As Classroom Technology Support Administrator, Brian Leas and his team at Missouri State University’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning are spearheading a project to install Zoom Rooms across campus.

Feb 23 2021

With Hybrid Learning on the Rise, Higher Ed Sees a Zoom Room Boom

The pandemic has led many colleges and universities to equip more of their classrooms with web conferencing technologies.

Like just about everything having to do with 2020, it started back in early spring. The pandemic had yet to arrive at Missouri State University, but in a way, it may as well have for Brian Leas.

A classroom technology support administrator with the university’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, Leas had just received word from higher up that the school needed more dedicated web conferencing rooms. MSU already had nearly a dozen set up as part of the infrastructure for its popular distance-learning programs, but with COVID-19 and the switch to hybrid learning, it was clear that wouldn’t be nearly enough. His April marching orders, Leas recalls, “were to get as many of these rooms going as you can, and to do it as fast as possible.”

To that end, Leas and his tech team worked with digital solutions provider Legrand to equip 50 Zoom-capable rooms over the course of a week and a half before the fall semester. They settled on a kit that came with everything they needed, and that they could install in as little as two hours.

Missouri State University Zoom Room

A Missouri State University Zoom Room. Source: Missouri State University

Each space includes a Vaddio pan-tilt-zoom camera cabled to a Luxul Power over Ethernet switch. Small spherical microphones hang from the ceiling — in most cases, at the front of the room — and all components are wired to a Vaddio EasyIP Decoder.

“The decoder is the brains of the whole thing,” Leas says. Pulling audio and video through the room’s network switch, the AV-over-IP solution converts the feed into a USB stream for a connected PC and one or more monitors. All an instructor has to do to teach and interact with students is launch the videoconferencing platform of his or her choice.

“The biggest thing we get from these rooms is flexibility,” Leas says. “Teachers like that they can just walk right in and easily start everything up,” with students in the same space, in another classroom or even connected from a site off-campus. “The feedback we’ve received is that they’re going to be useful no matter what happens with the pandemic, whether we’re remote or hybrid or we’re eventually back to normal.”

How Educators Can Teach From Anywhere

A growing number of colleges and universities have come to the same conclusion: At a time when no one can predict what higher education will look like two weeks down the road, these rooms enable pedagogical versatility — the ability to teach and learn in any scenario.

At smaller schools, such as the University of South Carolina College of Nursing, a handful of rooms outfitted with videoconferencing technology is more than enough to meet faculty and staff needs. Then there are institutions like the University of Pittsburgh, which has 180 such rooms and counting.

In Pitt’s case, the videoconferencing rooms were created for an initiative called Flex@Pitt, says Jeffrey Rhoades, an IT service owner at the university.

“The idea is to build flexibility into the teaching model so that depending on the day and the status of the pandemic, you can teach or attend your class safely and effectively,” he says.

 Brian Leas, Classroom Technology Support Administrator,  Faculty Center for Teaching and  Learning, Missouri State University
The feedback we’ve received ­ is that they’re going to be useful no ­matter what happens with the pandemic, whether we’re remote or hybrid or we’re eventually back to normal.”

Brian Leas Classroom Technology Support Administrator, Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, Missouri State University

Each room is equipped with one of two Poly Studio videoconferencing devices (the X30, which connects to one monitor, or the X50, which can support two) with a built-in camera, microphone and speakers. The system comes loaded with the Zoom software and is managed by IT through an admin interface.

“You can change all the default Zoom Room settings so it works exactly the way you want it to work,” Rhoades explains. One function, for example, allows the administrator to schedule a session to automatically start and finish.

“It lets the instructor use the system remotely,” Rhoades says. “There may be students in the room watching and participating in the discussion, but the faculty member doesn’t actually have to be there.”

Do Zoom Rooms Have a Place in Higher Education's Future?

Another institution leaning heavily on its Zoom Rooms is Kent State Geauga in Burton, Ohio. A regional campus of Kent State University, Geauga recently doubled its videoconferencing space from one Zoom Room before the pandemic to two at the beginning of the fall semester.

Lance Williams, the university’s director of operations and special projects, describes the rooms as “multipurpose, hybrid-flexible solutions.” Faculty had used the original Zoom Room primarily to extend the reach of their in-person lectures to students tuning in from other Kent State sites, he explains. Now they’re using both spaces for a variety of conferencing configurations.

For example, an instructor might use a Zoom Room to record a lecture to be disseminated asynchronously later in the week, Williams says. Another might use the space to teach in real time, with students participating from home. Geauga’s staff and administrators often use the rooms for day-to-day business.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn these tech tips for colleges using Zoom.

“They’ve made it easier for us to connect with our affiliate regional campuses whenever we’d normally be meeting as a group,” he explains.

As Geauga and Kent State look ahead, Williams notes, they see Zoom Rooms and similar videoconferencing spaces becoming more and more important to the university’s mission. For one, he explains, they can be extremely cost-effective by reducing the number of faculty the institution needs to hire to provide instruction across multiple regional campuses. They can also make it easier for students to take the classes they need to graduate.

With that in mind, Williams says, it’s highly likely that Kent State Geauga will build additional Zoom Rooms in the coming months and years. The two spaces it already has have shown their value by helping to keep the campus together at a time when everyone has had to stay apart. In the future, he predicts, they may serve other purposes, “but they’ll still be all about making connections and about helping our students and our community at large.” 

Photography by Dan Videtich