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AVIXA Guest Article: Tackling the AV challenge in higher education

As technological expectations continue to rise exponentially among students in higher education environments, how are AV professionals meeting the demands?

Times have changed in higher education since the days when lessons and lectures were built around the use of worn-out chalkboards, dusty textbooks, buzzing overhead projectors and even wheeled trolley stands carrying bulky cathode ray tube televisions and VHS players. But as technological expectations continue to rise exponentially among students in higher education environments, how are AV professionals meeting the demands?

EUNIS, the European University Information Systems organisation invited AVIXA™, the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association, to gather a panel of industry experts – chaired by AVIXA staff instructor Chuck Espinoza, CTS-D, CTS-I – to discuss the AV challenges faced by technologists on campuses. What follows are highlights of their discussion.

Active learning

A culture shift in recent decades has seen education transform towards a more active and participatory learning style, facilitated by the implementation of ‘active-learning spaces’ or ‘active-learning environments’. Use of such terms has proliferated in the industry, but what do they mean exactly?

“An active-learning space is an environment where the student is more engaged in the learning process as opposed to the traditional passive modality of sitting and listening to lectures. Historically, active-learning spaces were labs – biology labs and physics labs,” says Domenic Screnci, Ed.D., Senior Advisor Academic & Emerging Technology, Boston University. “That’s now changing and expanding to many more disciplines and fields. It’s creating an environment where students can get a hands-on education, solve problems, have opportunities to ask questions and create and build in some cases.”

“I consider every single square inch of our university as a potential active-learning space,” adds Megan Durocher, Audio Visual and Integration Experience Solutions Architect, University of Southern California. “As technology is changing and how people are interacting with our learning spaces changes, students are coming on campuses with their experiences from often prestigious high schools and even primary schools before that. They have levels of expectations where active learning happens in cafeterias, in the classroom, in soft spaces, it happens all over the place. So, what does that really mean, and how do we get meaningful data to better understand that experience?”

Enhancing collaboration

One aspect which technology has facilitated this new approach to active learning is the ability to share and collaborate as a larger group, which, according to Steve Borho, CTS-D, Classroom Technology Design Manager, University of Guelph, is being utilised more and more across campus, beginning with low-technology active learning.

“It starts off with low-technology active learning,” Borho says. ”So they’re taking that large class, breaking it into small groups and having our students work on problems together. It could be on paper or a whiteboard. They’re starting off with low-tech uses.

“Then there’s also technology that we have installed that could be added to that use if the faculty member chooses to allow the students to engage in that. When they’re working on paper or whiteboards they’re obviously also on the laptops or tablets or phones or whatever BYOD device they bring in. We have the ability to bring that up on a screen for groups to collaborate on, as well as to bring on the main screen to be highlighted by the faculty member – if they choose to do that.”

Improving the experience with data

The advancement of technologies presents some opportunities to now see how these active learning spaces can enhance active data collection and IoT strategies, but how can universities and colleges capture this? Durocher believes it’s important to weigh up data holistically to build up a broad picture of the educational environment, and not make snap decisions based on limited information.

“We have multiple data points that we didn’t look at before from an audiovisual perspective, but when we’re talking about the integrated experience perspective we have to look at all of the pieces together, and that’s helping us somewhat reframe what we define as an ‘active-learning space’ in our opinion,” Durocher says. “We’re using data to help us qualify and quantify those experiences and the transference of some of these ideas where people used to learn to where they really are learning and where their preferences are. We’re bringing in data from multiple streams to try to help us build this larger vision.

“A good example is our current summer project where we’re making some modifications based on data. For example, we were finding that we were getting lots of VGA use in a certain area on campus. The normal [conclusion might be], ‘Well I guess our users are still using a lot of VGA.’ But when you do quantitative and qualitative data analysis, that led us to talking to the professors. What we found is they weren’t needing VGA; they had been distributed new Apple laptops that didn’t have the DisplayPort compatibility that we needed on the cable bundle that we provide in our classrooms for instance. That provided us a datapoint that said just looking at the IoT in of itself really isn’t enough of the story. You have to look at the data underneath the data. You have to qualify and quantify the data. That really led us in a conversation that the problem was maybe we need to change some of our cabling to update it in order to maximise the future uses, not continue to add the legacy input.”

Guiding technology

Technology in the learning environment is often led by accreditation guidelines. Many facilities are expected to be innovative when teaching and discussing several technology points in departments, and many departments must provide certain tools to each staff or department. How does this come in to play on campuses, especially when it comes to things like standardisation?

“This is a point of really getting to understand what the needs are,” says Screnci. “The assessment piece of this is just don’t design in an abstract environment, make sure you understand what that curriculum needs, what that accreditation needs and where the conflicts are. You might even do a gap analysis between different schools that may be in conflict and realise what those differences are and where the voids might be.

“I think from a design and integration perspective, you have to build in flexibility. This idea of a rigid environment with one way to use a room just doesn’t fly any more. In some rooms at our university we have as many as 15 different instructors using that room over the course of a semester and they could be from Maths to Sociology to Physics to Psychology, so it’s not like there’s some homogeneous use of that room between all these disciplines, flexibility is the key. It’s not just flexibility with the technology, it’s flexibility with the furniture as well. Furniture plays a big part in how we can transform spaces to meet the needs of different strategies, teaching requirements or learning events.”

“We have engineering, we have veterinary, and several other professional programs that need regular re-accreditation,” adds Borho. “How we approach that is we start off with our classroom standard, which is meant to be flexible and allow the faculty to do a wide variety of things in the room that they may want to do, and then we build on top of that. So, for medical, we add on top of our classroom standard to allow them to show the content that they need to show, to bring in the data that they need to bring in, we upgrade our standard projectors to be X-ray capable, so we’re really building on top. The accreditation renewal, the technology in those spaces, tends to be a jump-ahead model, so we’ve built it out and they’ve been accredited, now they’re going to use that technology for the next couple of years until their next accreditation cycle, and then there’s another push for technology renewal. Typically, this lines up with a regular evergreening schedule anyway, but it’s not particularly iterative where we’re adding things year by year, it’s more a jump ahead to the next thing that they want to do.”

New technologies

With budgets across campuses continually squeezed, the question of when to make timely technology upgrades is now more important than ever. But how do technologists know when it’s time to invest?

“When we run refreshment reports for what needs to happen, we’re working on two things,” says Borho. “The first thing is the display. The display tends to drive the upgrade for our rooms. It is one of the shortest life pieces of the room, so when it’s time for that display to be replaced, we take a look at the entire system and upgrade the pieces that need upgrading at that time.

“For departmental rooms, it would be up to the wishes of the department, so for example several years ago we built active learning rooms for a couple of departments because they wanted them. They were way out of the head of the curve for the rest of the campus. Nobody else was asking about these things. We were aware of them, but it was only a few people that were keen to get moving on it at that time. So, we built them, and they’ve turned out to be very successful – students like them when we get feedback from them.”

“It used to be that you could have a five or 10-year design cycle in certain regards on certain technologies,” adds Durocher. “We have people coming onto our campus that have really high expectations of matching what their current use of technology is in their car, in their home, in their previous school. How do we match some of those experiences in addition to looking at the raw data coming through – what’s the age of equipment, what are our IoT devices telling us? So how do we balance what the hardware is telling us, what the software is telling us, and what people are telling us?

“What we’ve started to do by using data is targeting more. We’ve upgraded certain cables in our rooms to improve the overall experience. We’re gathering some information on some rooms where the furniture configuration is not the right fit, we’re tackling those rooms specifically. We gather some information on challenges that we might be having. We’re going on a different type of cycle – not an iterative cycle that we used to go on so much.

“Sometimes the change that needs to happen isn’t in the technology, it’s in the user experience,” Durocher continues. “Refreshes in the finishes in just some of the furniture and the carpeting might go a long way to enhancing the way technology is perceived. We have a unique perspective as technologists because we’re not just focused on technology, we really are focused on the entire user experience.”

“Coming at it from an educational technologist and structural design perspective I think it’s really important to understand because refresh cycles don’t happen as quickly as we would like them to, adds Screnci. “Time lapses in between the last time it was done, so we want to make sure we understand what’s being taught in that room. The teaching modality and the content should drive any decisions we make.”

The students speak

A common catchphrase in the business world is that the customer – in this case, the student – is always right.

“Experience has taught me an interesting lesson that you’re your own worst advocate,” warns Screnci. “One of the things that we find if we put some technology in a room, we let the students voice their opinions in a way that actually motivates. Whether an instructor chooses not to adopt a technology strategy that we offer them, they’ll take a hit in their course evaluations if they’re getting it in one class but are not getting it in another class, or if there’s an inconsistency in that learning experience from room to room. They’re pretty vocal today about letting their deans and provosts know that they’re not happy about it. We don’t try to overtly perpetuate some of these ideas, we let it organically happen, because you’re your own worst advocate. The idea is to get faculty to advocate for you and the technology or, even better, to get those students to do so, and try to capitalise on that.”

AVIXA will be hosting a session at OEB Berlin on Dec. 6 at 2 p.m., titled “Transforming Education with AV to Create Dynamic, Collaborative Learning Spaces.” The panel discussion chaired by Brad Grimes, Senior Director of Communications for AVIXA, will discuss the challenges involved in creating student-focussed, enriching environments for learning, and will cover projects highlighting the impact of today’s varied audiovisual solutions in education. Panellists include Sheila Egan, Senior Educational Technologist – Learning Space Design, City University London.