Demanding digital

Students are demanding more than ever from the audio-visual components of their university experience, writes Nicola Yeeles

Throughout universities and colleges, (audio-visual) AV technology is the beating heart of communication – and significant strides have been made recently that organisations are keen to take advantage of.  

“Being able to see and hear the content of a seminar or lecture is the key to understanding,” explained Adam Harvey, audio-visual and digital media development manager at the University of Hertfordshire.

This is not just limited to teaching spaces. Whether it is digital signage, presentation or collaboration technology, there is now an expectation that universities provide spaces that are equipped for the modern learning experience. Adam continued: “We have tried to develop spaces that are joined up so the environment and technology go hand in hand. It’s not invasive but there if you need it.” Providing display screens for easy connectivity for group and collaboration work is also key.

Recent advances are making AV technology better for everyone. For a start, John Dykes, Casio’s business development manager, said: “Connectivity is also a major factor for this year, with robust Wi-Fi networks now at the forefront of investment plans, which is enabling remote management, content dissemination and BYOD linked to displays. This is making technology more central to classrooms and lecture theatres and enabling students to have real-time sharing in more interactive lectures and study groups.” 

Casting a view 

For almost a decade, universities have been webcasting videos to students. From a camera to doc-cams, students to lecturer, social media to documents, and PowerPoint to film, there are multiple points of focus in a single lecture, never mind on a student’s own phone or tablet. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that manufacturers have been focusing on this area, as Myles Carter, media relations representative at Matrox, explained: “In the last year there have been major strides forward that are allowing for interesting applications such as live streaming through social media with real-time feedback and commenting, or multi-stream playback, allowing the viewer to see multiple, synchronised streams at the same time, and switch fluidly – and glitch free – between them.

 “Video walls coming to market are able to accept multiple IP sources, which doesn’t just mean that more information can be displayed, but relevant information can be displayed side-by-side in a way that’s intuitive and highlights connections.”  

The latest video walls can share, stream and record up-to-the-minute academic calendars, live sporting events, class cancellations and university promotions, as well as security information regarding weather, safety, construction, or other potential disruptions instantaneously. This, he argues, makes for a more secure campus overall; staff and students do not have to check their email to find out crucial information about the university and information can be delivered locally to those who need to know.

Challenges in implementation

So when it comes to implementing the new technology, what’s causing headaches for university IT teams? Firstly, many IT departments are reluctant to rely on cloud networks and Wi-Fi for delivery of critical AV services because of poor Wi-Fi experiences in the past, but there have been encouraging advancements in this area. And as a mark of that confidence, at the University of Hertfordshire, a recent installation of AV in the science building was done using AV over IP technology. Hertfordshire’s Adam Harvey said: “This is a step away from traditional AV install practice to a network-based AV distribution system. It was a huge learning curve for us.”

Spiros Andreou, service delivery manager at CDEC, believes that the key to overcoming any Wi-Fi concerns is in understanding the technology and developing security to match. “As AV devices become equal citizens on the network, security policies need to be developed collaboratively with desktop, network, enterprise architecture and AV support teams involved in the conversation.”  

By seeing AV as part of the whole they can avoid segregating AV systems off into private VLANs or disabling network interfaces. But, he says, this isn’t a call to abandon good security practice. “These devices are not infallible, with exposed USB ports and often running proprietary code, despite making some huge leaps in security – it’s difficult now to find products that won’t communicate on unencrypted channels or support administrative lockdown.”

To help anticipate some of the issues, Andreou recommends you scrutinise cloud service providers: “With general data protection regulation (GDPR) on its way, now is the time to find out where data is stored, backed up and how it is encrypted. Work in partnership with your service providers to specify and build compliant solutions from day one, and don’t be afraid to request an on-premises installation.”

Compatibility is key 

Despite considerable progress in the software running on AV hardware, compatibility remains an issue. Andreou said: “Although not all AV products support Active Directory, Exchange and DFS shares, more and more solutions are available with built-in Android or Windows PCs which can cause headaches for the desktop infrastructure teams with drivers, imaging and anti-virus struggles.” 

It’s one of the factors in considering whether to procure a managed AV solution from a company which installs and manages it for you, or one that is run by the in-house team. 

Making the best choice

The ways that different universities procure equipment may vary, but as Hertfordshire’s Adam Harvey explained: “We all use new kit and development equipment to inform new solutions and designs regularly as it is really the only way to ensure they work as described and to give internal users and teams some real-life interaction with new technology.” Overcoming the procurement challenges is down to one thing, according to Dykes at Casio: “Demo! 

For institutions like universities, contact with manufacturers and hands-on experience with product is essential.” 

Aside from the user experience, he also recommends working closely with manufacturers when procuring new equipment. It is crucial, Dykes argues, to make the financial arguments clear to suppliers: “Ensuring you specify technology with optimum total cost of ownership should also be considered during the purchasing process.” With more information about the lifespan of the equipment, it’s easier to compare like-for-like. 

Knowing what’s on the horizon is also a factor in making good procurement decisions. It’s still early days for 4K video adoption, but something else to watch is the forthcoming format war for the new high-quality video codecs looking to take over from the current one, H264. 

AV1 is backed by a slew of industry giants such as Intel, Apple, Arm, Google and Mozilla and promises to be free, released under the Alliance for Open Media, but there’s also the MPEG-developed HEVC/H265. CDEC’s Spiros Andreou said: “Both codecs promise to deliver extremely high-quality video at 4K and 8K at modest bitrates and should pave the way for 4K media delivery.” 

For those who want to invest at the cutting edge, it is already possible to buy H265-ready devices from manufacturers like Blackmagic, and it is built into the new Mac OS Sierra operating system from Apple.  

Adam Harvey explained what motivates decisions at the University of Hertfordshire: “A big driver for us is standardisation in our teaching rooms. Academic staff can feel at home with the technology we provide in our teaching rooms as it’s the same or very similar across the whole university. 

This helps by not having to spend time at the beginning of the lecture trying to work out how to turn the projector on.” Continuing work on maintenance-free technology and build quality also help to minimise breakdowns and avoid disrupting teaching. But across the university, the same custom-touch panel ensures that lecturers face the same user interface, wherever they are in the organisation. “Hopefully the students feel that all makes a difference,” concluded Harvey.