Zoom Cart Boom Aids Return of In-Person Learning

Students in Professor Steve Nowicki’s biology class in fall 2021 work on an experiment. A Zoom cart is visible between the two larger screens. Photo courtesy Steve Nowicki.
Students in Professor Steve Nowicki’s biology class in fall 2021 work on an experiment. A Zoom cart is visible between the two larger screens. Photo courtesy Steve Nowicki.

Faculty and students at Duke will return – belatedly – to classrooms Tuesday with a few more tools to get through another potentially turbulent semester of in-person learning.

The Trinity College of Arts and Sciences has purchased 20 more “Zoom carts,” the mobile computing systems with 65-inch flat screen monitors that allow students to attend class virtually if they’re quarantining because of a positive COVID-19 test.

The new carts will buttress the 45 carts already available to Trinity faculty. In fall 2021, these carts were key cogs in the patchwork quilt of imperfect solutions that allowed the university to teach in person all semester. There are another 15 or more carts in use in other professional schools across campus.

“There was a ton of demand last semester, especially early when we were dealing with students who were getting positive COVID tests and put into quarantine,” said Ed Gomes, senior associate dean in Trinity College’s Office of Technology Services. “Faculty were very much of the mind that we did need to do whatever we could to accommodate them as much as possible. And after the cases flattened out a little bit and we got back to a little more normal circumstances we realized we can’t sit on the possibility that we won’t have more spikes. And we’re seeing that now.”

Last fall, more than 1,000 Duke students and more than 175 faculty and staff members tested positive for COVID-19, and the surging omicron variant of the virus is causing a significant spike in cases on campus right now. For the week ending January 9, Duke reported 871 positive cases among students, faculty and staff. Information on the return to campus for this spring semester is available here.

Within Trinity and its 280 classrooms across campus, the carts were popular for much of the fall. Faculty members reserved them in advance and used them as long as needed.

Professor Priscilla Wald utilizes a Zoom cart as part of her fall 2021 Science Fiction Film class. It is visible along the wall in the left of the photo. Photo by Chadd Heller.
Last fall, a handful of the 32 students in biology professor Steve Nowicki’s Mechanisms of Animal Behavior course missed time because of quarantining. So Nowicki used the Zoom carts to keep the students in the loop.

It wasn’t perfect, he concedes. His class requires a good bit of group work, which is harder for students confined to residence hall rooms. And there was the occasional tech speed bump as well.

“Like any good technology, occasionally things glitch out,” Nowicki said. “There have been a few times when the Internet goes down and we just have to muscle through. But having the Zoom cart as the backup this year has been very, very useful.”

Duke senior Vivien Zhou was in Nowicki’s class last fall and missed one week and two class periods due to a positive covid test and the subsequent 10-day quarantine.

She used the Zoom cart to keep up with Nowicki’s class and was fine, mostly. She said she was able to follow along most of the time, but missed nuances at times when viewing experiments from afar – like one testing how bugs reacted to light and darkness.

“If you were in person you could go and experiment on them,” Zhou said. “There was a whole assignment linked to it. If you were online it was just very hard to see. You couldn’t really participate. I ended up having to get the data later and do the assignment.”

But she managed, and by the end realized the academic piece of isolation isn’t as challenging as the social aspect, when she was stuck away from friends or roommates, whiling away the hours drawing or playing video games.

“I realized that I love in-person classes,” she said toward the end of the fall semester. “I hate doing classes online. Especially now that we can do it in person, I think I need to take full advantage.”

Along with the equipment for the carts, Trinity Technology Services has also purchased more microphones and 360-degree-view cameras to improve the classroom experience for virtual learners as well, Gomes added. These investments aren’t seen as a short-term solution; the university will use the equipment to eventually provide video conferencing technology in more classrooms in the future, he said.