Duke Turns to Zoom Carts to Keep Remote Students Engaged

In a trend across the country, Duke University has moved to a blend of remote and hybrid learning. To keep remote students engaged, Duke’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) has deployed 50 Zoom carts for professors to use during their classes.

According to the University, each cart includes a 65-inch flatscreen television hooked up to an iPad and a computer, both of which run Zoom Room, an advanced form of the Zoom video conferencing program. Rounding out the cart is a camera and microphone system, which supports both recording and real-time participation through high quality audio and video. The screens, which display both the faces of remote students and slides from the professor, keep both remote and in-class students connected.

“It’s incredibly versatile with the ways you can set it up, yet its simplistic enough that you can get it to work without too many hiccups,” said Richard Mitchell, a digital media engineer with OIT. “It’s easy to think it’s just a display and a camera and a mic, but that’s what a lot of our classroom systems are. So it’s like we deployed 50 additional rooms on campus that just happen to be on wheels.”

OIT partnered with the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences Office of Technology Services (TTS) to create the Zoom carts.

At the start of the summer, Duke began planning for the fall semester, which they knew would include hybrid and distance learning. “The challenge was to come up with a tool that would be flexible enough to work in a variety of settings, relatively low-cost, and made of components that could be repurposed once the pandemic ends,” according to a Sept. 23 Duke blog post.

The solution ended up essentially replicating an existing technology set up on campus.

“We basically put our conference room system on a cart,” Mitchell said. “It’s worked wonderfully.”

Once the decision was made, Paul Zylowski, manager for IT for TTS, and six coworkers assembled the 50 carts in a matter of days.

After the decision was made to bring a fleet of the carts to campus for the fall, Zylowski and his team of six co-workers got to work assembling 50 carts over a few days in their Trent Hall workspace. Since then, the carts have been used by the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, the Duke Law School, and the Fuqua School of Business. Additionally, the Pratt School of Engineering used the design to build another 10 carts.

“There are no secrets with this, so when people asked how we were building this, we sent them the punch list with all of the parts so if they wanted to build their own, they could,” Mitchell said.

In terms of logistics, Duke said that TTS handles the reservation and transport processes of the carts. It is also tasked with monitoring the performance and making online fixes to the carts remotely. TTS said the ability to troubleshoot remotely, saves “technicians from making needless trips into classroom spaces.”

Looking beyond the pandemic, Zylowski sees the carts having a deeper impact on education.

“These carts may change the way that we build classrooms and learning spaces in the future,” Zylowski said. “Although it’s a cart with wheels, we may see this as a new template moving forward as a way to have learning spaces that are as dynamic as the faculty and students that use them.”

Kate Polit
About Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs