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Norcross school installs advanced, high-tech video conferencing for online classes

Greater Atlanta Christian School is one of the first K-12 schools in the country to incorporate DTEN technology.

ATLANTA — Across Metro Atlanta and the rest of the country, controversies and worries continue to build about whether schools should reopen for in-person learning in the fall, or continue with at-home, on-line learning.

Many are also concerned about about hybrid solutions. Polls show most parents and teachers oppose in-person classes, for now. 

But one K-12 school in Norcross believes it has found a work-around to offer both options, with some high-tech help.

At Greater Atlanta Christian School, when school resumes August 10, teachers will be back in the classrooms, along with any students who choose to be there. They must follow strict safety rules. Students who choose to stay at home will be able to connect to the classroom, live.

The connection will be a new, state-of-the-art video-conferencing system, now being installed in all 140 classrooms, called DTEN.

And DTEN is so advanced, rising 10th grader Abbey Duke, trying it out from home this week, said it’s almost like being immersed in the classroom.

“The way that the computer is set up for us to see, it actually looks like we’re in the classroom, it looks like we’re sitting at a desk and we can see the board,” Abbey said, contrasting the new technology--which incorporates a dynamic version of Zoom--with the static version of Zoom her school used this past Spring. 

“I’m able to interact more with my classmates," Abbey said. "You can really talk to each other as if we’re both in the classroom together.... All of it seems like we could very easily be at school, and the only difference is that we’re actually just at home." 

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Smart cameras and smart microphones can track everyone in the classroom automatically, following all the action and voices, clearly. And DTEN comes with a smart board in the classroom that is connected to students at home, so they can write on it from home, and see what the teachers and in-class students are writing on it, participating fully with them in the lessons.

Veteran GAC Teacher Terry Beasley says the remote, smart board feature is a game-changer in virtual learning.

“When I found out that the kids at home could also control that same, exact white board that the kids in school were just using their fingers to write on, that just blew me away,” Beasley said. 

“I’m able, now, to interact with them just like I would interact with the students in the classroom, I hear their voices, they see everything I write on the board, I see what they write in the board, and they also see and hear everything in the classroom, as well, where you could still be ‘in’ school, yet at a different location," Beasley explained. "You may be at home, but you’re still in class.”

So, School President Dr. Scott Harsh said that from now on, students will, in theory, be able to decide day-to-day if they want to come to class, or just log on to class from somewhere else.

“It’s very fluid, so in a given week, a student may be in class some days and at home on other days, without missing a beat on learning,” Dr. Harsh said. “We’re even, right now, working on digital labs so that our science classes can be taught in this way, really across the curriculum.”

Greater Atlanta Christian was one of the first schools, as the internet became available a quarter-century ago, to devise at-home, remote lessons for students to use when the school closed during emergency, bad-weather days. And the school’s online learning programs have evolved and improved continually, since. 

Three years ago, GAC launched a separate, online school that includes recorded lessons for students to view and study, on demand.

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Harsh said installing the new hardware this month to livestream lessons from every single classroom was a logical, next-step, “So that our teachers can engage with students in the classroom and at home simultaneously…. so they can have fluid interactions, back and forth…. The students at home can have the same experience as the students in school.”

Converting the school to the hybrid, in-person and at-home classrooms is expensive, requiring a “significant investment in our 1,600-plus students,” Harsh said.

The retail price for the DTEN model that GAC is installing—and a GAC spokesperson said the school paid less than retail in its contract with DTEN--is advertised, online, in the range of $4,000 to $5,000 per unit.

 And while GAC bought at least 140 of them, DTEN’s marketing officer told 11Alive News that the company offers substantial discounts to public and private elementary and secondary education institutions.

Abbey’s mother, Joanna Duke, sees the DTEN technology as one more way of adapting to the pandemic world.

“And to have that level of flexibility, I think, will be really great,” she said. "Our kids will still be able to have those teacher interactions, have those classmate interactions, and to be able to have the best remote learning experience possible."

Beasley sees the new tool reawakening his students. 

“I see hope again in the eyes of the kids,” Beasley said. “They see this is a chance, an opportunity, to get not all the way back to normal, but more so than what we were back in March and April and May.”

Greater Atlanta Christian is one of the first K-through-12 schools in the country to install and use DTEN, and GAC is already getting calls from other schools that want to install it, too.

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