SRU installation of Meeting Owl cameras will enhance online learning


OWL system in use

Slippery Rock University students attending classes online will experience a 360-degree view of classrooms, as well as split-screen shots of instructors or other speakers and content, thanks to newly installed Meeting Owl webcams.

Aug. 14, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Faculty and students at Slippery Rock University will surely give a hoot about a peculiar device occupying classrooms this semester. More than 160 SRU classrooms have been equipped with Meeting Owl webcams that feature sophisticated technology to help deliver online classes.

Meeting Owls, created by Owl Labs, are smart conference cameras that capture 360-degree video and audio for engaging distance learning, allowing for a hybrid classroom where some students can attend in-person and others remotely. Each 4-by-11-inch unit has two indicator lights that resemble an owl's eyes.

Dr. Abbey Zink


"The Meeting Owls provide us the opportunity to do multimodal instruction so that the students who are in the classroom and the students who are taking a course remotely will all see the same thing," said Abbey Zink, SRU provost and vice president for academic affairs. "Having students experience everything going on in a class without actually having to physically be there is pretty exciting and this sets us up to do some cool things even after the COVID-19 pandemic."

Nearly all SRU classrooms will be equipped with Meeting Owls or other smart conference cameras this fall. The recent purchase and installation of the units was made possible by the University's $7.3 million allocation of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding, half of which was designated for emergency financial aid grants for students. The Meeting Owls retail price is between $800-$1,000 each.

One Meeting Owl device, typically positioned on a desk near the front of the class, contains eight cameras and sound-leveling microphones that isolate a speaker's voice from an 18-foot radius.

"It's a webcam on steroids," said Erik Anderson, technology services manager. "Meeting Owls are self-contained units and they can follow the speaker throughout the room and allow them to do all the same functionality they would have in a Zoom meeting but to the scale of a classroom."

Students attending classes online will still use their familiar videoconferencing software, such as Zoom, but because of the Meeting Owl technology they will also see split screens showing a 360-degree view of the classroom, the professor and any supporting content, such as a PowerPoint slide or a closeup of a whiteboard.

360 OWL Camera system

   Meeting OWL device

"Many faculty members prefer to give a lecture standing up or walking around a classroom, rather than sitting at a desk or standing behind a podium," said John Ziegler, associate provost of information and administrative technology services. "This technology allows them to do that, especially if they need to write on a whiteboard. This helps them to seamlessly meet their needs without distraction."

More than 85 SRU faculty received training on using the Meeting Owls. The choice of whether to use the technology or not is up to individual faculty members, but according to Zink, many are interested in teaching online-only classes from SRU classrooms using the cameras.

"We can have faculty members come to campus to teach in an empty classroom with no students so that they can utilized white boards or other in-room technologies they might not otherwise have access to, in order to deliver as complete an experience as possible," Zink said. "It's kind of like watching sports where there's no fans in the stands. It's the same concept."

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