said Dave Johnson, principal at Normal West.

Teachers can request to move their class to the virtual classroom lab, where they can use the software to connect with an expert.

The expert can join the feed through any device with a microphone, camera and internet connection, such as a computer, tablet or smartphone.

Once seated in the classroom, students face two large computer screens. Cameras at the front and back of the room can detect movement; microphones on the ceiling pick up every sound. The high-tech software will automatically zoom in on a speaking student and share the discussion with the connected expert.

Aaron McArdle, CEO of Zdi, said the software is different than other video calling software because an entire group can participate.

“Through this, 25 kids can experience the conference all at once instead of having to huddle around the computer,” said McArdle.

Before the semester began, high school teachers previewed the equipment and brainstormed ways to incorporate it into curriculum.

The teachers joined a video conference with McArdle from his Normal office, and Beer Nuts President Andy Shirk from the Bloomington plant.

“I can see and hear everything that’s happening in the room,” said McArdle through the video feed.

If a teacher raised their hand or began asking questions, the camera panned across the room to focus on the speaker’s face.

On the second screen, McArdle and Shirk were able to share documents and images with the teachers. At one point, McArdle switched the camera view to his cell phone and took the teachers on a video tour of the Zdi office. Shirk also gave a tour of the Beer Nuts plant.

“The possibilities are endless,” said Lisa Tomlin, Normal West science teacher. “It’s so valuable that we can connect with a professional so easily. We could connect with a professional physician and ask questions about a system we’re learning about.”

Normal West biology teacher Dave Weber said the students could connect in the virtual lab to work on projects, a process that took more steps in previous years.

“When we’re studying bio medicine, it would be easy to connect with a professional for a few minutes for them to show us the equipment they use day-to-day. It’s instantaneous learning,” said Weber.

Teachers will experience more in-depth training as the semester continues.

“Because it’s live and interactive, it will be exciting for students. They’re not just looking at a textbook or watching a video. They’re interacting with someone else outside of the classroom,” said Christine Street, Zdi business development account manager.

Rebecca Henderson, owner of Smartpath Education Services through B-N STEM and the Economic Development Council, said she hopes the technology will encourage students to explore more career fields in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“This exposes them to different industries, many that are in their own backyard of Bloomington-Normal. Having an expert available to have a conversation with the whole class makes for a more enhanced experience,” she said. “The more access students have to industry experts, the better.”


Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, http://bit.ly/2v4X5hT


Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com

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