The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned a dramatic increase in innovation as the world has adapted to functioning virtually.
Saint Paul School of Theology was uniquely prepared for this challenge. Our mission has always been to utilize technology to bring faculty and students together, whether they are on-campus or joining remotely through Zoom.
As Director of IT Mike Hannah explains, “We have always been looking for the next great technology innovation to move this mission forward significantly.”
To that end, all Saint Paul classrooms began new upgrades in the Fall of 2021. Each smaller classroom added a 65-inch multitouch Neat Board that functions as a full Zoom room and electronic whiteboard. Neat Bars were installed on top of existing screens in other classrooms. Larger classrooms are currently being upgraded with Neat Bar Pros, which were released at the end of 2021, according to Hannah.
The technology works well in an education setting and creates a healthy learning atmosphere, according to Dr. Israel Kamudzandu, Lindsey P. Pherigo Associate Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Interpretation. “Neat brings clarity in a Zoom class where other students are far from the instructor.”
“I use the Neat Board technology every way possible!” says Dr. Casey Sigmon, Assistant Professor of Preaching & Worship, Director of Contextual Education and Director of Chapel. “At the most basic level, it’s how I am seen and heard across locations. But the Neat Board is not only the camera and microphone for each classroom, it’s also a whiteboard and projection screen. Truly, the Neat Board does it all!”
What makes Neat so unique is their Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology co-developed between Zoom and Neat. Known as Neat Symmetry, this AI technology enables all students and faculty to be displayed individually in their own Zoom window while sitting in a classroom. This gives faculty and students, no matter their campus or other location, an unprecedented clear view and audio experience of one another.
Kamudzandu appreciates the clear images of learners and instructors as they are picked up and framed by the software. Faculty and students can move around the classroom and remain in full view in the Zoom display.
Sigmon calls the Neat Board camera “a gamechanger” that creates a more equitable teaching and learning experience. She no longer has to run the camera views simultaneously with lecturing and hosting dialogue, which she found distracting. “Now, the Neat Board camera focuses on everyone in the room and creates individual screenshots…I can see and hear my Oklahoma campus students much better, and they can see and hear me.”
Students have also reported an improved hybrid on-campus experience. The technology enables faculty and students on the Kansas campus to connect virtually with students on the Oklahoma campus. This facilitates a growing rapport between campuses, as being seen and heard more clearly supports effective learning and community building.
“We as teachers and pastors know this in our minds but don’t always live out this knowing,” Sigmon says. “We take this wisdom for granted at times, but the Neat Board allows us to teach from this foundational truth—we learn better when we feel seen, heard, and respected.”
The Neat Board screen also functions as an electronic whiteboard. “Anything written or drawn on these boards is transmitted to Zoom to the screens in the classroom and to remote Zoom participants,” Hannah points out.
Kamudzandu uses the board both for writing notes and diagrams to illustrate a learning skill. He says the whiteboard feature is ideal for students with different learning styles. “Some learn through visual, hearing, illustrations and some learn through sound.”
The interactive whiteboard facilitates collaboration between the two Saint Paul campuses. “If I am in Kansas taking notes on the whiteboard,” Sigmon explains, “I can ask a student in Oklahoma to approach the Neat Board in their room, pick up a pen and add to my notes. We can build knowledge together!”
Whiteboard notes can then be saved and emailed to class participants as a PDF file.
Embracing Technology & Addressing Challenges
Saint Paul has always prioritized the adoption of distance-learning technologies. “We are very early in the lifecycle of this motivating and groundbreaking technology,” Hannah says of Neat Board.
The adoption of innovations presents many opportunities as well as a few new challenges. Instructors must find creative ways of using new devices to enhance the learning process for students. For example, virtual learning is a great way to connect participants from a distance, but it also presents the challenge of promoting more concrete learning experiences, as Kamudzandu observes.
Instructors must also be mindful of remaining on-screen while teaching virtual classes. Sigmon has found that the camera won’t always pick her up if she’s walking around the room during the discussion. However, she expects those issues to be addressed over time as the technology becomes more advanced.
Saint Paul continues our mission of forming people for innovative, creative ministries using technology as a conduit. Through intentional partnerships and diverse, contextual experiences, the entire community is able to connect on-campus and via Zoom to cultivate deeper relationships and broaden our reach. As Hannah says, “We are thrilled to partner with Neat and Zoom in revolutionizing the classroom experience.” A transformative experience indeed.