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Education: Connected learning

Educational establishments have long been significant investors in AV solutions – and, finds Ian McMurray, another round of investment seems to be taking place as new technologies offer important new ways of learning

Universities and colleges are, perhaps like never before, under pressure. Operating, in many countries, in a challenging social and economic landscape, their goal of equipping students with the skills and knowledge necessary to survive and thrive in the world of work has seldom been more difficult to achieve. They’re under pressure to deliver not only results, but value. 

And: as if that wasn’t tough enough, they’re having to respond to a world of work that is not only increasingly a digital one – but to respond to the preferred learning styles of highly digital-savvy young people. 

“There is enormous pressure on universities to deliver an excellent, student-focussed experience, as, alongside research performance, student satisfaction is a crucial measure of a university’s success and standing,” points out Andy Truswell, systems integration manager at integrator Pure AV. “In response to that pressure, our experience suggests a significant acceleration in the take-up of technology-enabled digital learning in the university environment.”

Growing expectations

“We see digital learning continuing to expand, as higher education institutions face growing expectations from students, faculty and others to support students and teachers in their quest to share ideas in a more fluid way,” echoes Dana Corey, GM/VP of sales at Avocor. 

‘Digital learning’ is the new phrase on educators’ lips. It’s defined as any kind of learning that is facilitated by the effective use of technology – and embraces everything from e-textbooks through gamification to mobile/remote learning. 

“Digital learning provides all stakeholders with the ability to gain access to resources, lectures and content at a time convenient to them and in a format convenient to them and from a device of their choosing,” explains Lee Denton, education specialist at integrator Visavvi. “AV has a big part to play in this – and the take up is accelerating. The core driving factor is agility, providing a more flexible and user-focused experience, no matter which side of the podium you are.”

Colleges and universities have long been leaders in deploying audiovisual systems in order to facilitate better communication. To what extent are they able to build on their existing investment as they transition to new ways of teaching/learning – or are new facilities being created to augment or replace the old? 

“We’re seeing a mix of the two across the sector,” says Spiros Andreou, service delivery manager at CDEC. “Some universities are expanding with new buildings, and some are consolidating remote campuses into a central one – but most are just upgrading on a 5-7 year rolling replacement model. In some cases, the addition of more updated collaboration spaces falls into upgrade projects, rather than a separate project. For others, it’s a perfect use of underused/unused space on their estate.”

Focus on collaboration

Phil Waterhouse, who is business development manager for Technological Innovations Group (TIG), sees a similar situation of adapting what’s already in place. “With more and more builds happening, and a five-year refresh in most university establishments, the uptake continues to grow,” he says. “More specialist rooms are being created with a focus on collaborative working – even within what was a traditional lecture theatre.”

In other places, it seems that more of a wrecking ball approach is being taken. “Classrooms and student areas on campus are being transformed and upgraded to remove old projector-based setups and switch out traditional whiteboards with digital versions,” notes Corey. “Wireless networks across campus are also becoming favoured over traditional wired setups – and with this switch to wireless comes a need for the latest AV devices that can support wireless.”

If projectors are being replaced – what’s happening to other legacy equipment? “Interactive whiteboards are being replaced by collaboration devices in some instances, but in others, collaboration products are being used in conjunction with IWBs,” says Nick Mawer, marketing manager at Kramer Electronics. “There is still a place for document cameras, but VHS machines are going. I recently visited the University of South Wales, Cardiff and admired a small classroom complete with surround sound system. It was a screening room for the BA in Cinema course.”

On the other hand: as in so many environments, the ‘tried and trusted’ still has a place.

“There is still a place for lecture theatres, as a lot of students can be taught in a single space by a single teacher”
Nick Mawer, Kramer

Mixing it up

“Traditional solutions are still the mainstay in a class environment in higher/further education,” believes Waterhouse. “If you use a collaborative classroom and have a large IWB at the front, then having the ability to see each individual work group’s work on the main IWB is simple, mixing that traditional product with the latest AV devices. We have also seen the increased use of traditional pen-based whiteboards with capturing devices being installed to give a very traditional use case – but still able to capture that with the latest technology.”

And, as Mawer points out: more traditional teaching/learning approaches have different strengths to those that are enabled by more recent developments. “Programmes such as the Sticky Campus, sponsored by Jisc [see boxout], have opened up the eyes of universities to the possibilities of collaborative learning,” he says. “However: there is still a place for lecture theatres, as a lot of students can be taught in a single space by a single teacher, whereas a collaborative classroom is more intensive in its use of AV equipment and typically will educate fewer students at any one time – even though you can do things in a collaborative classroom that cannot be done in a typical lecture theatre.”