Hybrid Physics Labs with “Astronauts” and “Experts”

Hybrid Physics Labs with “Astronauts” and “Experts”

College physics labs were conducted with half the students physically in the room, each working with a remote lab partner. Since this is similar to how NASA astronauts perform experiments on the International Space Station (ISS), those roles came to be called “Astronauts” and “Experts.”  Emphasizing the connection Astronauts, NASA, and the ISS seems to have helped students deal with the unusual circumstances of labs conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic created some significant challenges for higher education, especially for laboratory classes, which involve hands-on interaction with equipment and face-to-face collaboration with lab partners. But as it turns out we were able to meet those challenges and execute close to our full set of weekly physics labs, with some modifications and inconvenience but with no significant disruptions. Since this worked for us we want to record the details of how we did it and share that information with others in case it proves to be helpful.

The basic idea was to have half the students working with the apparatus in the room, appropriately distanced,  while the other half joined the class remotely via a video teleconference.1 As is often the case in a normal lab session, the instructor presented information and instructions to the entire class at the beginning, though to minimize this students were also provided with pre-recorded videos about the equipment and procedures, which they were supposed to view before class. After the initial briefing, students were then paired up as lab partners, with one of them in the room and the other remote, using the break-out group feature of the teleconferencing software. Each pair of students then collaborated to perform the experiment: taking measurements, recording and sharing data, and analyzing and interpreting their data together.

There were many small technical details that had to be worked out to make this all possible. Only after we had it all working did one of us realize that this is similar to how NASA astronauts perform experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). While astronauts are intelligent and well trained, they are also busy and cannot be experts on every experiment they perform  — and they perform many during a typical mission. During an experiment the astronauts are therefore linked by audio and video to one or more experts on the ground (see Figure 1), and together they go through the necessary steps to collect the required data, and to deal with the inevitable questions or difficulties that always show up during any experiment. (See also Astronaut Log below for a good video.)

Figure 1: Astronaut Peggy Whitson working with “expert” Nicole Dufour from the Veggie experiment on the ISS in 2017.

We found it useful to play-up the parallels between this lab format and the way astronauts work with experts to perform experiments on the ISS, not because it helped teach physics concepts better, but because we felt it helped make this unusual way of doing lab experiments seem less unusual. Given all the other changes to society due to the pandemic, making some of it seem more normal, or even cool, seemed useful.  And it seemed to have had that effect. Students responded positively to being called an Astronaut or an Expert, and in some cases students even wore clothing with a NASA logo or a space theme. Feedback on the end of semester course evaluation was positive (see Student Feedback below).

Getting this all to work required a lot of particular choices regarding technology and how to use it. As they say, the devil is in the details. Those details are listed below.

Working out all the technical details that made this all possible raised a number of fundamental questions about teaching physics and physics labs. What are the elements of the course that were most important to preserve?  What could we modify without doing too much pedagogical damage?  Why not just go full remote? Reflecting on these questions made us more aware of some things that we already knew intuitively. Physics labs give students hands-on experience with the concepts they are learning or will soon learn in the related lecture course, and the lab experiments provide live demonstrations of the principles in action. But there’s more than that. Physics is… physical, and so students learn better when they can actually see what happens in a live experiment and can control and change parameters of the system. Our labs also involve data analysis, but there is much more to the class than just data analysis; it is direct, experiential learning. Labs also provide students with many small challenges they have to overcome to get the equipment working, and that is also valuable experience. Although it is often possible (and sometimes desirable) for students to work alone, lab students often work together in pairs (or sometimes three’s). Sometimes this is necessary just to work a particular piece of equipment, but in any case working together adds to the educational experience, just as peer instruction is a useful addition to the lecture course. Learning to work together with someone else on a common task or project is a valuable skill in any academic subject, as well as in life in general.

Finally, we found that some of the changes we made due to the pandemic turned out to be useful in general and will be kept in the course after the virus has been subdued. So we hope and expect that some of the details below will be useful even after this plague has passed.

The Details

  1. Physical Layout: The physical modifications to the laboratory were minor (mainly moving tables and chairs), and are described in more detail in Appendix A. We were able to arrange the rooms to allow half the normal number of students to be in each room at the same time, with at least 2 meters (over 6 feet2) between students (or the instructor) when they were at a normal working position at the middle of the table. It was expected that students might get closer from time to time as they worked with the equipment, and that the instructor would move through the classroom to provide assistance, even if they tried to keep some distance between them and the student while doing so. Every student and instructor wore a mask at all times. (Students could leave the building for a mask break during the 2 hour class period, but few chose to do so. The instructor could also go to another room or office for a mask break — see Remote Instructor Assistance below)
  2. Mission Roster: Keeping track of the students who would come in to the room (the “Astronauts”) and those who would join remotely (the “Experts”) added complexity to class organization, which was managed to a certain extent with a “Mission Roster” form (pdf here). Figure 2 shows the top of the form, which provided for 10 groups of 2 students.
    Figure 2: Mission Roster for planning each class meeting (top only).

    The first line, marked “A” for Astronaut, is for the name of the student who will be in the classroom. The second line, marked “E” for “Expert” is for the student who will be partnered with them. For the first day of class, students were paired by common declared academic major. After a few weeks the pairings were changed, either by necessity or to give students experience with working with more than just one other person.

    It was wise to use pencil to fill in the chart, as changes sometimes had to be made shortly before class started. After a few class meetings, this record of who had played which role helped when balancing out role assignments for future class meetings.

  3. COVID-19 Screening: in order to come onto campus every student had to complete a daily on-line health screening. The date of the last successful screening is shown to the instructor in an on-line course roster. It was important to verify well before class that the “Astronaut” students had all passed their screening on the day of class. The check boxes on the Mission Roster form were used to record a successful daily screening. In most cases when a student had not filled in the form early in the day they at least completed it within an hour before class, but in some cases students could not attend because of the need to quarantine due to possible exposure to someone who was infected, or even if they just reported feeling a bit under the weather. In that case the instructor had to quickly arrange for someone else to come in as an “Astronaut”.
  4. Pre-Lab Videos: Brief videos were prepared showing the equipment to be used in the experiment(s) and demonstrating the procedure. Students were encouraged to view these before class. We found the free Open Broadcasting Software (OBS, at https://obsproject.com/) useful for preparing these videos, especially for multi-camera shots. We also found it was better to make several short videos focused on a single narrow topic rather than one longer video containing everything. A lecture capture camera already installed in the room proved to be less useful than webcams that could be positioned close to the equipment. Student feedback was favorable (see Student Feedback below).
  5. Video Meeting Software: Our campus uses Blackboard for course content management, and that includes a video meeting system called Blackboard Collaborate Ultra (BBCU), so that was used for all class meetings. One important feature of BBCU is that it makes it extremely easy to share a second camera, either for use as a document camera (see Document Camera below) or for the remote lab partner to get a better view of what is going on (see Second Camera below). Other video meeting software could have been used, but it should be noted that while Zoom also makes it fairly easy to share a second camera, WebEx does not.[3 I will link here to another page that gives more details for a wide range of Video Meeting systems.] Having the video meeting integrated into the standard course content management system made things much simpler. One disadvantage of BBCU is that it only shows a few faces at a time during a video meeting, not the whole “Brady Bunch/Hollywood Squares” matrix display of everybody. But given that most students wanted to keep their cameras off this was not a significant issue.
  6. Coms Check: Instead of simply calling the roll at the beginning of the class, we had “Coms Check,” (Communications Check) where each student answered when their name was called, to verify two-way audio communications, and they also turned on their camera to verify that video worked. Most students preferred to join the class with cameras off, at least until they began working with their partner (and many even after that phase of the class had begun).
  7. Room Audio System:  Audio feedback was a problem if any of the laptops in the room were in the video meeting and did not have their speakers muted during the initial lab briefing, when the instructor was talking to the class with students both in and out of the room. It was therefore important to have everyone in the room mute their sound, and the key sequence for this (Fn+F1 for Dell laptops) was written on the whiteboard.We initially tried to use wired or wireless headsets for the instructor to avoid audio feedback during the initial briefing, but that proved to be unnecessary, as our Instructional Media Services (IMS) team was able to configure the room audio system so that remote student audio was broadcast on the room speakers, but there was no feedback. That way remote students could ask a question and everyone in the room could hear them. This was accomplished using a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Generation).
  8. Remote Student Location:  The “Experts” who joined the class remotely were generally at home or in their dorm room.3  We realized late in the semester that we could have the Expert lab partners in any other classroom on campus that would allow them to join the video meeting while maintaining appropriate distance — and we had such a room right next to the lab. (These students would, of course, have to successfully pass their daily screening to be allowed on campus.) We only used this occasionally when there was confusion about which student was scheduled to be the “astronaut” or whether or not a student was actually cleared to be on campus, but we hope to use this more next semester. In general though, when offered the opportunity to join the class from an on-campus room but not the lab room, students preferred to work from home.
  9. Seating Chart: The tables in the room were numbered, and the chart shown in Figure 2 (see Appendix A) was attached to the Instructor’s station. During Coms Check the instructor recorded on the Mission Roster form the number of the table at which each student sat, in case that information was needed for contact tracing (thankfully it never was).
  10. Group Assignments: Pairs of students were assigned group numbers ahead of time, from 1 to 9, which were used to assign them to break-out groups. BBCU uses numbered break-out groups. It turned out to be most efficient to tell the students their group number during the Coms Check (see Break-Out Groups  below).
  11. Recording Class Meetings:  Blackboard Collaborate Ultra made it easy to record class meetings, which allowed a student who missed class to view the same material presented to the class before performing a make-up. It could potentially also allow students to go back and review the instructor’s briefing, but we don’t know if anybody did. There was no point in continuing the recording after the briefing, though it was often the case that the instructor forgot to stop recording.
  12. Document Camera:  Several instructors used a document camera at the instructor station to present the initial lab briefing. Our particular document cameras fed output via HDMI to a projector in the room, so that students in the room were able to see it, but with an additional USB cable the same video was fed to the computer and into BBCU and shared as a second camera, allowing the remote students to also see what the instructor was writing. Details on how this worked are in a separate article, Using a Document Camera for ‘local+remote’ Instruction.
  13. White Board Camera: Other instructors preferred to present their initial lab briefing using the classroom white board. They presented to a camera set up on a tripod, and limited their use of the white board to only that part which was visible to the camera. Students in the room could see and hear the instructor, as could remote students. (Students in the room could also see the camera view on the laptop on their desk if they did not have a good view of the particular part of the white board the instructor was using.)
  14. Laptop Computers: We were fortunate that the computers in our two introductory labs had recently been updated to laptops running Windows 10 which included built-in cameras, which facilitated face-to-face video collaboration. A third lab room had been upgraded to small footprint desktops, and these required only an added camera to be used for videoconferencing. In any case, these computers were available for data collection and analysis, using Vernier’s Logger Pro software. The student in the room could easily share their screen with the remote student within BBCU. (See also Sharing Data below).
  15. Break-Out Groups: Blackboard Collaborate Ultra allows the video meeting to be broken up into numbered break-out groups. At first the instructor would assign students to these break-out groups after the lab briefing had been presented, but this took several minutes, and only took effect when the instructor pushed a final confirming button. We found instead that we could tell the students their group number, check a box that allowed them to change groups, and then have the computer assign them all to random groups of 2. They then quickly changed to the correct group.
  16. Ear Buds: At first we anticipated elevated noise in the room when students started talking to their remote partners, but with only half the students in the room it was actually quieter than a normal lab session. In testing during the summer we found that the built-in laptop microphones picked up sound from all around the room and did not give particular emphasis to the closest speaker. We therefore provided each student with a set of corded ear buds ($3.08 each on Monoprice, plus $10 shipping) which had a built-in microphone in the cord. The primary advantage of this was that the microphone close to the speaker’s mouth enhanced their speech over the other sounds in the room. The ear buds also helped the student hear their remote partner over the sound in the room.  About 70% of students used the provided ear buds, while 30%  chose to use their own devices, which included Bluetooth headsets or earbuds, since our laptops support Bluetooth.
  17. Second Camera: The built-in camera in the laptops provided on each table could allow lab partners to communicate face-to-face to collaborate on the experiment, but it was not very useful for viewing the equipment. We therefore provided each station with a second USB webcam which could be mounted on a stand and aimed at the equipment, so that the remote student could see more of what was going on. As already noted, BBCU makes it very easy for the local student to share the extra camera (as well as sharing the screen or a particular window on the screen). In the Physics 2 Lab we used the Logitech C270, which retails for about $40 each. In the Physics 1 Lab we used  a mixture of Logitech C910 and Logitech C920 cameras, which are more expensive, but we already had them available for video motion experiments. We chose the C910/920 cameras for the Physics 1 Lab because they have a wider field of view which was more helpful for the Mechanics experiments in that class, while the experiments in the Physics 2 Lab, which deal with electricity, magnetism, and optics, did not suffer from the slightly smaller field of view.During the summer, before the fall semester, we experimented with using a commodity home “nanny camera” because of concern that the market for webcams would be tight. That worked, but required students to access the camera via a separate app that they would have to install on their personal mobile device. When webcams became available we turned our focus to those. Details of the investigation of using “nanny cameras” are described in the separate article Potential Use of Steerable Consumer Home Cameras for “local+remote” Laboratory Instruction.
  18. Camera Stands: We experimented with a variety of different stands for holding the cameras, and even let the students try out different methods on their own. One of the best stands was a flexible “gooseneck” from AboveTEK  priced at about $30 each. (This also makes a good stand for a home document camera.)We attempted to build something similar using flexible metal sheathed electrical cable, but it did not work as well; one notable problem was that the camera vibrated more. In the end we settled on using our existing stock of bench clamps and vertical and horizontal metal rods held together with rod clamps, with the camera held in the fingers of a test tube holder. For some experiments in the Physics 2 Lab we mounted the test tube holder on a table top stand that presented a vertical metal rod about 2 feet long. This was useful for positioning the camera to view meters or Oscilliscopes.
  19. Remote Instructor Assistance: Once students were put into their break-out groups and began working in pairs on the experiment, it was possible for the instructor to go to their office or another room and join the class remotely. This  allowed them to visit each group to see how well the second camera was positioned to support the remote collaborator, to ask if they needed assistance, to answer any questions, and it also gave the instructor a mask break.Remote access for the instructor had to be configured before class, by using a “guest” link to the video session in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra to log in to the video meeting from the other room ahead of time, and then using the instructor’s account to promote that guest to “Moderator” status (giving them the same powers as the instructor).4 When logging in to the video meeting as a guest a name is requested, to be displayed on the video. (For authenticated users this info is just taken from the account info). To avoid confusion with the instructor’s account that was used in the classroom, the name given for this connection was “Mission Control.”
  20. Sharing Data: In some cases students collected data by writing down measurements in a notebook (a good task for the Expert, but we let the students decide how to do it). In other cases data and graphs were collected in files, and  a mechanism was needed to share those files from the laptop in the classroom with the remote student. The files also had to be transferred to some place that the Astronaut could use them later, because the classroom laptops were configured to reset after every logout, deleting any files a student had put on that computer. Several alternatives were available, but the easiest was for the Astronaut to save the files to a folder in their campus Google Drive account5  The Astronaut then shared that folder with their lab partner, and both had a common copy of the data. Sharing a folder once proved to be much easier than sharing individual files. When students were assigned a different lab partner they were reminded of this and encouraged to create and share the folder ahead of time.
  21. Astronaut Log: Following the idea that promoting the connection between our unusual lab format and how experiments are conducted on the ISS would help our students feel that it was all slightly less strange, one lab section set up a news feed about the ISS using Google Classroom (linked from the course web page in Blackboard, which does not have a news feed feature). This was open to all lab students, and indeed some joined from other sections, but it ended up being only posts by one instructor of current events and other relevant links about the ISS. It was totally optional and it was made clear to students that there was no grade for participation. During the semester there was always something in the news about the ISS, including a mysterious air leak. Using Google News and “Following” the topic “International Space Station” provided a steady stream of current events related to the ISS. YouTube has a wide variety of videos from the station. There is also a wealth of information about experiments on the ISS available from NASA. A good place to start is the ISS Researcher’s Guide Series.One of the best resources was the video in Figure 3, which shows an astronaut on the ISS cutting leaves off of plants grown in space while collaborating with a team on the ground. This really demonstrated how astronauts and experts were able to work together. If nothing else it showed our students that it was possible and gave them a working model.

    Figure 3. Video from 2017 showing experts on the ground working with an astronaut on the ISS to perform an experiment.

  22. Air Track pumps: Some experiments in the Physics 1 Lab used air tracks to reduce the friction of metal carts, which float on a cushion of air. The pressurized air is provided by a pump, much like a vacuum cleaner but run in reverse, and connected by a similar hose. We had some concerns about the blowing air spreading the virus from an asymtomatic or presymptomatic student, either because the air would spread the virus directly, or because the virus might be picked up by the pump and then blown out by the air track. After discussions with someone from our campus Health and Safety office it seemed that the air flow directly from the air track would not go beyond the work area of the student, due to the extra distance put between students. So that was not a big concern. Spreading the virus by droplets might be enhanced by the pump picking up the droplets and ejecting them into the room, but droplets sink to the floor,6 so we made sure that the pumps were always up on the table (which was already the case for all but one pump). We further put strips of vacuum cleaner bag to act as a filter over the intake of all pumps. We have no idea if these steps were actually useful, but they were relatively easy to implement and they do no harm.
  23. Clear Plastic Partitions: At one point it looked as if students using the air tracks in the Physics 1 Lab might spend more than just a brief time within 6 feet of each other while collecting data. We therefore hung thin clear plastic sheets7 between some student stations. This was relatively easy to do by folding the top of the curtain over a length of wooden dowel and then clipping it with common binder clips. This was hung from the ceiling using thin wires of a fixed length (insured by using a jig) with loops in both ends. The bottom loops were connected to the binder clips using common paper clips, while the top loops were clipped to the metal runners between ceiling tiles using Suspended Ceiling Hooks purchased at Home Depot. After some rearrangement of the air tracks we were able to have most students spend most of their time collecting data while at least 2.0 meters away from each other, but we left all of these partitions in place anyway.
  24. Room Ventilation: Our lab rooms are in a new building which has a variety of modern features, including very good ventilation.8 The thermostats in the lab rooms also monitor and display the CO2 level in the room, and experiments showed that if that level was elevated then the rate of ventilation would automatically increase — the fans could be heard spinning up within a minute of a significant increase. One consequence of this is that if an instructor felt the need to increase the ventilation manually then they could do so simply by blowing on the thermostat with a straw. This was tested, but never actually put into practice during a class. In any case, using CO2 levels as a proxy for measuring the need for ventilation is a useful tool.

Student Feedback

Student feedback on the “Astronauts & Experts” approach was generally positive. In the Student Evaluation of Instruction (SEI) survey for one section of the Physics 2 Lab at the end of the semester a question was added asking them directly how they felt about it. There were 9 out of 10 respondents (in a class section of 17 students) who responded favorably, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Student responses to a direct question on the end of semester survey (Student Evaluation of Instruction) regarding the Astronauts and Experts” approach.

When asked to “offer suggestions that would improve future versions of this course” one student wrote

Well done adaptation to lab considering Covid. The only better option would be smaller classes, enough so that students could all come in every week, but I doubt that is financially/logistically realistic.

Another student, asked to reflect on their overall experience in the course, wrote:

It was great to be able to actually go in for lab and actually do the physics. I’m really grateful that I was able to participate in this remote/in-person hybrid and I believe because of this I was able to be successful in this class and now I have a better understanding of physics 2.

Despite the doubts of the first student, one instructor who used the “Astronauts & Experts” approach in the Fall 2020 semester is going to try what that student described in Spring 2021, with half the students coming in at a time for full periods (and thus twice the teaching time for that instructor). It will certainly give those students more hands-on time with the apparatus and the instructor, though they will work alone and thus have less experience working with a partner. That is probably a reasonable trade-off.

Student feedback was also favorable for the prerecorded videos, as demonstrated in Figure 5. As can be seen, 80% of the respondents agreed that the videos made a valuable contribution to the course. We will likely keep using such videos even after the pandemic is over.

Figure 5: Response break-down for Student Evaluation of Instruction survey at the end of the semester regarding the pre-class videos.


Appendix A. Physical Layout

Our lab spaces use 3’×6′ tables which each seat two students and have a laptop computer which is used in many experiments for data acquisition using a LabPro device with LoggerPro software, both from Vernier, Inc. The tables were originally in neat rows, either facing the front of the room (Physics 1 Lab) or facing sideways to the front in parallel rows (Physics 2 Lab). To allow socially-distanced instruction the tables were moved around the room so that each student, sitting in the center of the table, was at least 2.00 meters (6′ 6.75″) from any other such student, and from the instructor’s position at the front of the classroom. It was expected that students would move away from that central position while performing their experiment(s), but this still insured that they would generally be at least 6′ away from each other. By not seeking symmetry and favoring increased distance we were able to create seats for half our normal class size (8 out of 16 for Physics 1 lab, 9 out of 18 for Physics 2 lab). Figure 6 shows the resulting arrangement for the Physics 2 Lab. Turning tables at 90° was an effective way to get proper spacing between students without taking more space than necessary due to the length of the tables.

Figure 6. Seating chart for Physics 2 Lab room with increased distance between student stations. Shaded areas were not available to students, and some were used to store extra chairs.

Tables 7, 3, and 12 were not used for normal instruction, because a student seated there would be too close to other students seated nearby. That leaves 9 student stations. (One instructor wanted to have only 6 students in the room, with increased social distancing. That was accomplished by using the middle tables 7 and 3 along with tables 1 and 5 on the far left and  10 and 11 on the far right.)

The number of chairs was reduced to just one per table, with the extras either stored between table 10 and tables 12 and 8, or roped off between tables 1 and 2. The goal was to avoid giving students an opportunity to sit down next to a friend, even for a little while.

The Physics 1 Lab was less asymmetrical. In that lab we had room to spread the tables apart and turn them at angles to each other to increase space between students while still allowing them all to face the instructor’s station at the front of the room. The number of chairs was again reduced by parking some of them in unused, inaccessible space between the instructor station and the nearest table. A few others were tied in place in spaces between tables to prevent students from passing through and thus too close to another student.


We want to thank the NASA Office of STEM Engagement at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at the Goddard Space Flight Center in New York City for useful information about how NASA conducts experiments on the ISS and for pointers to other relevant information, especially for the video shown above.

We also want to thank the team from our Instructional Media Services (IMS) office, who made the classroom technology work so well for us, especially whatever magic they worked to allow the instructor and students in the room (the “near side”) to hear and speak with the remote students (the “far side”). And we thank our Instructional Technology Services (ITS) office for facilitating the use of the Google Classroom stream for the Astronaut Log.

Thanks also go to our office of Environmental Health & Safety for their guidance and suggestions on how to best deal with our air tracks.

Notes and References

  1. In general SUNY refers to any class that has both on-line and in-person components as hybrid, whether those components are synchronous or not. Lacking an existing term, I have referred to synchronous hybrid instruction as “local+remote,” while SUNY later came to call this Extended Virtual Learning (EVL). For details see the page COVID-19 Educational Technology Glossary.
  2. 2.00 m = 6′ 6.75″
  3. One student joined one early class session from her car.
  4. This was all necessary because Blackboard Collaborate Ultra only allows an authenticated user to join a video meeting once. Other video platforms (such as Zoom) allow multiple logins from the same account, so these extra steps would not be needed.
  5. After this year our campus will switch to using Microsoft OneDrive, but it seems likely this will be about the same thing.
  6. Smaller particles, called aerosols do not sink, or at least not as quickly.
  7. They were, in fact, clear shower curtains from a $1 store.
  8. Though the building ventilation system has sometimes worked too well – see This Building Sucks (Literally)

COVID-19 Educational Technology Glossary

The novel (i.e. new) coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has prompted novel (i.e. new) terminology in the field of educational technology.  To keep track of it all, I’ve started this glossary page, which I will update from time to time.   I welcome additions, either in the comments or by email.  I am solely responsible for any mistakes or misconceptions.

COVID-19 – The disease caused by the virus now known as SARS-CoV-21

SARS-CoV-2 – The official name of the virus that causes COVID-19.2

Hybrid – A course which is partially taught in person and partially taught online (no other specification).3

Synchronous – literally “at the same time.”   A course which meets at a regularly scheduled time, whether it is in-person or online.

Synchronous online – a course which is strictly online and strictly synchronous.

Asynchronous – a course where activities are done on the student’s own schedule without specifically scheduled meetings.  The opposite of synchronous.

Asynchronous online – From Open SUNY:4100% of the direct instruction occurs under time delay; that is, direct instruction is recorded/stored and accessed later.”   In other words, this course is strictly online with no synchronous component.

Combined online – online instruction (only on-line) which is a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous instruction  (from Open SUNY Online Learning Definitions).   Some people might shorten this to just combined.

Blended – At SUNY New Paltz, at least, the term has been used to mean a course “that includes asynchronous and synchronous online elements.”5.   It might seem at first that this is another term for combined online, but note that combined online requires only on-line instruction, while this definition of blended does not, it only “includes” it.

Local+Remote – a hybrid course which is synchronous, with some students in the classroom and others joining remotely, all at the same time.  This could be a lecture class or a lab. (I coined this myself because nothing else covers this specific combination and I needed a term for it.)

Full Remote – a hybrid course where all students are outside of the classroom.  This could be synchronous or asynchronous.

Half-Remote – a hybrid course where half the students are in the classroom and half the students are remote.  This refers primarily to a synchronous course, in which case see Local+Remote above, but might be used for a class where the remote cohort works on assignments asynchronously.

Hyflex – According to OpenSUNY6  “Combines online and face-to-face instruction simultaneously into one single course section.  Students are able to participate in class in different ways: as asynchronous distance learner (via real-time, video- streaming); as an asynchronous distance learner (accessing materials, recorded lectures, and responding at a later time); as a face-to-face learner (physically present in the classroom); or as a flexible learner (with a degree of choice as to how they participate each week; sometimes face-to-face, sometimes by streaming class sessions, etc.). (New code as of Fall 2019)”  Official classification as a hyflex class requires strict certification that all modes are possible and supported, so don’t use this term unless the course is certified for hyflex.

Extended Virtual Learning (EVL) – essentially the same as Local+Remote (see above).   This first appeared in a chart distributed to the campus community on 10 August 2020 with the definition “A face-to-face class where, at the same time, some students attend in-person while others attend via a remote, synchronous web-conferencing session.”    In online course listings this is abbreviated as “EVL”.7

Split-Shifts – having half the class come during the first half of the period, and the other half of the class come during the second half of the period.  Or a third of the class coming in for a third of the scheduled time.   More appropriate for longer class meetings or labs.  Alternatively, the allocated time can be doubled and then half the class comes during one full period, and then the other half comes for another full period.

Every-Other – an arrangement where one part of the class attends in person on one day, while the other part of the class attends on another day.   For example, if the class has a room reserved on Tuesday and Thursday, then half the class comes in on Tuesday, and the other half comes in on Thursday.

Beak Peaker – a person who is wearing a mask, but their nose is peaking out over the top of it.8

Mask Slacker – a person who does not wear a mask (when they should?).  Originally used during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic (at least on the west coast9).

Covidiot – a person who engages in risky practices regarding COVID-19.  A portmanteau word from COVID-19 and idiot.10

Rat-Licker – From the Urban Dictionary:11 A person who refuses to wear a mask during an outbreak of an airborne virus such as Covid-19. (A reference to the idea of licking a rat during the bubonic plague).

References and Notes

Local+Remote Lab Classes

Local+Remote Lab Classes

This article explains a potential way to teach physics lab classes in the time of COVID-19, in a way that gives students some hands-on experience with the equipment and preserves the collaborative element of working as lab partners. (750 words)

Planning for teaching physics labs in the Fall of 2020 is fraught with difficulties.   One way we might teach labs is to use video conferencing software and extra webcams to allow students to work together to collect real data using real laboratory equipment, in what I refer to as a local+remote arrangement1  (this may also be referred to as EVL.2)  Here’s how it might work:

  1. The class would meet at the scheduled time, but with only half of the students in the classroom and the other half  joining via video. Each student would log in to Blackboard and join the class using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.  The students in the classroom would use the existing laptops for this, which all have a camera and a microphone.  The instructor would also join the video meeting, even though they are in the room (or maybe they are not?)
  2. It’s often the case that the instructor provides the whole class some background information or special instructions at the beginning of the class.  Some of this could be provided via a video recording before class, but the instructor could also present to the entire class by using the document camera. The images from the document camera would be transmitted to the remote students via Blackboard, but could also be shown to the local students using the room projector system. Details on how to use the document camera this way are given here.
  3. When students are ready to begin the experiment, the instructor can assign them to “break-out rooms” in Blackboard, putting one local student and one remote student together as lab partners. The lab partners can see each other and talk to each other to collaborate, but each group is independent of the others.
  4. A webcam is attached to the laptop in the classroom, and the local student can point it at the equipment and share the video from the camera with the remote student. (See Figure 1.)  This would give the remote student a more complete experience of the exercise, even though they are not in the room. Sharing video from an external webcam in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is just as easy as sharing the screen or sharing an application window.3

    Figure 1: Webcam pointed at a physics lab experiment, and shared via Blackboard Collaborate Ultra
  5. If students working together have a question they can use the “raise my hand” feature in Blackboard to get the attention of the instructor, who can then join their break-out room to help them. If the instructor can answer questions or give guidance via the video link then they do not even have to remain in the room.  The instructor could do this from their office or another room.  If something breaks, or if there is another reason the instructor has to be in the room, then they can assist the local student in person, but then leave the room (or return to the instructor station) when they are done.
  6. If data are saved in files (eg. from Logger Pro) then those data files can and should be shared with the remote student before the lab session is over.  (Ideally the instructor will remind the local student to do so before they leave the room.)  The students may need to be reminded that the computers erase any files saved on them when they reboot.

Notes and References

  1. The term “hybrid” means a course that has both-in person and remote components, but nothing more.  I have been using the term “local+remote” to mean a hybrid class which is synchronous (meets at a certain specified time) where some of the students are in the classroom while others join via the computer, all at the same time.
  2. In an official chart of teaching modalities distributed to our campus community in early August this is referred to as “Extended Virtual,” with the abbreviation “EVL” in on-line course lists.  I don’t like that this is likely to be pronounced “evil”.
  3. It’s also just as easy to share an extra camera in Zoom, except that the option is in the “Advanced” part of the Zoom sharing menu.  WebEx does not (yet?) offer the option of sharing an extra webcam, though you can switch your video to a different camera (which is not quite as good).

Potential Use of Steerable Consumer Home Cameras for “local+remote” Laboratory Instruction

Potential Use of Steerable Consumer Home Cameras for “local+remote” Laboratory Instruction

In this article I report what I’ve learned so far about the possibility of using steerable consumer home monitoring cameras (“nanny cams”) to allow students to work together on laboratory exercises, with one student in the room and one (or more?) participating using the video and audio from the camera.   (~4660 words)

Introduction and Motivation

The COVID-19 pandemic caused all instruction at SUNY New Paltz to move online in March 2020, including labs.  Introductory physics labs were performed by having faculty record videos showing the apparatus and the process of collecting of data, and then students analyzed the data and wrote lab reports. This lost a number of the benefits of student lab work, including both real-time interaction with the equipment and real-time interaction with other students.

Lab students work together as “lab partners” for a number of reasons. One is that equipment can be limited, especially if it is expensive.  Another is that some activities require more than one set of hands.  But even when these considerations don’t apply, it has long been recognized that working together with a lab partner is a valuable part of lab.  Getting an experiment to work requires problem solving and troubleshooting,1 and collaboration makes this easier and more instructive.  Collaborating with a lab partner can be a form of peer instruction, which has long been recognized as a useful tool for teaching physics in both labs and in lecture classes.2

If we are able to have students in the classroom in Fall 2020 they will likely be required to wear masks and to be spread out in the classroom to preserve “social distancing.”  The masks won’t be a problem, but being “spread out” is in direct conflict with working together as lab partners. One potential way to have students work together but preserve distancing would be to have one student working in the classroom and another connected via video chat. A problem with using a standard video chat application is that our laptop computers have a built-in camera that only faces the front of the computer, which does not easily give a view of the equipment. We could add an additional web camera, and then the person in the room could point it at the experiment.  Either way, using the computer for video would provide a static view (which admittedly is better than nothing) and would require the student in the classroom to continually adjust the camera.  A clear improvement would be if the remote student could control the camera themselves to look around as the experiment is being performed.   Unfortunately, cameras which can pan and tilt (and possibly zoom)3 which are compatible with common video conferencing systems like WebEx or Zoom are expensive,4 and we would need one for each lab station.

A note on terminology:  At SUNY New Paltz5  the word “hybrid” is applied to a course which has an in-classroom component and an on-line component.  But this is not very specific. The hybrid courses in our department implement the “flipped classroom” method, where students view content material such as recorded lectures online and then come to class for discussion and problem solving. Having some students in the classroom and others joining remotely via computer is another variation of “hybrid” but is different from a flipped classroom.  I will use the term “local+remote” to specifically mean a synchronous class or activity where some students are physically in the classroom and others join via computer, all at the same time.

Home Monitoring Camera

YI-Cloud Dome Camera 1080P
Figure 1.  YI-Cloud Dome Camera 1080P, a home camera which can pan and tilt.

A potential alternative to an expensive steerable web camera is a commercially available home monitoring camera (aka “nanny cam”).  The model I chose to test, shown in Figure 1, is the “YI-Cloud Dome Camera 1080P,” which sells for about $30 per unit.6 I chose this camera simply because I had previous experience with an earlier static camera from the same company. My family has used that camera to check up on my elderly mother when she was home alone (before the pandemic).  We called it the “Granny Cam.”  Other common uses are to watch pets at home or to keep an eye on a baby in another room. From my prior experience with the static camera it seemed that a similar  camera which is steerable would work well for connecting virtual lab partners.  And contrary to the implication in the name, use of  “the cloud” for storing video is not required.

Network Configuration

Setting up the camera is very easy in a home environment, but more complex on campus, where we use RADIUS authentication for the Wi-Fi network using individual usernames and passwords.  The camera is designed to use WEP or WPA2 authentication (using the SSID of the Wi-Fi network and the (single) password for that network), as is common for most home routers.  The camera has an RJ-45 jack so that it can be connected directly to wired Ethernet, but that only worked after the camera had been paired with my mobile phone app using Wi-Fi.   Since my phone connects to our campus Wi-Fi using RADIUS but the camera cannot, this presented some difficulty.

One way to get around this difficulty is to pair the camera and mobile phone while using a different WPA2 network, and once that is done then the camera can be connected to wired ethernet.  A remaining complication is that Wi-Fi won’t work if that WPA2 network is no longer available (e.g. if you paired the camera to a phone at home and then brought it into the lab).  It is likely we would want to use the wired Ethernet in any case to avoid network interference and congestion from using many of these devices in one room. (But I also found a way around this; contact me for details.)

QR code use for pairing a camera with the mobile app
Figure 2. QR code use for pairing a camera with the mobile app

The pairing process is fairly straightforward.   The camera starts in pairing mode when plugged in the first time, or after you press and hold a reset button on the back, and it gives voice prompts to indicate where it is in the process.   On iOS at least you have to allow the app to obtain your location — perhaps for added security?  The user enters the Wi-Fi network name (SSID) and password, which are encoded into a QR code (see Figure 2) which is displayed on the screen of the mobile device. That QR code is shown to the camera,7 which reads and decodes the QR code and uses the SSID and password to authenticate to the Wi-Fi hotspot.  After only a minute or two the camera is paired to the account used on the mobile app. It can then be accessed using the manufacturer’s mobile app from any device using that same account8, and the camera can also be “shared with family” to someone using a different account (an important feature discussed further below).

Although you cannot pair the camera on wired ethernet it is possible to switch between wired ethernet and Wi-Fi.  Whenever an ethernet cable is plugged in to the device it will switch to the wired connection, and when it is unplugged it will switch to Wi-Fi (if it is able to do so).   I have not measured the time it takes to make these transitions

These kinds of cameras are made to allow a homeowner to see the view from the camera when they are away from home.  In my lab I tested accessing the camera from off campus by turning the Wi-Fi off on my mobile phone and on an iPad and using my carrier’s mobile data network on both to verify that I could access the camera.  Even though I was in the same room, the packets had to get to and from the camera by entering and leaving the campus network, and that worked fine. I later verified that I could view and control the camera when I was 10 miles from campus.  There was a noticeable increase in latency when using the mobile network from a distance.

Gooseneck Mount

Placing the camera on the lab table did not give a good view of the equipment, which is also on the table, so it was necessary to lift the camera up to the eye height of a typical student.  A traditional camera tripod proved to be too tall when placed on the table with legs fully retracted.  The height would be easier to adjust with the tripod on the floor with legs extended, but the spread legs would then take up a lot of room that would otherwise be available to the student working at the table.

Lab desk showing the home security camera mounted on a gooseneck support which is clamped to the table.
Figure 3. Home monitoring camera mounted on a gooseneck support and aimed at a typical physics experiment (for a lab dealing with Ohm’s Law).
Home camera mounted on a gooseneck support.
Figure 4. Home camera mounted on a gooseneck support.

So to position the camera with the right height and direction I used instead an AboveTEK Heavy Duty Aluminum Gooseneck iPad Holder,9 which clamps to the table top, has a spring clamp which holds the camera securely by the base, and can be bent into position to match the eye height of a student but without getting too much in the way of the person working at the table (see Figures 3 and 4).  The camera base was tilted downward so that the remote student could tilt the view downward to look at the table.  Otherwise the downward tilt angle of the camera was too limited, while the upward tilt went all the way to the ceiling (which is not useful).

We might be able to construct our own gooseneck mounts using flexible metal wiring conduit mounted on the table with bench clamps (we have plenty of those) with a custom-made 3-D printed camera mount on the end.

Audio and Controls

A mobile app is available from the manufacturer for both iOS and Android, and testing shows that the interfaces are very similar, which means that documentation and training for students would not have to be different for the two platforms.

The camera has a two-way audio feature which lets the remote observer hear audio from a microphone built into the camera, and to say something through speakers also built into the camera.  There are two different modes for the remote observer to talk.  A button on the screen can be used for “push-to-talk” or “intercom mode,” meaning it has to be pressed and held while talking, which would not be the best configuration for lab partners.  But the settings can be changed to “hands-free mode” so that the button turns the remote observer’s microphone on continuously until pushed again to turn it off.  This would be the best way for lab partners to carry on a continuing discussion throughout the experiment.  The remote student would have to be given instructions on how to change this setting, since it is not the default.

showing the controls when the camera is first selected.
Figure 5. showing the controls when the camera is first selected.

The interface for controlling the camera is easy to use, with some minor complications.   The initial view is “portrait” with the steering  “joystick” control prominently displayed (see Figure 5).  But the view does not switch to a larger “landscape” view simply by turning the mobile device, as some might expect — one has to press the “spreading arrows” button in the lower right corner to shift to that larger view (see Figure 6).  One on-screen button allows the user to turn the audio monitoring on or off (either as a toggle, or push-to-talk mode).  Another lets the user take a still photo, which are saved to the camera roll on their own mobile device, and can also be saved to Google Drive or shared via email or text message.   Students could use this to take a photo of the entire apparatus, or parts of it, or perhaps of just a meter reading.  Another on-screen button lets the user record video from the session (again saved to their own mobile device).  An example of such a video is shown in Figure 7. A student could record the whole lab, or key parts of it, and review that video later.  In the expanded “landscape” view the camera steering controls are not obvious (but are also not in the way).  Tapping a small icon in the upper right of the screen (see Figure  6) expands the steering controls while hiding the other audio/video controls.  Tapping on the screen again will clear away all control icons. It’s all easy to use once you see it.

The steering controls are fairly responsive when one is on the same network as the camera.  A student using the camera from a dorm room or other location on campus should not have any troubles steering the camera.  There is a bit of a lag in the steering controls when accessing the camera from off campus. Tapping the controls and waiting to see the result leads to the desired results.   There may also be an audio lag, but that has not yet been tested.

Camera controls once changed to "expanded" view.
Figure 6. Camera controls,  once the view is changed to the expanded (landscape) orientation.

While the camera does not have a hardware zoom feature, one can zoom in software using the familiar “unpinch” gesture of spreading two fingers on the screen.  The camera has two resolution modes, “SD” and “HD”.  On a good network connection the HD video works well. I have not pressed the limits to see how a poor network connection degrades the video, or measured the bandwidth requirements.

Sharing the Camera

One key feature that will make it easier to use this device for connecting virtual lab partners is that a camera can be “shared with family.” This means that the camera can be paired initially with the account of the lab manager or faculty member who runs the lab and who always maintains control of the device. The video and audio from the camera can then be shared with a student who has a different account (created using their campus e-mail address), but the student cannot accidentally modify or delete the camera, and access to the camera can be revoked once the lab exercise has been completed (if that is deemed necessary).

I will also note that each camera can be given a name, and that name can be changed in the app settings.  We might, for example, change the name whenever a camera is moved to a different lab station.

Figure 7.  Example of data collection, as viewed from the camera. In this case, for an experiment to study friction. Note the manufacturer’s logo watermarked on the video in the lower left corner.


History Review Feature

The camera manufacturer has a subscription cloud service for saving recorded video, but this is both optional and unnecessary for our planned use of the camera. One can insert an SD card into the camera, in which case video and audio can be recorded automatically on the camera and played back by the remote observer.  This would, for example, allow the remote student to go back and review something that they missed or wanted to study in more detail.  The interface for this is straightforward: a time “scrubber” is shown at the bottom of the screen, and the user can drag the scrubber back to the desired time to view the recorded video (see Figure 6).  This history review feature is always available to the “owner” of the camera, but must be specifically enabled for the guest account to which the camera is shared — it’s off by default.

We will have to think about how we might use this history review feature, and whether it is worth the additional expense of an SD card for each camera. The camera works fine for real-time viewing without the SD card.  With the SD card it would be possible for a student with access to a particular camera to view not just their own work with their own lab partner, but the work of previous students who used the same camera.  That may or may not be desirable, or worth worrying about.  An instructor who was not present for the lab period could use this feature to verify attendance and participation, or to review student work to give assistance, or to evaluate problems with the equipment or lab documentation.

Desktop Client App

It would be useful for the remote student to be able to see the view from the camera on the larger screen of a desktop or laptop computer.  Until recently, this particular camera manufacturer only provided apps for mobile devices, and my own survey (possibly incomplete) of similar products suggests that this is a property of the commodity market.  It is a selling point for all that they work with manufacturer-specific mobile apps, many with Amazon Alexa, but there is little or no mention of access via web or desktop computer.

Fortunately, this camera manufacturer has recently released apps for both Mac and Windows. Unfortunately, the Mac app failed to run on MacOS 10.15.4 with a pop-up warning saying it “can’t be opened because Apple cannot check it for malicious software.”10   Further testing is warranted, but this is discouraging.   On Windows there is a similar warning when you go to install the software, but you still have the ability to do so. Once started, the app looks a lot like a mobile app, but still with standard Windows controls in the title bar.11

The app on Windows works to view from the camera and to listen to audio, and the controls work to steer the camera, but the intercom feature is missing, so the two lab partners would not be able to talk using the camera microphone and speakers. I also had a problem creating a new camera account on the Windows app, so a mobile device may be required for that.  The desktop app does show multiple cameras “owned” by the same account, so it would be handy for an instructor or lab manager to use to check on the status of all cameras while in use.  But the Windows app also seems to be missing the feature to share a camera with another account, which means that a mobile device would be required to share a camera with a student for the duration of an experiment.  In short, the Windows client app is behind the mobile app in several important ways.

Given all this, we should keep in mind that students might concurrently use video chat software such as Blackboard Collaborate Ultra (our primary video meeting tool for classes), or WebEx (also favored on our campus). In that case the students could talk directly to each other, face to face, and use the video meeting for audio as well.  Using both the steerable camera and the video chat could give the students an even better means of collaboration, and give the remote student an even greater sense of presence during the experiment.  The bandwidth required to support two video streams might be a limiting factor for some students. (TODO: verify that it’s not a limit on campus.)  On the other hand, the bandwidth required for even one video stream might be a problem for a student using a mobile data plan instead of Wi-Fi.

Multiple Remote Users?

Access to a camera can be shared with more than one guest observer, so it might be possible for a person physically in the lab to work with more than one remote lab partner.  Initial tests of several remote observers accessing the same camera showed some intermittent video buffering, but it was not clear that this was actually due to having more than one person viewing the camera — it might have simply been that the camera was too far from the router for a reliable connection.  A later test with the camera connected via wired Ethernet supported multiple users with no observed buffering. Further testing is warranted, but this is encouraging.

If more than one person can connect and use the camera at the same time, then this could also make it possible for an instructor to render assistance to students during the experiment without having to be physically present in the room, thus further supporting social distancing.

Signal Security

According to the manufacturer’s website12  the “requests” between the camera, mobile devices, and servers use secure HTTPS with a “two-way mutual authentication process to ensure that the user’s personal information is not compromised. Each device has its own key and certificate to authenticate with the server.”   The video from the camera to the user device is an encrypted Peer-to-Peer connection so that “only the end user can view the video content. Any possible interception happening during transmission information will only see scrambled and encrypted data.”

I also note that the  sharing system is designed to limit access to the camera to only the “owner” and to someone else the owner can designate via their campus e-mail address. We can also revoke the share after the lab exercise is over, if we need to do so. It is further possible to add a PIN code to the camera, so that the user has to enter that code to access the video stream even if it is shared with them.  Then access security is insured by both something they have (their phone with the app) and something they know (the PIN code).

Other Camera Features

Since this is a camera for home monitoring, it has other features that are probably not useful for the local+remote classroom use case, but some should be mentioned if only to warn the user to disable them lest they get in the way:

  • The camera has a motion detection feature where it automatically points to the source of motion. This does not work well in the lab during an experiment.  It is off by default (TODO: verify) and in any case should be disabled for lab work.
  • The history review feature can also be configured to only record when motion is detected. That might be useful for helping find a particular bit of video based on past activity, not just time, especially if there are long breaks between data-taking sessions.  (It is not necessary to worry about filling the SD card with video, as the device simply records over the oldest previous recordings.)
  • The status light on the front of the camera base can be configured to stay off when the camera is in use.  When it is on, the light flashes if there are network problems, and having the light on would be a reminder to the students that the camera is operating, so this feature should not be used.
  • The image can be rotated upside down, for mounting the camera on the ceiling.  Maybe there is a way to use this to give the remote student a better view?
  • There is a “crying baby” detection feature which one hopes is not necessary (but putting our students through all these complications just to get their degree might trigger some justified crying).
  • The camera has infrared LED lighting which can be used to view and record in otherwise total darkness.  We probably don’t need this feature.
  • The camera microphone can be disabled in the settings.  But since it can also be turned on or off by the primary user controls, totally disabling it would only be useful if we always use video chat in addition to the steerable camera, and it would be confusing if students decided later to use the camera audio.

Other Manufacturers?

I only tested this single camera from one camera manufacturer. I might test others, and I might even post a comparison.  Or maybe not, if we decide that this camera satisfies all our requirements. Because these are commodity devices for home use I expect that similar cameras on the market from other manufacturers will have similar features.   I would welcome reports from readers about which needed features are present or absent in some other make of home camera.

If using these cameras to enable virtual lab partner collaboration works as expected, the market for such devices might get tighter, just as it is tight now for webcams.  In that case using cameras from other manufacturers, and maybe even mixing them, might become a necessity.

Legal Concerns

Even though it appears that there are no major technical problems with using this kind of camera as proposed, there may well be legal or policy hurdles to be surmounted.  At SUNY New Paltz I’m told that installing devices that capture video or audio from a classroom space requires approval from the University Police Department (UPD), and possibly the HR department as well.  I am hopeful that we can get such approval, because we already have lecture capture cameras installed in our labs, and those must have already been approved.

Concern has also been raised that we must insure that we comply with NY State Penal Code Article 250.00, which deals with wiretapping and interception of electronic communications.  One type of crime described there involves a third party who intercepts signals meant for someone else.  If the peer-to-peer video stream between camera and observer is properly encrypted, as the manufacturer claims, then wiretapping and interception by a third party should not be possible, though our IT staff may need to verify those claims of encryption and that it is adequate. Another type of crime applies to someone who sets up “an imaging device to surreptitiously view, broadcast or record a person” in various private situations (NYS Penal Code Section 250.45).  Clearly, lab cameras used as described above are not “surreptitious.”  Furthermore, according to NYS Penal Code Section 250.65  the provisions of §250.45 do not apply to “video surveillance devices installed in such a manner that their presence is clearly and immediately obvious.”   As long as the cameras are as visible to students as they are in the photos above, with the blue light on to show that they are operating, then there should be no problem.  However, it is clear that the University Police and  lawyers will have to render judgement on all this at some point.

The purpose of this article has been to see if there are any technical hurdles that prevent the use of commodity “nanny cameras” from being used to enable virtual lab partner collaboration, before we get as far as involving administrators and lawyers.   So far, so good.

Notes and References

  1. Troubleshooting equipment is an excellent model of the scientific process of forming a hypothesis and then testing it.
  2. See, for example, Peer Instruction, A User’s Manual, by Eric Mazur (Prentice Hall, 1997)
  3. Cameras that can Pan and Tilt and Zoom are called “PTZ” cameras.
  4. A Logitech PTZ Pro 2 Camera costs over $750 on Amazon, or  $850 direct from the manufacturer.
  5. It may be that “hybrid” has the same meaning throughout SUNY, but I have yet to confirm this
  6. The current price for the YI-Cloud Dome Camera 1080P from the manufacturer is $33.99, with free shipping only on orders over $35. The current price on Amazon is $29.99 with free shipping.
  7. I tried saving a screen shot to use later to add another camera, but I later found this doesn’t work.   The information in the QR code is not encoded as plain text, and so likely includes a time or location to prevent just such a “replay attack”.
  8. Beware, it seems that an account on the mobile device and an account on the manufacturer’s web site are not the same thing.
  9. AboveTEK Heavy Duty Aluminum Gooseneck iPad Holder, about $30 from Amazon at the time of purchase, but the price keeps going up.  I also found these useful for making home-made document cameras. I suspect the price has gone up because others have discovered that too.
  10. On an older Mac I was told it require MacOS 10.11 or later. Alas, that machine was too old to run the app.
  11. Watching the libraries that were installed with the Windows app showed standard graphics libraries and the Qt interface library.
  12. How do I ensure the security and privacy of my videos?”  YI Technology Help Center, https://help.yitechnology.com/hc/en-us/articles/234469188-How-do-I-ensure-the-security-and-privacy-of-my-videos-

Using a Document Camera for ‘local+remote’ Instruction

Using a Document Camera for ‘local+remote’ Instruction

This article provides configuration information for using an in-classroom document camera so that the content it displays is available to both students in the classroom and those joining via video meeting software (such as Blackboard Collaborate Ultra).  These instructions are particular to our Physics Labs, but the general idea should apply more widely. (1050 words)

Introduction and Motivation

The COVID-19 pandemic caused all instruction at SUNY New Paltz to move online in March 2020, after an extended Spring Break.  If we are able to have students in the classroom in Fall 2020 they will likely be required to wear masks and to be spread out in the classroom to preserve “social distancing.” Spreading everyone out in a classroom may pose problems —  in some cases it just won’t be possible to have all enrolled students in the same room if they have to all be at least 2 meters away from each other.

One way to deal with this is what I will call  “local+remote,” which means a synchronous class or activity where some students are physically in the classroom and others join via computer, all at the same time. Students observing or participating remotely might watch via a classroom lecture capture camera (we have these in our physics labs) or a webcam, or maybe even a “nanny cam”.  The particular mode I consider here is that the instructor presents their content using a document camera, and that content is both displayed on the projection screen in the classroom and is shared with remote participants using video meeting software (such as Blackboard Collaborate Ultra).

The instructions presented here apply to the AVer F50-8M document cameras found in the Physics Labs in Science Hall at SUNY New Paltz, used with Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.  This model of document camera is also used in other classrooms in Science Hall, but classrooms in other buildings may be different.  Even so, the general idea may still work with other document cameras.  If you are unsure, ask Instructional Technology Services for assistance, and try everything well before your class starts.

Cable Required

To make this work in our labs required an additional cable connecting the AVer document camera to the computer.  This cable connects to the document camera with USB-mini B, and connects to the computer via standard USB-A (what most people think of as “regular USB”).  Actually, in our labs the cable from this additional cable from the document camera connects to a USB-A extension cable, which then connects to the computer. In SH 157 and SH 159 the extension cable is already routed through the internals of the instructor station from the back of the computer and up through a hole in the desk.   In SH 160 the extension cable is currently external

To use this kind of document camera in any other classroom you will need both these extra cables.  Why?  The video from the document camera normally comes out of the HDMI port to the Crestron system to be routed directly to the projector, bypassing the computer.  The USB-mini B cable takes video output from the document camera to the computer, but the distance from the document camera to the front of the computer is far enough that you likely also need an extension cable (we did).

Also note, not all classrooms on campus have the same make and model of document camera, so you should confirm which kind of cable is actually needed before assuming another classroom is just like our physics labs.   Test everything before you teach your class, and ask Instructional Technology Services for assistance.

Classroom Setup

  1. To begin, turn on the document camera (press the power button).   It takes a while for it to wake up and be recognized by the computer, so do this first.  Verify that the USB cable is plugged in to the back, and (if you can tell) connects the document camera to the computer.

    Figure 1. Crestron Control Panel.
    Figure 1. Crestron A/V control panel with the Display “ON” and “PC” selected as the video source.
  2. Next, wake up the A/V control panel by touching the screen, and then turn on the projection system by pressing the “DISPLAY ON” button (see Fig. 1).  This should cause the projection screen to drop from the ceiling.  Select “PC” as the source for the classroom projection system.
  3.  Plug it your external webcam (if you have one1) and  position it so that your students will be able to see you while you are teaching.
  4. Turn on the computer and log in, then start a browser (Chrome is recommended over Firefox2– at least for now).

    Blackboard icon for opening the controls for a Collaborate Ultra meeting
    Figure 2. Controls icon
  5. Then start the video meeting, using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.  When you are starting the meeting you will configure your audio and video.  Pay attention here to your choices, because you will be able to select either the webcam or the document camera as the video source, and when you start the meeting you will want the wecam (if there is one).   You might prefer the document camera as the audio source, since you’ll be speaking nearer to it than the webcam once you are presenting from it.

    Blackboard Collaborate Ultra sharing control icon
    Figure 3. Sharing icon
  6. In the video meeting, open the control panel on the right (using the purple left-chevron icon shown in Fig. 2) and select the “sharing” menu (the icon shown in Fig. 3). From the sharing menu select Share Camera. You will then be given the choice to select either the webcam or the document camera.  The
  7. Teach your class using just the document camera to present equations and drawings and other visual content, and both local and remote students can see it, and hear you, and see you.


Document camera image projected in a classroom and shared in a video meeting at the same time.
Figure 4. Document camera image projected in a classroom and shared in a video meeting at the same time.

Audio Headset

To be able to hear students who are remote you will likely need a headset, but to be able to hear students in the room you will want to keep one ear uncovered.  One way to accomplish this is to use ear buds with only one of them in your ear (the one with the microphone).   This has the advantage of getting the microphone closer to your mouth.

Perhaps even better is to get a “Truckers” bluetooth headset, which can connect to the computer wirelessly, has a boom mike, and a speaker for only one ear (since truckers need to keep one ear uncovered for safety).   Most let you use either ear.

Either way, you will have to configure the computer to use ear buds or the bluetooth headset for audio input and output  (documentation forthcoming).  Be sure to test this before you teach your first class.

Notes and References

  1. It is possible to teach using just the document camera but not a webcam, but then your students won’t be able to see you, only the image from the webcam.  If you don’t have an external webcam, the AVer F50-8M has a built-in microphone, so you will not need an extra microphone
  2. Firefox has problems sharing an application window (not the whole screen) in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. NEED TO TEST THIS WITHOUT USING SPHERE2!  Sharing a single application window with Chrome had no problems. Microsoft Edge has not yet been tested.
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