MILLBURN, NJ — With the help of the Millburn Education Foundation (MEF), the Millburn district has rolled out the “Virtual Seats in the Classroom” Program at the middle and high schools, designed to bridge the gap between students learning in-person and students learning virtually at home.

Since Millburn schools closed in March due to the Coronavirus pandemic, technology has become more integral to the learning experience than ever. The district and the MEF have been engaged in a continuous dialogue about how technology can be implemented to ensure that the quality of Millburn education can be maintained during these unprecedented times.

During the summer, the biggest challenge both groups faced was how to address hybrid learning. Teachers would be expected to teach two groups of students simultaneously, one in-person and one virtual, further complicated by the fact that the groups would have no way to see or hear each other.

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In explaining this challenge, co-chair of the MEF, Abigail Speltz said, “MEF wanted to create as much of a sense of normalcy and connectedness for our students, as well as ease some of the burden on our teachers. Many of our best classes at MMS and MHS are discussion and debate based. Without a way for students to communicate, this critical aspect of instruction would be lost.”

This was echoed by Assistant Superintendent, Kate Diskin. She explained the four main goals of the district for hybrid and virtual instruction. One of these goals was to “maintain connections with our students both at home and at school and connections between our students and teachers.”

One option that was considered was to have students in-person also attend a Google Meet, just like the students at home. The problems with this solution were twofold. It negated the purpose of attending school in-person at all, as there would be no level of increased social interaction or decreased screen time. It also would likely overwhelm the available bandwidth in the school buildings, leading to slow internet and crashes.

After much research and discussion, the solution the school district and the MEF devised was to implement large TV screens and webcams in classrooms. This TV on a rolling mount projects the Google Meet used by students learning virtually, which allows their classmates in-person to both see and hear him. The webcam achieves the same purpose for students at home, allowing them to both hear and see their classmates in-person.

In early November, this program was tested in a pilot that included 12 classrooms at the middle school and 12 classrooms at the high school. According to Diskin, “teachers have really embraced it.”

Middle school teacher, Katie Arruda, said “In my 8th grade science classroom, having the virtual seat (large TV screen and webcam) has been really beneficial for myself as a teacher and the students. This allows the students to see and hear each other if at home or here in the classroom. This has provided opportunities for class discussions and the students to feel more connected whether at home or in class.

This has also been especially helpful since currently the students in school are unable to join the google meet themselves. As a science teacher, having the webcam set up also has allowed me to easily do science experiment demonstrations. The students who are in class virtually are able to get the same experience as my students here in the classroom.

I'm grateful to have the virtual seat technology to allow the students at home, as close to the same experience as possible, to being here in the classroom.”

This program also proved to be cost-effective. Outfitting one classroom with a TV and a webcam costs about $500, as compared with other technology options, ranging from $1200 to $5000 per classroom.

In moving beyond the pilot phase, Speltz says, “our plan is to secure the funding as soon as possible to be able to provide this technology for every hybrid classroom that has in-person and remote students simultaneously… The faster we reach our fundraising goals, the faster we will be able to touch every classroom.”

In addition to funding, a key component of executing this goal is professional development.

“You have to have teachers be able to see how useful it is for their students and themselves,” Diskin explained. “… Rather than saying top down, you must have this, you must do this, they have to feel the need from within themselves.”

The district goal is to eventually outfit all classrooms in both the middle school and high school with this equipment.

Regarding the elementary schools, Speltz said they “have a different configuration than MMS and MHS, but we are hoping to also provide them with a combination of equipment to supplement what they already had.”

As the pandemic continues to impact schools daily, programs like “Virtual Seats in the Classroom” have become more integral to learning than ever before. However, this technology will not disappear whenever life returns back to some semblance of normalcy. In fact, there are plans to continue to use current technology to aid education in the future.

As Speltz says, “the rolling TV mounts also give the schools more options to change where and how the equipment is used. The TV can be used for school-wide announcements or broadcasts. The webcams and TV combinations can be used to meet virtually with other classrooms in the district or around the world, guest speakers or video conferences. There is the potential to give greater flexibility for students who are learning from home for non-pandemic reasons.”

If you would like to help continue to implement technology into Millburn classrooms, you can support the MEF. Visit www.millburnedfoundation.org to learn more.