Nerd Corner | Meeting Owl

Meet the Owl

Darren Blackburn, Program Director, Emergency Management Division

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This fall, the Emergency Management Division is been experimenting with a hybrid classroom model for some of our on-campus courses. Our goal has been to support students starting our Post-Baccalaureate Diploma in Disaster Management, many of whom were either travelling to Canada or had just arrived at the start of term. 

The aim of the hybrid model is to empower students in deciding how they want engage with the course based on their personal situations. Students can be entirely in person, entirely online, or can take a mix it up based on their needs.  The results have been interesting and more-or-less successful – here is a rundown of our approach. 


We are trialling the hybrid classroom model with four of our term-based, 14 week courses. Each weekly class is three hours in length. For one course, we are recording the “lecture” component of the class to place in a separate online-only, asynchronous course. The experiment started in September at the start of term and will conclude at the end of term in December.

Equipment & Setup

We are using three pieces of equipment: 

  1. OWL Cameras. The Owl is a combined camera, microphone, and speaker tool. It plugs into a computer using a USB cable, and also to an electrical outlet. The Owl will provide two camera views at once – a 360 degree view of the room as well as a zoomed view of the current speaker. These are shown in a split image with the room view on top and zoomed view below. (We named the camera we use Hedwig!)
  1. Collaborate. Collaborate is the Zoom-like virtual meeting space in BlackBoard. When logged in to Collaborate, the user would select the Owl as both the camera and the audio devices.
  1. Smart Classroom. The JIBC has a number of smart classrooms. These feature a podium with a monitor, computer with internet connection, and audio controls. The classroom itself also has a projector or television as well as overhead speakers.

For best performance, the Owl should have a direct line of sight to each student. This can be a bit hard to pull off – we’ve been experimenting with different room configurations. The best we’ve found so far is to have a large semi-circle with the Owl placed in the middle. The screen and instructor are in the open end of the semi-circle.  

The microphone is pretty sensitive and seems to be able to capture casual conversation from around 2-3 metres away – even with masks on. 

Classroom Experience 

This is where things become really cool ! Our traditional classroom setup involves table groups with a projected PowerPoint on a screen at the front of the class. This is still a really effective setup and works well for our pedagogical model. However, the hybrid setup helps transform this model in cases where more flexibility is needed. 

The first change one would notice is what is projected on screen. Rather than opening a PowerPoint, the instructor opens a series of Chrome tabs. The first tab is the Collaborate classroom. The instructor uploads and presents their PowerPoint within Collaborate. This allows both online and in-person students to see the presentation. The second tab is the BlackBoard shell for the course. The instructor will flip to this to highlight assignments, discussion board posts, etc. Additional tabs may include Youtube videos, the course syllabus, the JIBC Library, online tools, and so on. Throughout the class, the instructor shares these different tabs. 

The second change is where the students are located. In a given week, we have 18-20 students in class and 6-10 students joining by their camera and appearing in Collaborate.

The third change requires the most planning – how students engage and interact. We have been using common classroom activities, like flip charts, white boarding, small group discussions. Online students need to engage in these activities in a different way. For example, when in class students work on flipcharts, online students provide individual answers in chat. Or when the instructor wants to whiteboard, they can open the whiteboard feature in Collaborate. There is still work to be done in this part, particularly around how group work works. 

The fourth change is empowering the class to make this structure work. We have found students will remind instructors to turn on/off the microphone, to speak louder so the microphone picks everyone up, to ensure a section is being recorded, etc. Students are now even requesting access to the Owl so they can engage in other classes as a group (a potential sign of success!).


Our initial assumption was most students would choose to attend online. Our hybrid cohort is 26 students; on day one we setup 12 desks assuming this would be more than enough. However, 20 students showed up! Students that also attended online in week one showed up in class in week two. It appears being part of the physical experience is a draw.

We’ve also discovered the hybrid model has indirectly addressed other problems. One clear example was a student that needed to travel to Ontario for the second week of class. We realized – this is no big deal! They would just join in from Ontario for that week. Students that are ill can stay home relatively stress-free and engage as best they can. 

What we’ve learned and are working on

  1. We’re experimenting with classroom setup. We’ve found semi-circles are hard to arrange with larger number of student numbers. Maybe semi-circles of table groups?
  1. The Owl will focus on louder voices. We try to limit side conversations.
  1. We turn off the microphone when not presenting. This prevents picking up personal conversations.
  1. We have mixed groups for group work. We put the responsibility onto students to determine how they will coordinate work between online and in-person students.   
  1. We give the students ownership of the hybrid nature of the course. We told students at the start this was an experiment and we’d need their help and feedback. They have definitely stepped up!

Based on the successes so far, we will likely be continuing the experiment next term with more courses. We also want to say a huge thank you to CTLI, TS and our instructors who supported testing and launch!

Have a question for Darren? Want to learn more about the hybrid delivery model or The Owl? Contact Darren at