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Expanding a Virtual Academy Teacher’s View; Piloting a Tech Unit that Benefits Students and Teachers

Teaching virtual students When Lindsey Mack, a virtual academy teacher at Windermere Boulevard Elementary School, wants to see all her remote fifth-grade students on one screen, she can. Thanks to a new piece of equipment the school is piloting in three virtual classrooms, she can see all her students’ expressions to know if they are confused or if they are understanding the lesson. 


Nicknamed the TIGER CMS, the technology unit facilitates remote teaching through a smart-board-sized monitor and video conferencing camera, all on a movable frame. The official name of the product created by Ink Labs of Buffalo is the Technology InteGrated Educational Resource Collaborative Media System.


Using it, Ms. Mack can see every student’s face “tiled” in squares all on one screen. She’s looking at them on a large 55-inch monitor with a high-definition camera, and using a wireless microphone, keyboard and mouse. She can see if students are engaged and focused, adjust instruction to keep them engaged and manage any behavior issues easier than she could using a desktop or laptop. 


“Offering a Virtual Academy as an option for our students at the elementary level required our teachers to transition their delivery of instruction to an online format,” said Lynn Shanahan, Ph.D., assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and technology for Amherst Central School District.


“We knew that in face-to-face instruction, looking at the faces of students and reading their gestures revealed much information,” she said. “We wondered if we could interpret which students were perplexed or puzzled; actively engaged or participating through the 13-inch screen when a classroom has 20 students or 34 in a co-taught classroom. We asked, what was the impact of the device on delivering instruction with synchronous instruction?”


Educators know that the greatest cognitive growth for students occurs through social interaction with teachers and amongst peers. One solution to create these interactions and provide students with the opportunity to see their teacher in the classroom environment when learning online was the TIGER CMS.


“When we are in smaller groups for reading and math, it's great for being able to see their work when it's written down,” said Ms. Mack, who is also the building’s enrichment specialist. “They can hold up their paper or activity and I'm able to really see what they're doing. The TV also allows me to monitor the students' video while also monitoring what they're doing on Go Guardian on my second screen (laptop) so I don't have to keep shuffling windows around.”


For students, the CMS allows them to see more of the “teaching places” in their classroom. The teacher can pan, tilt, or zoom the camera to focus on any area of the room. The camera has up to nine presets that can be programmed for different locations in the room, such as a reading corner, a science center, or instructional bulletin boards hanging some place in the room. The teacher can tell remote students to meet her on the reading rug and with a click the camera pans and focuses on the reading rug.


Teacher using monitor “I've been using the camera for recorded read-alouds in the classroom,” said Amy Butzek, AIS reading teacher for grades 3-5. “Instead of the students just seeing the book on the document camera or my face only, I'm able to record from a distance in the classroom to bring the classroom experience and environment into their homes. It's been lovely!”


When students begin science, she anticipates it will be valuable for modeling experiments. The unit can also be used to record lessons for students to complete on asynchronous days when they get assignments from their teachers to work on independently.


“I love how I can see their work while teaching small groups,” said Kristen Shouldice, virtual academy second-grade teacher. “Students hold up their personal whiteboards, workbooks, or organizers and I can clearly see their thinking. The zoom options and swivel camera have also been great. I can zoom in on anchor charts and my whiteboard as needed.”


The pilot program is a collaborative one where the Windermere Boulevard teachers give ongoing feedback to Ink Labs on how they are using the unit.


“We knew early on that basic webcams and small laptop/desktop computer screens weren’t going to cut it regarding distance learning,” said Bill Naab, chief innovation officer for Ink Labs.


“The feedback we received from the Windermere teachers clearly told us that they were looking for a more natural teaching experience. They wanted a camera to capture and stream their instruction as they moved freely around the classroom so they could better engage the remote students, and they were looking for an easy way to see all their students on something bigger and better than a traditional computer screen.”


teaching virtually One key element that led to Amherst’s success in the pilot has been the importance of having an instructional technology specialist in-house to assist teachers. Donna Frymire, technology integration specialist, played an important role in helping the three teachers merge the use of the stand with the various online instructional programs the district uses.


“The absolute, greatest benefit is to see all of the class at one time and on that larger scale,” said Mrs. Butzek. “We miss their real-life faces, so this has been a wonderful addition to what we started with at the beginning of the year.”


Mrs. Shouldice agreed, saying the unit has been extremely helpful with seeing the students while teaching whole group lessons. “I can actually see the students and better meet their needs by monitoring their active participation,” she said.


“If you think of learning on a continuum, the teachers are emerging in their understanding of the potential of this tool and through more experience using it to deliver instruction, I am confident that they will continue to unearth and harness its potential,” said Dr. Shanahan. “This pilot unveils the power in technology companies like Ink Labs and school districts taking a collaborative solution-oriented approach to transform teaching.”