Bridging the gap: preparing students for the working world

University is a pivotal time in young people’s lives - yet the skills of the latest undergraduates are increasingly under scrutiny. Charlotte Ashley asks if AV technologies are fully being taken advantage of to develop the modern day graduate.

The list of the world’s top twenty most expensive places to live and study as a domestic student is dominated by Western Europe (Spain, France and Germany), with the UK leading the way behind US counterparts and accounting for three of the top ten (according to figures by Savills published in October 2016). At the same time a recent poll of UK employers showed 7 out of 10 employers view students as unprepared for today’s dynamic workplace.

Individual circumstances may affect the success of each graduate, yet there is an underlying issue relevant to every university in EMEA: how can technology be optimised for nurturing creative, digital and communication skills, and what can propel adoption of the necessary AV technologies?

The decision makers at universities may be traditionally the technical staff there, but many in the industry believe this conversation has to open up to bring about change. After all, the AV expertise on hand can vary dramatically – ranging from being consolidated into the IT department to a dedicated AV team – from university to university.

One facility that has prioritised its AV offerings is Kingston University in London, which has committed £27 million (approximately €32 million) to an ongoing campus-wide AV and IT overhaul. “The new generation of students are so digitally tuned in that it has become vital for the universities to keep up,” says the university’s AV architect and campus end user manager, Yasir Rafi.

It’s not always easy however, for example, in countries like the Czech Republic students don’t have the same influence. David Lesch, general manager at integrator AV Media – where university projects account for up to 30% of revenue, says investment varies. “Most of our work is in 100 to 600-person capacity lecture rooms and auditoriums. Universities see a benefit and need in AV equipment for lecture rooms, but they underestimate the potential of small spaces for student engagement, BYOD and similar applications.”

“Our universities still fear losing student’s attention (and attendance) in sharing things virtually,” continues Lesch. Toby Wise, managing director at integrator Snelling Business Systems, argues making material and lectures available virtually can only have a positive effect on students’ abilities; “The more you’ve gathered from those ‘dead sources,’ the more you can learn from going to a lecture or seminar or going to a business meeting with people with years of experience in their area – it builds human intelligence. The more information you have available to you, the more you can debate and discuss and better the outcome.”

This issue facing integrators like AV Media is currently one recurrent in Europe; “I don’t think that people making the decisions are really taking into account the benefits of automated, integrated systems that would be easy for even non-technical teachers to use,” notes Jonna Eriksson, senior lecturer in Media and AV technology at Helsinki Metropolia University. “Here there isn’t really any active marketing from the AV dealers to showcase these technologies, so in my opinion there’s still a long way to go.”

“A lot of the time the students are ahead of the universities, because technology is second nature to them.”

Within a sector that has seen much-hyped trends come and go, what technologies can be implemented to prepare undergraduates for the working world? “We support modern communication tools – like VC or Skype for business or any interactive communication tools that can unite different groups of students from different schools and countries.” states Lesch.

Lesch adds that he sees potential in virtual reality broadening students’ skillset. “We see VR studios and motion tracking applications as a way to teach new skills and participate in different research projects.”

Rafi outlines several drivers that Kingston University found essential for its deployment of AV technology: collaboration, removal of barriers, ease of use and better support. This has led to the introduction of Solstice and Turning Point clickers, universal control touch panels in all learning spaces and the reduction of lectern height and redesign of equipment layout. Its support infrastructure now also works from a Resource Management Suite and spotter cameras to reduce callouts.

There is a certain stigma surrounding lecturers – traditionally inclined and not willing to fully engage with modern AV technology or dedicate time to learning about it – that sometimes comes into play in the decision-making process. Yet surveys show most appreciate that technology is instrumental to their teaching, and say their institutions need more to allow them to get the most from it. “Most of my colleagues are very open to new technologies if they find it easy to use, but most of the time some help is needed,” says lecturer Eriksson. Integrators say this shouldn’t hold back any university modernising and that the answer is a universal user interface and intuitive control system that lecturers can feel at ease with, in addition to easily accessible remote support. “Educators are used to their iPad or iPhone, and obviously the new Windows operating systems are designed with touch in mind, so everything’s moving in this direction so they can feel more comfortable,” says Stuart Mizon, divisional director at distributor Midwich.

The sliding scale of budget

Although there is no shortage of awareness of the value of having AV technologies in place across EMEA, it can be difficult for this to translate into action in countries where there is no fee structure in place, or with struggling economies. A recent survey of education professionals indicated that 36% see funding as the ‘biggest inhibitor’ to creating a more positive future for education (Polycom, June 2016).

Bamidele Safe, chief operating officer SoftAbility Services, a specialist education integrator based in Abuja, Nigeria says cost is the main factor affecting the deployment of technology where he works. “A lot of European universities charge a premium compared to Nigeria and the rest of Africa generally, even compared to our private schools that are considered expensive.” This means advancing beyond the standardised projectors and lectern set-up is not currently possible in public schools – reliant on the support of government and agencies. “In the region there have been plans by institutions to introduce mobile and e-learning, but they are still limited in terms of implementation.”

In times of particular hardship, survival is prioritised over everything else. “Money is always the key issue as universities are government funded here and students don’t pay any tuition fees,” states Eriksson.

Student engagement is key

Taking into account the economic factors that affect university investment in technology, the budget that is available should be focused on listening to the students ahead of any other stakeholder to offer the most value. “I believe a lot of the time the students are ahead of the universities, because technology is second nature to them,” says Wise. Safe says students are also the key driver in central Africa; “The middle and younger generations of lecturer do engage with the technology because the students get them involved and try to ensure that they learn from each other.”

“The challenge for universities is not getting people to engage with technology, but how to remain relevant in the deployment of the technology,” says Wise. “They need to be  looking at the technology and reviewing it regularly to ensure that the provision they have is not necessarily bleeding edge, but to see if there’s something that can cause a paradigm shift in how they teach courses.”

University-led incentive schemes are starting to be put in place to ensure students see the rewards of working with technology. “We run the Kingston Award scheme to encourage students to reflect on the technical, creative and communication skills they have gained and developed here. This is backed by a certificate they receive as part of their Higher Education Achievement Record,” says Rafi. He adds that never has it been more important for universities to seek out new technologies to aid skill development as acquiring students becomes more competitive. Therefore they should prioritise attending industry exhibitions and working in partnership with the Centre for Higher Education Research and Practice (CHERP), Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) and AV specialist team, and their equivalents.

Eriksson adds that this conversation could also benefit from greater input from prospective employers themselves to create a more defined career pathway. “I strongly believe the world needs creative technologists that are capable of designing, creating, managing, publishing and delivering content to various different platforms available. It’s therefore essential to maintain a continuous dialogue with the industry so that their demands can be heard and their future employees can have the skills they value the most.”

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