POCATELLO ­— About 300 Meeting Owls — that are voice-activated, external 360-degree cameras with microphones and speakers — are being installed in classrooms throughout the Idaho State University campus to allow instructors to better engage students who are learning in class and remotely.

“This technology will help us keep safe distancing and will allow for enrollment capacities to change, because it better allows students to participate in class and from a distance at the same time,” said Blake Beck, director of ISU Educational Technology Services and eISU.

This technology can be used with any web-conferencing tool such as Zoom or Google Hangouts.

The Meeting Owl technology has received positive reviews from faculty on campus that have used it. Professors in the Department of History were familiar with using it prior to last spring’s shutdown from the coronavirus and report it works effectively.

“The teaching experience, once we got it installed and set up and applied, was really fantastic,” said Justin Dolan Stover, an associate professor in the History Department. “It really opened up and allowed us some opportunities that were taken away from us when we were forced to go completely online last spring.”

He said using it is very intuitive and last spring his students “unequivocally” said they felt more connected and involved with his classes because of the use of the new technology. In a large part, this is because the Meeting Owl’s camera is voice-activated and switches to the person speaking, either in class or remotely, so they are displayed on-screen for all to see.

The way the history department has set up this system is to have a large screen that displays students that are “zooming” into the discussion. There is a home screen that is connected to a laptop or other computer where a Powerpoint or documents can be displayed and students logging in remotely are displayed.

If a student in the classroom asks a question, the camera in the room focuses on them and that student is displayed on screen. If the professor is speaking, they are displayed, along with any teaching materials they are presenting.

“And for the person zooming in from a distant site, if they raise their digital hand and want to speak, their picture becomes the center and that is captured through their own personal webcam,” Stover said. “I don’t have to do anything, it is quite automatic. It is a pretty smart little device.”

Class sessions can also be recorded and posted so if a student misses a live lecture they can see it online.

The  history department is expanding their use of Meeting Owls this fall.

“The owl gives us the ability to move elements of our master’s degree in history online so we can reach a greater student body throughout the state of Idaho and beyond,” Stover said. “This fall, actually half the students in my graduate seminar will not be in Pocatello. I have one that will be zooming in from Alaska and I have a number of high school teachers that will be zooming in from their respective cities. So Owl, in addition to overcoming some of the limitations that the coronavirus pandemic has put on us, has also allowed us to move forward with expanding our master’s program to reach more students as well.”

Stover said he prefers using the Meeting Owl over using other distance-learning classrooms and facilities on campus because it allows greater convenience, flexibility and, during the pandemic, greater safety for his students.

Information on the “Hyflex Classroom Technology Instructions,” including the use of the Meeting Owls, is available online at https://tigertracks.isu.edu/TDClient/1950/Portal/KB/ArticleDet?ID=111537 or on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiEKygYKVz8&feature=youtu.be