Hughson introduces new tool to better connect teachers, students
Posted on 01/05/2021
OWL device in the classroom

Bridging the gap between distance learning and face-to-face instruction has been a challenge since the COVID-19 pandemic physically separated teachers and students in March. And while instructors have cleverly and creatively adapted lessons to a Zoom environment, not everything translates perfectly online.


Education experts know that learning, in most cases, is best accomplished in person. Connections can be made between teachers and students, and trusting relationships built. Ideas can be explained and questions immediately addressed.


In the Hughson Unified School District, teachers, principals and administrators are excited about a new technology tool that provides a more robust classroom link. Known as Owl, it is being used by more than 2,000 K-12 and college campuses nationwide, though Hughson is believed to be one of the first districts in Stanislaus County to employ it.


Owl is a video conferencing technology. It has a camera that tracks the person speaking in the classroom in any direction. Teachers can move away from their computer stations and the students watching at home on Zoom still can see and hear what is happening on a split-screen view. That’s important in hybrid learning environments like Hughson, where half the students are in class and half are at home on any given day.


The Owl resembles the bird for which it’s named. It’s about 2 feet tall and cylindrically shaped, with camera eyes about where the bird’s eyes would be.


“With the Owl, I am able to leave my computer and still conduct class,” said Gary Grant, a seventh- and eighth-trade history teacher at Ross Middle School. “I am able to stand in the front of the room or walk around and the camera will still be focused on me.  Before, if I left my computer/webcam, the students would not be able to view what I was doing.”


Early in this school year, Assistant Superintendent Carrie Duckart and Information Technology Director Gabe Kovaks took the lead to research different options for video conferencing technology. Kovacs recommended the Owl because it worked with the Zoom platform that teachers already were using.


Convinced of their value, Hughson ordered 80 Owls – one for each K-12 classroom – at $900 each. The total cost of $72,000 was paid for through COVID relief funds that the district received from the state and federal governments.


“Originally, we thought we would buy four to have early adopters experiment with one at each campus,” Duckart explained. “But when it quickly became more of a reality that we would have K-5 students for hybrid in-person learning, we decided to buy 20 -- one for each hybrid in-person classroom in K-5. By late October, when we were discussing that we could have hybrid in-person learning for grades 6-12, we ordered the rest.”


The first Owls arrived in late October. In addition to Grant, another teacher who has pioneered their use is Brett Robertson, a fifth-grade instructor at Fox Road Elementary. He said he practiced for a couple of weeks, then rolled out the Owl in his classroom before the Thanksgiving break.


The students seemed to have adjusted to using the Owl pretty well,” Robertson said. “During math, I have had some pretty cool moments when I ask the students what they need to do next. I've had students both in class and at home students answer at the same time.  I have also done some reader's theater and some of the students who had a role would read their lines through the Owl.”


Another early adopter, Ross eighth-grade science teacher Chuck Eastham, said his biggest challenge has been to “figure out how to orient the Owl so you get maximum coverage of the classroom while maintaining the clarity of notes written on the board.” He likes the ability to keep the camera trained on the whiteboard rather than follow him around the room.


“Really, it just makes for a more natural teaching and learning experience,” Eastham said.


Monday, Robertson led a Zoom Owl training session for all Hughson teachers. The goal is for the entire staff at all four campuses to begin using Owls as soon as possible.


“I love tech and I love kids,” Robertson told his colleagues. “I want to make this work as best as possible for you guys.”


Over the course of 75 minutes, he provided a variety of tips and suggestions gleaned from his own experience using the Owl. He also encouraged teachers to be flexible and experiment with different audio, video and presentation settings based on their own comfort levels and the needs of their students.


“So far, it’s been pretty good,” Robertson said. “I’ve been going through to tweak it to make it work best for me. It might be different for those of you at high school or junior high school. What I want is to get kids to see what I’m seeing and understand what I’m saying.”


About two-thirds of Hughson’s 2,100 students are part of the district’s hybrid learning program, which allows them to come to campus twice a week and attend class remotely the other three days. The remaining students are 100% distance learning. Both groups are better served with the Owls, Duckart believes.


“The intention is to allow teachers the ability to teach more effectively with students in front of them and those from home at the same time,” she said. “For the students, it is a more engaging environment for those learning from home to feel like they are more a part of the classroom.”


And even after COVID vaccines have been administered, all students are back in class and campus life returns to normal sometime in the 2021-22 school year, Duckart said the district’s investment in the Owls will still be a wise one. She mentioned students with chronic illnesses where teachers have to come to their homes or students on long-term independent study. Both groups will be easier to reach with the Owls.


“These are just some of the ways we think it might help students to keep up their grades and keep learning with their peers, depending on their personal situation,” she said. “We see their use for board meetings and we are excited about other opportunities they may bring that we haven't thought of yet.”
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