Tech savvy future learning spaces

SCHOMS€™ growing influence on the world of learning spaces was reflected at its record 2014 conference at the University of Exeter

Reporting by David Knight and Hannah Oakman

The sun shone brightly on this year’s Standing Conference for Heads of Media Services (SCHOMS) event, the main gathering of the professional body for senior managers working within UK higher education.

Delegates gathered from 48 UK institutions on campus at the University of Exeter to listen to a host of international speakers as well as leading professionals from the UK such as Professor Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor at Exeter University. The event also included a packed trade show featuring the latest AV and technological suppliers to the higher education sector. 

International speakers at this year’s event included: Dr Gordon Howell, associate director, learning environments and technology services, Queensland University of Technology; Dr Sandra L Miller, president of CCUMC (the equivalent of SCHOMS in the US); and David Labuskes, executive director and chief executive officer of InfoComm International, the leading trade association for the professional AV industry worldwide. 

In fact, a breakthrough agreement was announced at the conference whereby all SCHOMS UK institutions will become members of InfoComm International and will receive select free online training, along with access to discounted advanced training. The agreement means InfoComm International will gain 75 new members from SCHOMS.

“The agreement with InfoComm delivers a consistent and recognised approach to developing and professionalising our staff to meet the needs of our learners and exceed their growing expectations,” said SCHOMS chair, Paul Wood.

InfoComm’s David Labuskes added: “We have worked together over the years to advance the AV profession at universities and provide networking for senior managers at higher education institutions throughout the UK and hope this effort will lead to more joint initiatives in the future.” 

Professionalising the AV/IT workforce – and its convergence with technology – was also the main theme of keynote speaker Dr Gordon Howell. He explained that providing new collaborative learning methods and spaces – such as ‘flat floor’ classrooms at Queensland University and wet labs with 250 all-in-one touch screens for students at Sydney University – had revealed confusing differences in cultures of the separate AV and IT teams called upon to service the developments. 

Faced with the constant questions ‘is it an AV or an IT set up?’ and ‘if you have a fault, who do you call?’ Gordon Howell merged the support staff and said: “It’s a learning environments job. There’s no distinction now.”

He added that the challenges facing the new technology support officers included ‘creating a common language’, offering value propositions, charting where technology and AV was heading and selling the vision to academic staff and students. 

“We think we’re in the business of providing technology but we are deluding ourselves. Students and academic staff are bringing their own devices, most bring two or three devices a day, and will use university devices as well. And faculties are buying all sorts of packages and apps over which they have no control at all. 

“We’re using more and more technology and I tell support officers that we support technology. If we support whatever technology comes up next, we’ll have a long-term future.” 

Interactive learning

Delegates to the conference experienced computer-supported collaborative learning for themselves with an interactive workshop in one of the new exploration labs within the University of Exeter’s £48m Forum development.

They were split up into teams and set a mapping task using the 10 ‘touch tables’ – large horizontal computers about the size of a pool table with multi-touch interfaces that can support many different interactions at the same time.

Each table is height adjustable and colour-coded, with the colour relating to a wall monitor, which mirrors each table’s display. Through these monitors, different groups can share what they’re working on with other groups in the room.

Matt Newcome, Head of E-Learning Development, Educational Quality and Enhancement, described the exploration lab as a powerful space that changed the way students were taught. “Students normally sit and follow instructions but in the lab they are brought around the tables in group work exercises. They understand how to work as a team, how to work on the tables and how to use technology.”

Alex Louch of the Students’ Guild at Exeter told delegates of the role he had played on behalf of students in the development of the labs and the Forum. “I sat in meetings with planners and budget holders from the outset, asking the tough questions. If we are on the same page as senior staff, it can make a big difference.” 

Further discussions included Rob Hyde from the University of Bath on the difficulties of live streaming events and James Rutherford from the University of the Arts/London College of Fashion on collaborative learning spaces at Derby and Loughborough Universities.

As well as staging presentations and discussions on the latest developments in learning environments and AV technology, SCHOMS14 also played host to the UK’s largest suppliers exhibition with a single HE focus. From Canon to Wolfvision, 25 companies set up exhibition stands in the Great Hall, giving delegates the chance to have concentrated discussions about requirements.

Delegates and suppliers also came together for a ‘Question Time’ discussion on procurement with panel members representing SCHOMS, suppliers and university purchasing consortia.

SCHOMS members lead and manage a diverse set of educational, technology, media and institutional support services. They give strategic direction to support and promote excellence in teaching and learning practice through the deployment of classroom technology, AV equipment and innovation in the design of learning spaces.

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