Toby Wise, Snelling on how AV can be optimised in universities

Charlotte Ashley spoke to Toby Wise, managing director at Snelling Business Systems, to discuss how universities can help nuture the skillset of the latest graduates with their deployment of AV.

CA: What are the key drivers of what AV technology gets installed at learning spaces at universities? And who does this come from?

TW: Fundamentally the specifiers within universities tend to be technical people in the universities themselves. It does vary by university, but generally speaking there will have been some engagement with the academic staff and the senior leadership team, and the senior leadership team should be inputting at least what the student expectation is, or how they’re aligning their provision with the student experience, or the expectation of how they wish to align their provision.

They’ll be a variety of drivers, but really the key driver behind it is actually the student expectation – because if you look at education from outside the bubble of AV education, if you are a student (or in fact anybody) you can spend £25 on a pizza – click in icon to order it online and watch as you pick your toppings, as it gets dispatched onto you know who will be delivering it to your door and when they’re about to ring your doorbell, and hey presto, there’s your pizza. And that’s for £25, so when I’m spending my £9,000+ a year, I’ve got pretty high expectations of what I’m going to get. That’s the generation that you’re dealing with.

You obviously want that qualification which gives you a good life experience, the ability to earn some money, and hopefully you’ll enjoy yourself while you’re there. That’s all part of the student experience, but fundamentally, the technology that they’re deploying in there has got to support the teaching and learning, and it’s got to support the student experience as good as it possibly can be, because if you’re choosing to pay your huge amount of money and come out of there with roughly £50,000 grand of debt, you want to get something could for that, don’t you? You want it to be an enabler for you. I think really where the focus should be is making a great student experience, and the technology has got to able that to happen. That’s really the key driver, and all the rest of it are the various steps that have to take place to ensure that all of that does happen.

CA: What products are popular? Are digital signage and room booking systems now commonplace?

TW: I mean there are a few hot topics at the moment. Digital signage is a de facto one– every university has it, and in fact there’s probably some in the student union that they like to control themselves, and they’ll be a general one around the university with some sort of levels of access and control. And that’s just a one-way system that pushed information out.

In terms of room bookings, they never have enough space, they haven’t got enough rooms and they’re always struggling to find a room, even though you walk past half a dozen empty ones.  It’s their booking systems which are sort of an issue for them there, so some universities will just have a screen outside the room telling you when the next lecture is and all that kind of stuff and what’s going to happen in there – but usually that’s a one way thing. You can’t press a button and book that room like in corporate environments – they’ll have that sort of system, but universities won’t because it’s usually centralised booking. I’ve yet to see any university roll out a system where you can press a button on a touchscreen by the door and book that room, it’s technically possible, but they don’t tend to do it.

Other than that, the technologies that are popular within the universities are the base ones. It’ll be projection or large flat panels, or even now they’ve started to move to LED modular screens for lectures because of the price reduction and performance of these things. So price is dropping and performance is increasing so they’re starting to become viable for that environment.

Fundamentally I think the one thing universities are struggling with in one shape of form is capturing the lectures and then making them available for students, ideally in an app-based platform so as you can just recap (because ‘oh, I fell asleep in that bit,’ or ‘I wasn’t missed that bit and want to watch it again’). So if you can put that in one platform, that’s really where you want to be, and most universities are doing something along those lines, but there’s no uniformity across the universities as they're all doing something slightly different.

CA: Do you think there’s enough awareness amongst universities regarding the options available to them?

TW: No, it does vary a lot. It’s actually to do with how they've been structured internally for 10 plus years – probably a lot longer than that actually. Originally you would have found that the AV department was lots of men in brown coats running around and moving overhead projectors around on trolleys and slide projectors, and it was very much a support function for lecturers. Someone would come set the equipment up – the ‘tech support’ generally has gone as a cost saving measure they said ‘oh well, we can get rid of that!’ and get permanently installed system in.

In a number of universities – I would say it’s probably an even split – that function has gone and has been absorbed into the IT function so what you now get is you may have one person that has knowledge of systems (that fundamental things like how big a screen needs to be, how to do sound in a room where people can hear it) and they’ve been absorbed into the IT team.

Or in some cases, they’ve just gone altogether and the IT team has taken the burden of doing the AV stuff because it tends to fall under that budget – where that’s happened, those universities tend not to fare so well in their AV provision, because the baseline of understanding of what’s necessary has gone and it tends to be very cost-driven rather than focusing on the value to students, and that’s really not a good approach because it gives a poor experience. So those universities would be well advised to actually go to external consultants who specialise in AV to help them draw up the requirement that they should put in, or they can use Lot 3 suppliers to the university sector under LUPC or SUPC frameworks (who are accredited and authorised to do design work).

The other side will be universities that have taken a different approach – who have retained an AV team, so they may will still have their onsite technicians that are providing support. They may well have someone heading up a team that may well be a sub-division of IT, or it may well be really under that umbrella, but it’s still an AV function. They tend to fair better because they’ve still got some core residual knowledge that has probably been built up over many years, which helps them to deliver the service.

Once again, it depends on whether they’re forward looking, or retrospective looking as to what systems they deploy. We’ve seen it done extremely well in some cases, and less well in other cases so there’s bit of a split in the market at the moment.

CA: At recent wide-scale projects such as Kingston University, the theme was very much collaborative spaces and BYOD. Are you seeing a lot of this in the market?

TW: There’s a lot of that going on in the market at the moment - with mixed results I would say. It’s a little bit like the Jurassic Park film where he’s looking at the bit of amber with the gnat in it – yeah we could do it, we could build dinosaurs and Jeff Goldblum says ‘yeah well just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.’ Sometimes you can do it, and there are a variety of platforms that allow you to do this, but you’ve got to look at the user benefit. You’ve got to actually look whether it makes sense, and in some environments it really does, and I have seen some great deployments of this type of technology.

Of course, in many of these environments we’re working on an existing estate which has got a mixed architecture of things and then the question is ‘okay, well we’re not going to have a whole building that functions in one way, but we’ve got to decide what it is we need those systems to do so is it relevant to be able to put everyone’s iPad on the screen at the same time for example?’ And one example where that does work, I recently went to an open day at a London University where it was a maths course that was being taught and a question was set at the front of the class, and the same question appeared on the potential students iPad. They each had to then comment on the puzzle that they had in front of them, and then at the appropriate time the lecturer presses a button and all the screens appeared at the front anonymously. It was a great tool to see if the group really ‘got it’ or didn’t get it because it was visible to the lecturer and everybody else could see what people were thinking – and that really sparked debate. That was great way of using the technology for a practical purpose.

Conversely there are other examples where that technology is deployed, but it just isn’t used, and it’ll come back to asking does the lecturer really want to walk around with a wireless device and be able to present from it? And is there really much benefit from them using a computer that’s got a wire? If it is truly a unique useful technology, it probably will become more and more widespread, but deploying in enterprise-application way (as in universities) always has challenges – especially when it comes to security and the distribution of appropriate material. There has to be a business case for why universities are doing something.

CA: As I’ve been looking into this, a recurring issue seems to be whether the students that are graduating now have the technical, creative and communication skills for the modern working world, and how they acquire them.

TW: I do believe actually that a lot of the time the students are ahead of the universities, because using the technology is just second nature to them. In fact, when we talk to a major corporate that we’re deploying systems for in new offices, whether they’re going to be moving an existing estate of their workforce or they’re looking for an entirely new graduate intake for the office will shape the approach to the technology they deploy. If it’s going to be an entirely new graduate workforce they will deploy the latest technology because the perception is that they find those people natively use it. Where as if they deploy that same second generation technology to an existing workforce that have been used to the existing previous systems then there’s more resistance and less uptake of the new systems provided.

I don’t really think the universities have a challenge in deploying the latest technology, a think the challenge for the universities is remaining relevant in the deployment of the technology. 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 ensure they are incorporating certain technologies that can cause a paradigm shift in the way in how students learn.

When it comes to ‘virtual classrooms,’ all types of virtual systems (such as recap systems) build knowledge and questions and develop human intelligence. The more you’re learnt from ‘dead sources,’ the better you can debate or discuss when you come to a lecture, or go into a business meeting with years of experience in their field. The more information you have the greater the outcome you will get, the more learning you will come away with, so I think I think it’s essential to take a blended approach.

CA: Do you still find any scepticism from the universities who think ‘oh, well if you put it all online’ then they won’t bother coming, or students may get lazy?

TW: That’s not the case here anymore to be honest. I mean some years ago at the very early stages of being able to provide recap systems that was the concern – and people asked why would students come and whether lecturers become redundant etc. But actually it’s the experience of being with that lecturer and that human intelligence that you can’t get from dead material that really makes the whole thing worthwhile.

CA: With fees at all-time high in the UK, are budgets under increasing scrutiny and are the budgets there to achieve what’s needed and what universities want to deliver to their students. Does it vary on a case-by-case scenario?

TW: Currently, we’ve seen no reduction in the level spend from our university clients. These people tend to plan in five-year cycles and we’ve not seen any Brexit-impact as yet. There is noise in the channel, some positive and some negative, but there’s no real impact yet.

What I can tell you is that the figures from last year (so pre-Brexit) from SUPC [Southern Universities Purchasing Consortium] about their spend are claiming well over their own estimate of what the universities would spend within the year. So there was an increase in forecast from the previous year, 2015, and certainly we’ve seen no slow-down in 2016. It’s currently very buoyant on the university sector.

That’s not so in further education or below (in secondary schools and junior schools) because the funding just isn’t there in the sector, not since the Blair-Brown [Labour government 1997-2007] era. There was funding, but that’s all dried up and gone. So budgets are certainly very challenged in FP, and primary and secondary education.

CA: Do you think with the fees students are now paying it’s increased the level of competition to get them?

TW: Yes, for sure. Universities are all competing against each other here. It’s one of the drivers for the technology to be honest, because they’ve got to be able to offer great provision to your potential students. And if you’re at an Oxbridge University then perhaps you won’t need to worry so much about that so much, but if you’re a new town university, you’ve got to have a digital great AV facility. I think it really is important that they ensure their student experience is going to be a good one and then they’re budgets won’t be so challenged.

CA: Something that came up at our recent roundtable was that is something goes wrong technically it still may sometimes be the case that lecturers don’t handle in the best way and going to tech support is their first port of call when often it is a simple issue. Is there sometimes a resistance to new technologies and making the time to learn how to use them among lecturers?

TW: I would agree that this does happen. But I think actually the onus is upon us an industry to improve that for them. Students have all got an iPhone or an Android phone, so has everybody in the modern-day office, and how many of us receive training on how to use one? It just works, doesn’t it? And we need to provide systems for these people that just work, it’s as simple as that, and if we aren’t doing that then we’re failing. It’s not really about educating them – there will be some areas where you’ve got a large complicated lecture space and they want to do something very specific and there needs to be some training on how that thing works – but again, we should make that really simple and easy for them, whether that be by a video short they can get off a QR code on the device.

Fundamentally, the onus is on us as a design community and the supply community to make it simple for them to use those systems.

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