Making the Grade: Meeting Owl is an essential tool for virtual learning

Building an IT system entirely on campus is one challenge, as is making one for completely remote is another challenging process. Trying to come up with solutions for when some kids are off-campus, and others are on is a daunting challenge, though. As we headed into summer, we knew that some of our kids would not return for the start of school regardless of what was going on in the world, so we wanted to be ready.

About Making The Grade: Every Saturday, Bradley Chambers publishes a new article about Apple in education. He has been managing Apple devices in an education environment since 2009. Through his experience deploying and managing 100s of Macs and 100s of iPads, Bradley will highlight ways in which Apple’s products work at scale, stories from the trenches of IT management, and ways Apple could improve its products for students.

We knew that we’d be using Zoom for the communications technology as we’d used it before, and we’d been quite happy. Zoom has had a wild 2020, but it’s the most accessible video conferencing software on the market. Our teachers were already familiar with how to use it, and our students already had it installed on their devices at home. Students receive an email each morning with meeting links for their scheduled classes. It takes a bit of work on the teacher’s end to set these meetings up, but it’s worked well for the most part.

We then set up Google Classroom to help facilitate the assigning of work and handle the turning in of work. We use FACTS SIS, and they have a built-in sync for Google Classroom that allows us to connect student accounts in Google Classroom back to their profile in FACTS. With this integration, the grades sync from Google Classroom back to FACTS SIS.

Meeting Owl

Our next decision was how to improve the camera and audio quality in the classroom. I am certainly not an audiovisual expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I know enough to know that the built-in camera on the 2020 MacBook Air wasn’t going to provide an excellent experience for the students. Why Apple still includes such a low-quality camera in brand new laptops, I’ll never know, but I hope that changes with the transition to Apple Silicon. We decided to invest in Meeting Owl Cameras. Each teacher that has virtual students has one in their classroom hooked up to their Mac. The camera is also connected directly to Wi-Fi to download new software upgrades and be controlled from an iOS device. The camera shows a 360-degree view, has a high definition camera, and eight microphones that will pick up from 12 feet away. We were using them during our back to school meetings, and we had a few teachers who watched from home, and they even joked they could hear conversations they usually wouldn’t have been able to hear from other tables.

Setting up the cameras is pretty straight forward. Once it’s connected to Wi-Fi, you plug up to your computer over USB. In Zoom, the Meeting Owl then becomes your camera, speakers, and microphone. We quickly ran into issues where it wouldn’t connect to the Mac. It wasn’t just one of them, but all of them. After researching the problem online, I found that Meeting Owl doesn’t work well with most USB C adaptors. The Owl comes with a Micro USB to USB A cable, and we were using an adaptor to connect them to our Macs. Meeting Owl works best when using Apple’s adaptor or a direct cable. I opted for the direct cables because it would be one less adaptor to have to keep up with for teachers. Since we swapped those cables, it’s been flawless.

Wrap up on hybrid learning solutions

By combining Zoom, Google Classroom, and the Meeting Owl Cameras, we’ve built a robust solution that’s easy to implement, easy to use for both students and teachers alike, and is easy to maintain for the IT department. The critical thing to remember to build solutions that require as few things as possible to simplify training. There are numerous additional services and solutions you could add, but my advice is to keep it as simple.

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