Mixed fortunes for AV as education sector gets back on its feet

After a tough time in 2020, this summer has seen the education sector make an assertive comeback, but it’s not business as usual. Anna Mitchell reports.

As the summer recess draws to a close, technology suppliers to schools and universities, as well as the professionals that manage technology within those facilities, have been busy preparing for the challenges of a new year. Despite increased confidence in the sector compared to summer 2020, no one truly knows what the future holds.

There is hope that the new term will bring a degree of normality, but many organisations we spoke to are focused on equipping teaching and learning spaces with technologies that will support smaller class sizes as well as remote learners. Dubbed hybrid spaces, these classrooms come in various forms (more on that later) but the important thing is as teaching scenarios have changed, the requirement for technology to support those new scenarios has changed too.

New technologies required means increased business, right? Well, yes but with a perfect storm of supply chain issues, superconductor and semiconductor shortages, Covid-related staff availability problems and, for UK institutions, ongoing Brexit woes; it’s not been the easiest of summers for pro AV professionals working in education.

James Rutherford, senior educational technologist at City, University of London, has ambitious plans and a lot of work to do with a tight end of September deadline. It’s all going ahead but he says these factors have “thrown a rusty spanner in the works”.

While Kristian Cutting, joint managing director, at UK integrator GVAV, says: “Summer 2021 is proving to be just as busy as pre-pandemic levels… as long as stock is available.”


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Darren Clayman, managing director of integrator IDNS, also listed off a catalogue of problems and hurdles challenging his company’s work this summer. Add to that, the education sector has been under such a cloud of uncertainty, when they do spend, a lot of it is last minute preparations. “It’s pushed us, but the key thing is how adaptable are you as a business. On the staff side do you have your own engineers and the staff to manage the work? And then it’s also to do with strength of your supply chain; if you partner with the right companies in the right way, it’s still not perfect, but you’re in a better place.”

Clayman’s mood seems shared by all those we spoke to for the feature; there are challenges but most AV suppliers to education establishments are upbeat and the sector is spending… so where’s the cash going?

UK integrator Pure AV is as busy as it was before the pandemic however “the work is erratic,” says Martin Clay, the company’s head of technical sales and design (HE). “People are catching up from works put off last year and priorities have changed.”

For Alexandre Rouvelet, technical and administrative director at Swiss integrator Projection Nouvelle, most of his work has been transforming and adapting classrooms that already have AV equipment. “The goal of these facilities is always to increase interaction between the professors and the students, and they have to be easy to use,” he says.

Rutherford concurs and says the big addition to the usual upgrade and maintenance works at his university is the Isla (Inclusive Synchronous Learning Activities) project. This has seen his team work for months on the best technical approach to give remote students the most inclusive experience possible, working out a more sophisticated system than simply a webcam and a laptop, and one that offers a better experience for remote students than simply “tagging along online”. The plan is to roll it out to 25 rooms by the end of September.

“We’ve been very clear that we want to make the experience as inclusive as possible for people that can’t be present in a room due to social distancing rules or physical, geographic or medical reasons,” he says.

“Summer 2021 is proving to be just as busy as pre-pandemic levels… as long as stock is available.” - Kristian Cutting, GVAV

Michael Sadler, audio visual development manager at City, University of London, expects many of the students joining classes at the start of this term to be remote, regardless of the relaxation in restrictions across the UK. “Many of our students are non-domestic and because of pandemic travel restrictions, a lot that have signed up won’t be able to get into the country in time.”  

“The international students are paying healthy tuition fees, we’re under pressure to cater for them,” adds Rutherford.

Both Rutherford and Sadler point out that these spaces are really effective for up to about 40 people but a different approach should be taken for larger groups.

“Large group teaching has been really effective online,” says Rutherford. “For when people go back to campus and there are some students that need to part of that, we’ve been looking at a livestream solution based on the Echo360 lecture capture system. But we are telling teaching staff not to look at this as a particularly interactive system.”

Sadler elaborates: “We use Echo360 for live streaming because it’s in house and we can run it off our own Echo servers. From a security perspective we’re not hosting it from an unknown cloud source. It also uses the existing hardware in the room and students can follow and access content from familiar tools.”

He adds that the university uses multiple platforms that are starting to crossover as each expands its functionality. “Teams, Zoom, the lecture capture platforms, the content management platforms, we use Kaltura as well for content creation and management,” he lists. “They all offer very similar functions and facilities that you can use to deliver the same thing. It can become a bit of a headache to manage those systems but fortunately a lot of them are getting better at cross integration so they’ve got Zoom plugins and Teams plugins.”


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Clay has also worked a lot on hybrid teaching spaces this summer but he says they’ve mostly been pilot projects. “We’ve done what you would deem standard lecture room installs but with an added layer for hybrid learning. Most universities I’ve spoken to say ‘we’re a campus based learning environment and we want our students back,” he adds.

“Most of the installations at schools and universities are from EU funds and since that cycle lasts about two years, the schools and universities are still catching up with tenders and projects from 2019,” says Bohumil Tonkovic, CEO and head designer of AV technologies at MediaTech Central Europe, an integrator headquartered in Bratislava.

Rouvelet also says the increase in demand for systems to support videoconferencing and online broadcast hasn’t come at the expense of “traditional equipment”. He adds: “Projectors and interactive whiteboards are still relevant.’”

That said, Clayman’s take is that higher and further education over the last few years has moved away from big lecture theatres to seminar rooms that promote group work. The difference this year has been “you can’t sit next to anyone anymore,” he says.

“When they do move back into the physical space they need an agile system so we’ve designed blended learning suites for them where they can teach with various styles, across multiple rooms and reach remote students.

“Interactive flatpanels are proving successful here; they have powerful software and functionality within the panel itself and they’re also great in terms of connection between personal devices and the panel for content sharing.”

But, returning to a common theme, the catch is this year unless you’ve had them ordered well in advance, Clayman says “you can’t buy them for love nor money”.

“We want to make the experience as inclusive as possible for people that can’t be present in a room due to social distancing rules or physical, geographic or medical reasons.” - James Rutherford, University of London

Because of that social distancing requirement (which even if it’s not required by law is likely to still be wanted by universities), booking systems that manage spaces are also an important part of upgrade works according to Clayman. “We work with UCL and they’ve got a 900-seat lecture theatre that now holds 90 people. Space becomes crucial when you’ve got one tenth of what you had before so you need to know how it’s being used, when it’s being used and what’s available to avoid it being wasted.”

 

Hybrid spaces

With most new works focused on hybrid spaces, what’s going in to those projects? One size does not fit all, but there are commonalities.

“We’ve been delivering hybrid solutions across a range of spaces from large lecture theatres to small teaching rooms,” says Clay. “There’s lots of differences but they all involve a camera of some description, a microphone system and processing.”

“We’re adding solutions for audio capture and audio recording,” adds Rouvelet. “In 2020 and 2021 we have sold numerous Ubicast systems and [Microsoft] Teams and Zoom licenses with their peripherals.

“Ubicast systems are directly implemented in the classroom and allow the recording of video content. This solution, appreciated by the professors, is particularly suitable for digital and hybrid teaching. Speech to text features and auto tracking cameras assist professors during their lectures.”

IDNS has relied heavily on its IT expertise when it came to delivering hybrid or agile spaces. “It’s all shifted to AV over IP and Teams and Zoom integration has become really important in these settings,” Clayman says. “Our standard set up now is a large format screen, a codec, a camera, some form of speaker set up and control. Pretty straightforward. The key thing is content and delivering it in a varied fashion without it being over complicated. That’s where the IT software piece comes in; it’s done by Teams or Zoom.”

It’s clear the collaboration platform is now vital to these installations, but which platform? “[It] varies between schools and teachers,” answers Tonkovic.

The fact the education sector is mostly having to accommodate both Teams and Zoom users might not sound unusual but, when you add other elements needed to deliver lessons effectively, it can provide extra challenges for technical teams.

“We are largely a Microsoft house and Teams was the preferred method of collaboration online but we found certain schools had a preference for Zoom,” confirms Sadler.  “That mix made the challenge of developing in-room systems interesting.

“We’ve had to come up with different flavours of Ilsa in different rooms. In the rooms where we aren’t confident it will be a particular school or faculty [using them], we’ve gone with the PC in a room hosting a client so they could use Teams, Zoom, or whatever they want on the PC. We’ve also installed Sennheiser TeamConnect ceiling microphones and two PTZ cameras: one at the back of the room facing the academic, and one on the wall facing the audience. Microphone and camera feeds are pulled into the PC. The academic choses which view they send out.

“For rooms where we are confident it will only be one or the other [Teams or Zoom] we have gone with a room system, mostly standardised on Crestron Flex. Those rooms will either be Zoom Rooms or Teams Rooms with the associated licences.”

Rutherford adds: “We’ll have a large screen on a wall. When there’s group work, Q&As or more discursive sessions going on, this will show the gallery view of Teams or Zoom with a camera above it so there’s a reference to people online.”


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Clay says: “If you’re a student sat at home remotely you need to feel part of that audience as well. It’s not good enough to have the visuals on the screen and a view of the presenter; you need to be able to see the questions coming from the audience.

“Dual lens cameras are really useful here. The Aver PTC500 and Lumens VC-TR1 both feature main and secondary camera lenses. The students can get a wide shot of the presentation wall and closeup of the presenter. This also provides the ability for auto-tracking, the wide shot lens is essentially being used to monitor movement and direct the second lens. It delivers two outputs; from a system designer perspective, that means I can also feed the AV system with two options.”

In addition to the cameras, Clay says that the right microphones play an essential role too. “Shure and Sennheiser have the most capable beamforming products in this area. You can usually cover a 200-seat lecture theatre with two to four ceiling microphones and hear where each question comes from.

“You can use that information to direct the camera and that’s the most interesting development from our perspective. The key ingredient that interfaces between the camera and microphone is the DSP and control system and QSC are quite good on this front.

“The feeds generally go into Teams or Zoom [platforms] but it’s making sure the student sees the correct bit – whether that’s the lecturer, a PowerPoint, the audience or a student asking a question – without too much intervention from the lecturer. Making all that happen for them automatically is the tricky bit.”

Of course, there are two sides to this; in many cases the lecturers want to see the students as well. “I think we’ll see more lecture theatres with a row of monitors facing the presenter so they can see the remote students,” Clay adds.

Ease of use for teaching staff is also a priority for Tonkovic. “The technology has to be installed in such a way that it works unattended or at the touch of a button. Teachers should not deal with the functionality of technologies and this is a challenge for all system integrators.”

It’s not just the technology that’s important in these spaces. GVAV has installed lots of rooms for hybrid teaching this summer based on various systems including Crestron, Mersive and Cynap. Cutting stresses: “Environmental considerations are important for maximum performance. Typically this involves an acoustic survey and treatment.”

The other piece of the puzzle is training. According to Clayman, technology has “moved on five years in 12 months” so in addition to supplying equipment his team are busy making sure education facilities are getting up to speed with how to make the best of their assets.

“A classic example is the teacher who’s got an interactive whiteboard sat behind them with a touchscreen and they’re teaching kids on Teams and they’re trying to draw a circle with a mouse. It’s just a lack of understanding. They’ve been thrown in the deep end. So we’re promoting training on Teams as well. It’s such a powerful piece of software.

 

Broadcasting classes

Distance learning was gaining prevalence even before the pandemic and with that an increase in production quality of presentations and tutorials that were purely recorded for ingestion online. Over at City, University of London, the School of Engineering, Maths and Computer Science were spurred into action by lockdowns.

“They wanted us to develop a ‘TV studio’ as they called it,” says Sadler. “The quality of the content academics produced at home was dependent on the quality of the hardware they were using and the environment they were working in and lacked consistency.

“We were asked to develop an in-house facility that allowed them to stand in front of the camera and record a piece that could then get uploaded to the VLE. They were looking to do a fully digital course and so having this investment in a dedicated suite made a lot of sense. We decided on the Rapidmooc product that we tweaked a little to suit our specific requirements.”

Rutherford elaborates: “There’s a greenscreen, studio lighting, the Rapidmooc system does all the compositing. There are different ways you can use it: graphics in front of you, graphics behind, a simple key background, could be a PowerPoint presentation.”

Clayman has had similar requests: “More content is being recorded, more content is being made available online. The quality of it needs to be right. You don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a professional recording studio, but there should be space set up in the right way so you can book a dedicated room with the right equipment, you can go in, record your content. You don’t need many of these spaces, you just need to be sure they’re done properly. It’s gaining in popularity and customers are realising they need a decent camera and a decent audio pick up.”

Tonkovic thinks that the quality of professionally produced lectures for broadcast could be a differentiating factor between universities. He says as long as copyright issues are addressed this trend could see universities investing more in technology to improve this kind of output and compete against other facilities to attract students.

“More content is being recorded, more content is being made available online. The quality of it needs to be right.” - Darren Clayman, IDNS

Clayman agrees but adds that because the driving force is often competition on a global stage, it’s often championed by marketing departments, or even ICT departments who are excited about what is possible. “You’ve got to get the lecturers and the chancellorship on board for it to work,” he cautions.

The education sector has changed immeasurably due to Covid and, while some of that is sort-term reactive changes, elsewhere it has accelerated trends already happening, made people think carefully about other ways of operating, as well as the flexibility of spaces to handle an uncertain future.

As Rutherford says: “We’re not going back to normal.”

Top image credit: AS photostudio/Shutterstock.com

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