Not just for kids

The use of AV technologies for education is not restricted to the primary and secondary sectors. Universities and other Further education institutions are also in on the act. InAVate reports.

For some time now, the Education vertical market has been known as a boom sector for AV and ICT technologies. The recent BETT show held in London, and the success of the National Education Expo held in The Netherlands, both demonstrated once again the appetite for technology in this market place. Both shows were said to have attracted over 60,000 visitors each. The other thing that is also synonymous with the educational market is the, now ubiquitous, interactive whiteboard. The likes of Smart Technologies, Promethean and other manufacturers and resellers have made massively successful marketing efforts to persuade governments as far apart as the UK and Mexico that this technology is an essential tool in the classroom of the future. However, due to the way education is funded in most countries, the focus has been largely on Primary and Secondary schooling.
Education authorities generally have responsibility for several schools and government funding is provided at a regional or even national level making it far easier to engage with these bodies.

At the top end of the educational spectrum, things are somewhat more complicated. Universities and further education colleges are commonly independent institutions, funded separately and in full control of their expenditure. Indeed even within a University, subject departments have considerable budgets and freedom to spend them as they see fit.

There’s also much more to education than whiteboards and projectors. Lecture theatres and teaching rooms can command budgets to rival those of many corporate facilities, with the use of sound reinforcement media control and multi-display systems common. The rise of digital signage provides yet another opportunity for AV technologies to be used in education.

One man in position to provide insight into the workings of AV in higher education is Mike Shaw, head of Audio Visual services for Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. AV comes under the larger Media Services department, which also includes photography, telecommunications and a graphic design studio, but Shaw’s department has a large range of responsibilities.

“The university has around 34,000 students and 400 individual teaching spaces across multiple campuses. I have 28 staff working under me. Their duties extend from AV installation work, classroom technical support internal equipment hire, and even maintenance of the University’s PCs. We’ve built ourselves a multidisciplinary team over the years. We’ve former army people, ex Granada engineers – all sorts.”

MMU offers students and staff a large range of educational technologies, and the challenge for Shaw when designing systems is to make them as consistent and as easy to use as possible. So, what does that actually entail?

“We have a standard AV platform that’s modified depending on certain situations. In a fully blown lecture theatre, which could seat anything from 100 to 250 people, there is a range of facilities that you would expect to find there. The bigger ones I’ve designed with dual screen presentation systems. There’ll be an AMX control system with a touch panel and then a range of media inputs. PC inputs, optional laptop inputs. There’s always a visualiser (at the moment we’re using Samsung product) and then multiple video sources. That means DVD, MiniDV and also still good old VHS. All the sources that a tutor could need are built into a bespoke lectern that we designed.”

“Apart from the lecture theatres there are numerous smaller rooms. These all have visualisers, video sources and an interactive whiteboard. In these cases we have much simpler control systems. We’ve a fair amount of Extron’s MediaLink systems installed, but more recently we’ve looked at Procon’s equipment.”

The large MMU facilities have PA systems as well as separate sound reinforcement (either simple stereo or surround sound) both designed and installed by Shaw’s team.

Another man in a similar position of decision making is Tor Arne Pedersen, AV manager for the Bi School in Oslo, Norway. Unlike Shaw he doesn’t have a full installation team at his disposal, instead he works with local integrators seeking their knowledge on new technologies and using them to install new equipment under his supervision.

“The use of technology is widespread in Norwegian universities and higher education now. The University of Oslo has projectors and Smart boards in every room. Ourselves we don’t have any, I’ve not yet found them to be necessary for the business studies that we teach. However, for general projection and flat panel displays et-cetera, our budget this year is around 400,000 Norwegian Krones (approx. €48,000).”

One thing that Bi does use, and is expanding into more, is video conferencing equipment. “We currently have one Tandberg codec,” said Pedersen, “which we use to link with a partner establishment in Singapore, the Technical University. I think this kind of application will be increasingly important as it allows our students to interact with others in a similar environment and exchange ideas. I foresee that we’ll add at least one of these a year for the next couple of years, it’s quite an investment. However, I don’t think we particularly need HD technology for this.”

Video conferencing is something that MMU have also looked at. Mike Shaw again: “Our VC systems at the moment are mostly old ISDN ones. Switching it over to IP based systems is something we’re definitely looking at in the future, but it’s tied into the issue of general AV – IT convergence, which has to be considered as a whole.
“One of the reasons we’re merging with the IT department is because everything is becoming IP addressable and sitting on the network. At the moment almost all of these rooms we have are stand alone, but we’re moving towards a more converged system. For instance, we’re about to trial AMX’s resource management software in a couple of rooms and see how it works out for us. I’m really interested in the remote management and monitoring possibilities.”

On the continent, Dutch Integrators Hecla are taking the education market so seriously they have set up a specific team to tackle this vertical sector. They have recruited former economic lecturer Jeroen Helms as their account manager, using his knowledge of the education field to their advantage.

“The department has only been up and running two months, but already it’s doing well. We have determined that the best way to approach education is a solution based one. For example, we’ve developed something called Easy Beam, which is a mobile projection unit that can be shared between a number of rooms. It has all the necessary sources and a projector built in. It’s an all in one package. Something else on the way is the Navigator, which is a combined AV and chemistry teaching product. Another mobile unit, this has a camera built in and connects to an AV system so that the lecturer can easily show to the class what is going on in a demonstration experiment.”

Helms described the Dutch government as investing a fair amount of money in education currently. “However, schools and universities need to think carefully about how they spend that. They need solutions that can keep pace with technology developments and adapt to them.”

Another key issue, which affects all markets, not just education, is the ease of use of solutions. In teaching in particular the equipment needs to enhance a lesson or lecture rather than coming between students and staff.

The Hecla solution to this is to encourage schools to enter into service level agreements. These are value add arrangements including service and supply of the equipment as well as training of staff in its use.
At Manchester Metropolitan, staff training can be one of Mike Shaw’s biggest challenges: “Because we’re so big, and because there’s this large push for technology, the challenge is to make sure all our staff know how to use it. There’s a big range of users, with a range of IT skills. In the past we’ve advertised particular workshops for new equipment for anyone who wants to attend, but they've tended not to be as successful as organising departmental training sessions when they ask us.
“However, the University is currently totally changing its approach to this through professional development programmes and so forth. Staff will be expected to attend sessions and events in a structured fashion. Of course my staff and I are always available on a more informal basis.”

Large campuses lend themselves to a whole host of other AV services than simply projection and teaching. Digital signage is finding its way into departmental foyers to give students information on time tabling or events, as well as into student bars carrying drinks promotion information or advertisements and bringing extra revenue to the University. The challenge for administrators and AV service departments is to develop unified platforms that provide a consistency of look and branding across the whole campus. As Mike Shaw remarks: “The hardware and installation is not the problem. It’s the content – who is going to manage it and be responsible for creating it?”

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