Flex@Pitt technology gets good reviews from faculty after demos

Instructor shown on monitor



Find the rooms that are equipped with the Flex@Pitt Hybrid Classroom Technology on the registrar’s website. For more information about the equipment, visit technology.pitt.edu/flexatpitt.

How do you Flex@Pitt? The term has been ubiquitous this summer at the University, but many still aren’t sure how this hybrid teaching and learning method will work.

A group of faculty from the Department of Economics in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences got to try out the equipment recently in one of the larger classrooms on the ground floor of Posvar Hall and one of the smaller ones on the fourth floor. 

Luca Rigotti, associate professor of Economics and vice chair for Faculty Development and Diversity, said the beauty of the Radiant Technologies equipment Pitt is using is “the setup is the same in all the rooms.”

“As a teacher, I just want to go in and do my class and focus on my material and not have to worry: Is the technology going to work? Is this room different from that?” Rigotti said. “They did that part very well.”

The Radiant equipment, according to the Pitt IT website, includes:

  • 43-inch stand monitor: The screen faces the front of the room to allow instructors to see remote participants

  • Auto-framing camera: The camera automatically follows the instructor within three pre-set views: podium view, front-focus view and broad-focus view.

  • 8-inch Zoom Room touchpad: The user-friendly controller allows for one-button launching and controlling of a Zoom videoconferencing meeting.

  • Speaker and microphone: These provide clear audio for Zoom participants, and allows remote and in-class participants to hear each other.

Description of Zoom Room touchpad

Patty Beeson, an Economics professor and former provost, said the “aha moment” for many who participated in the demos was realizing you can take your iPad or Chromebook, or whatever device houses your lecture materials, and plug it in and either project your slides in the classroom, or if you’re teaching remotely, you can just put it on the computer screen for everyone to see.

One issue they did discover was that material on a write-on white board was difficult for those working remotely to see, said Economics Professor Marla Ripoll, who sat in on the demo from her home to see how students would experience the class. This can be solved by writing on the iPad or other tablet, which would be projected on the in-classroom screen and also to those at home.

What exactly will this all look like? Let’s break down some scenarios:

SCENARIO 1: Faculty member in classroom, with some students in person and some remote

Faculty will plug their device into a touchscreen unit, connected to a large TV monitor in the room. After the instructor starts the Zoom call, the monitor will display the students who are joining the class remotely. The monitor has a camera that faces toward the professor and any screen behind them. This way, students working remotely can see the professor and whatever is on the screen in the classroom. Rigotti said the camera is motion sensitive and will follow the instructor to some extent.

“It sounds complicated but in fact it’s super easy,” said Rigotti, who admits he is very comfortable with technology. “You go to the room, you turn on the machine that connects to your Zoom call, and then turn on the projector and then … you just teach.”

“The beauty of this, I think, you don’t need to be technically adept to operate it the way they designed it,” he said.

​Rigotti, Beeson and Ripoll all said that the audio quality was excellent. A powerful microphone allows students at home to hear the professor and comments from students in the classroom.

Ripoll said she planned to have teaching assistants monitor the chat in Zoom, so she can respond to questions from the students working remotely and not just those in the classroom.

SCENARIO 2: Faculty member at home, with some students in the classroom and some remote

In this scenario, the faculty member connects to the same Zoom classroom as the students who are remote. The equipment in the classroom will need to be turned on by a student. Instructions will be provided in each class.

The instructor or any materials they wish to display will be projected on the existing overhead monitors for those in the classroom to see and will appear on the computer screens of those tuning in remotely.

The one drawback, Rigotti said, was that the instructors can’t see the students who are in the classroom unless they all sign onto the Zoom meeting as well. “If you’re not there and everything is on Zoom, I think the incentive to go to the classroom is lower,” he said.

SCENARIO 3: Asynchronous instruction

In both of the first two scenarios, the class will be recorded, so those in distant time zones can watch them at a more convenient time.

Ripoll said the Panopto recording they viewed included whatever was being projected onto the screen from the instructor’s iPad — from something written down to PowerPoint slides — and a video of the faculty member teaching right beside the slides.

SCENARIO 4: Faculty and students are all working remotely

This will work similarly to how classes were conducted in the spring, with the instructor connecting with students synchronously through Zoom or asynchronously through recorded lectures.

Learning and being creative

Beeson, who says she’s not very technology literate, said she’s been excited to learn new techniques. “What’s nice is there’s so much online to help you figure it out,” she said.

She found a device online that she can use to mount her cell phone to become a document camera. “I’m the least technological of anyone, but I figured out how to use the cell phone to do that, how to connect it into Zoom, how to make it so it didn’t autofocus. I did in about a half an hour.

“The faculty are pretty clever and creative, so it’s going to be interesting see how that all works out,” Beeson said. “It could be that some people come up with really clever ideas. It could also be that, in the end, the students decide it’s just as easy to sit in their dorm room in their jammies.”

She said after talking to colleagues and students after the spring semester, she was really impressed with what the faculty did.

“I think, by and large, people were really earnest in their attempts, and just from the comments our students gave, … they really appreciated the effort. There were bumps in the road learning the technology, and I don’t think the students are going to be so forgiving in the fall.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.


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