The AV revolution

Nicola Yeeles asks, are your students reaping the benefits of your AV investments?

There’s a quiet revolution going on in universities. Continuing investment in hardware and software related to audio-visual has brought multiple opportunities for teaching and learning. As time goes on, the equipment is increasingly robust; projectors are brighter, and some are more interactive. But away from the IT team, are staff making the most of those investments? And are they having the maximum impact on the student experience?

There are two types of investment. One is in the physical technology needed for lecture capture and video conferencing and other communication – like projectors, microphones, speakers and screens. The other is in the software licenses, cloud services and related support that allows students and staff to do work with an audio-visual component on their own computers.

ABOVE: The entire Casio range is mercury free, not only ensuring that the teaching environment is safe, but also replacing one of the most unreliable light sources on the planet (UHP mercury lamps), with two of the most stable (Laser and LED.

AV hardware in particular is no small outlay, so reaping the benefits for students starts with encouraging staff to use the physical tech to its best advantage. Most institutions are not fortunate enough to have their own dedicated audio-visual department enjoyed by Kean University, which has campuses in New Jersey and eastern China. At this American institution, the team not only provides training and advice on procurement to individual departments, but also loans out cameras, projectors and other equipment on a daily basis.

AV hardware in particular is no small outlay, so reaping the benefits for students starts with encouraging staff to use the physical tech to its best advantage’

A more embedded approach is to identify digital champions across the university. This is often led by e-learning teams with the right expertise to bridge the (often considerable) gap between academics and the IT team. For example, at the University of the West of England, work is ongoing to improve the way lectures are captured. They are showcasing good practice and inviting those staff who have already been trying lecture capture independently to work with other early adopters, who then became ‘change agents’ to help embed practice across the institution.

This approach can also work for encouraging uptake of software and web platforms. At Cardiff University, summer 2015 sees investments in Panopto tools to capture screencasts, presentations, audio and visual and in Blackboard Collaborate for interactive classes online. They have already been used successfully in parts of the university, and will be supported by case studies and training for staff on how to use them.

Site-specific audiovisual equipment is, of course, only really useful in spaces that are used – but that can present considerable difficulties for institutions, especially ones with old or delicate spaces to care for. At Bangor University, the PJ Hall has long been used for University events, concerts and lectures but was especially challenging for a projector to work in. The building’s Grade-I listing dictated that any projector could only be secured to a rear balcony, 30 metres away from the actual screen. In this case, the latest technology proved the answer. The University worked with Epson and Pure AV to procure a long-distance projector which includes a water-cooling system that keeps operating noise to a minimum.

For staff to utilise audio-visual, there also needs to be a proven benefit for students. Sometimes that comes in the shape of upgrading tech use to reflect the industries students are working to be employed in. At City University they have recently upgraded the TV studio for journalism students to give learners a realistic experience of what it’s like to work both in front of and behind the camera. As such, the University procured equipment being used by large broadcasters like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

But working to the constraints of the university timetable is not easy. The initial contract was for the project to take six weeks. The team negotiated with db Broadcast, responsible for installing the equipment, who agreed to have the majority of the new installation completed by the end of August. Tony Phillips, studio manager, says the challenge was overcome through good project planning and db Broadcast’s industry experience. Now students enjoy learning how to use the latest equipment in an authentic environment, and can send live video reports back from locations around London making use of 4G mobile broadband signals.

“Remote management is a desirable feature so that people can reduce the physical time they spend maintaining units or walking around site to physically switch off products at the end of the day”

But it’s not just the physical investments that students benefit from. Indeed, when it comes to lecture capture technology (installed in many of the UK’s larger lecture theatres) it also makes sense to give staff the flexibility to do this in their own time. So many universities including Warwick encourage staff to utilise software in their office or simply on a laptop with a microphone at home.

Two systems can work together and give students and staff the best of both worlds. Video technology like Collaborate, Skype and Zoom are favourites of UK institutions. Universities with dispersed campuses, like the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, are making use of this tech to facilitate better communication. At that particular university, staff and students are spread across four campuses in south-west Wales, so videoconferencing has become a way of life. The IT team are currently deploying Skype for Business which will eventually integrate with existing VC suites, giving staff and students options about how they communicate and from where.

However we look at it, the demands of students for audio visual content is ever increasing with the ubiquity of platforms like YouTube, Vine and SoundCloud. Begoña Gonzalez-Cuesta, dean of the school of communication at IE in Madrid, says, “I think that the future is going to blur the boundaries of the devices in which audiovisual content is going to be consumed.

ABOVE: Bangor worked with Epson and Pure AV to procure a long-distance projector

“Maybe many of us are asking ourselves the question about the future of television but the right question is: what is television for us right now, especially for the young? For the younger generations, the way of consuming content is very different. They don’t care if their consumption is done in the TV set, in the computer, in the tablet or whatever.”

Supporting students to consume this wide array of audio visual lectures, screencasts, feedback and communication is certainly going to be a key mission for the future. How to achieve that? Tobias Windbrake, collaboration consultant at SMART, says, “I’d like to see a move towards interoperability and ad-hoc connectivity. We should be able to connect and involve personal devices in a seamless way. This is already happening with some cloud-based platforms, which act as the bridge between AV equipment and personal devices.”

At the same time, there’s more work to be done in improving the management of such systems to reduce the burden on staff. Phil Clark, head of projectors at Casio UK, says, “Remote management is a desirable feature so that people can reduce the physical time they spend maintaining units or walking around site to physically switch off products at the end of the day.”

What we need to do now is make sure that students see the benefits: that their learning spaces are free from extraneous equipment, that AV advances enable students to work more flexibly but with the right support and guidance, and that they decrease the reliance on workstations which are not so easily upgraded and supported.

Of course, part of changing the culture is in persuading academics and other staff of the benefits of such technology for proven pedagogy. These examples show that if properly embedded an investment in audio-visual really can be an investment in students.


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