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AVoIP: A quiet revolution in education

AV over IP is having a big impact on learning institutions across the globe. Richard Doughty finds out how it’s improving multiple aspects of teaching and learning.

In fits and starts, higher education institutions across the UK are hauling themselves into the faster, unfettered environment of AVoIP (audiovisual over Internet Protocol). Video and audio over IP are firmly embedded; last year Spotify racked up 87 million subscribers globally and close to 200 million active monthly users while every minute some 300 hours of video are being uploaded to YouTube across the world.

Increasingly, universities and colleges are being won over by powerful AVoIP arguments promoting scalability, longer reach, larger audiences, remote, speedier and easier maintenance (far fewer black boxes), and substantial space and cost savings.

The result has been a quiet AV revolution that has galvanised areas such as learning spaces, student collaboration, connectivity, virtual classrooms, enhanced audio, digital signage, lecture capture and IT trouble-shooting, repairs and general maintenance.

Student collaboration
Potential students are now asking universities what they offer that others don’t, such as how much contact time is there with lecturers; and how will their course prepare them for life in the workplace? Funding hinges on student numbers, and employers increasingly value soft, transferable skills as much or more than subject expertise. The answer is the collaborative classroom.

One of Essex University’s new labs for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) contains 13 desks, each seating six students in a collaborative pod to work on assignments. Any student can show content from their own device on each table’s 55in monitor or on any or all of those on the other desks.

What about the risk of smarter students taking over, pedagogues will ask. “Well, we find the slower ones actually tend to learn what ‘good’ looks like, and they realise they may have some distance to go in their understanding,” says Tessa Rogowski, assistant director, IT Services [Client Services].

“But then some of that distance is closed through working with and watching others complete the task in hand in a clever way and this draws comments like ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could do that – can you show me how?’ So small group sizes do seem to work quite well – it’s like having an addition to lecture capture in every classroom!”

Meanwhile, for the past 18 months, the University of Hertfordshire has been using Kramer Electronics’ Via Campus collaboration tool in its first collaborative room. 

“Students can collaborate in normal fashion with a lecturer at front of class but then the lecturer can set them individual projects,” says Kramer area sales manager Tony Bidgood. 

“The room is designed with independent table control; if students want to work at some point in the evening or outside lectures they can enter class, turn a pod on and collaborate using any laptop or mobile device in their own pod groups. There are also options to collaborate across campus and install third-party programs like Skype for Business and Webex.”

All teachers and students can edit documents in real time and display up to six screens on the main display screen, which can be switched to digital whiteboard mode. Teachers can access an e-polling facility to instantly gauge student learning. Students can link up their own devices in any learning space and also dial in remotely.   

The university’s AV manager Adam Harvey, who won AV Technology manager of the year last year, says Via Campus is a vast product and that his team knew it would take time to bed in. “We haven’t exposed all the full features to lecturers but we’re starting to drip-feed different features as we go. But it’s working OK and the academics really like it!”

Sharing at Coventry University involves big touchscreen TVs that are starting to appear on campus plus screen mirroring, according to e-learning developer Amanda Hardy. ”A lecturer can now bring their laptop and recast the screen to the projector rather than having to stand it on a podium and plug it in. Students too can present something from their computer on the main screen without having to come up and plug in – it’s a far more accessible and flexible way of presenting.”

Bath University is one of many institutions seeking the ideal BYOD display sharing solution that will enable anyone, student or staff, to bring in any device and display it as well. “We’ve found an Australian product called ViVi that will accept any BYOD device, whether IOS or Android-based, and laptops of all descriptions, including Windows and even Linux,” says service manager Rob Hyde. “It will be an entirely new service and hopefully operational by the start of the next academic year.”

Simulated physical environments – Bath is actually building a room that can move – are spreading across UK campuses and they are often tailor-made for AV enhancements. Hertfordshire had built real-life environments into its new science building to reflect its specialisms in healthcare and engineering. They include wind tunnels and hospital wards, simulating the look, feel, even smell, and a real-life pharmacy. Students’ actions are videoed and assessed by lecturers listening and watching and then presenting everything back to the student on screen. 

Coventry has gone a step further in kitting out its brand new sciences building. “We have an ambulance in the building, fitted out with typical ambulance kit but also cameras and mics, so students working in emergency situations can be monitored by lecturers in a control room able to assess their learning and teamwork without the need to look over their shoulders and impose on the dynamic,” explains Harvey.

In fact, Coventry claims its AV simulation facilities are among the most advanced in the UK. Its off-campus, custom-built simulation centre houses a large curved screen the size of half a room onto which environments are projected and real actors act out scenarios. 

Add to that a sports therapist’s suite complete with a running track where cameras track every movement and feed back a vast array of data including actual length of stride and the value of simulated environments becomes clear.

Digital signage
Essex, too, offers sport science but within its sports arena it is erecting LED walls connected to performance monitors catering for a larger audience. They allow you to caption up and replay parts of a video showing where people are running, who has possession of the ball, how often the tackles are successful and so on. At the same time they can act as a scoreboard.

It’s using two strands of AV – video monitoring and public display – and reflects the wave of digital signage now starting to appear on UK campuses.

Duncan Peberdy, an AV specialist and senior lead (digital learning spaces) at HE IT advisory body JISC, says LED walls are going up everywhere both in and outside university buildings – and he should know. In the past three years he’s visited at least 24 campuses with his Sticky Campus AV roadshow. He cites the large screen in Teesside University’s square: “It’s all about providing information to students the whole time they are on campus.”

Another well-placed commentator is James Keen, group head of marketing at digital signage, IPTV and video streaming specialist, Tripleplay Services. Through its single platform digital signage IPTV video streaming software, Tripleplay delivers advertising messages into TV screens with live TV, including TV and recorded content to desktops and mobiles. It works with around 20 UK universities, including LSE, University of Westminster and the London Business School.

“We’ve seen a growth of interest from town hall addresses in overflow facilities for graduation ceremonies,” says Keen. “People are using technology like ours to deliver live camera feeds from the ceremonies to any and all TV screens across campus and also to people’s laptops. Graduation ceremonies are getting bigger and better but still have very limited ticket availability, so interest is growing in an ability to deliver that content to more family, students and guests.

Lecture capture
“Introducing lecture capture was a big thing for us over last year,” says Hertfordshire University’s Adam Harvey. “Using Panopto kit, we’ve equipped 20% of our 515 bookable rooms. It’s really taken off with students, who are finding it a very valuable tool.

“Just going back to review what was said in a session is really helpful – you can make as many notes as you like but watching it again is always a powerful revision aid. And when you look at the stats, you can see which parts of the video are popular and how long people are watching them for.”

In fact, whenever students have got a taste of lecture capture and the benefits it provides, they demand more, says Bath’s Rob Hyde. The university notched up an extra 1,000 captured sessions in its first term this academic year in a country leading the field in Europe.

Complementing lecture capture are AV measures designed to help those with disabilities, particularly with hearing. Bath, for instance, is seeking a system to enable all students, including those with no disabilities, to hear a lecturer’s words more clearly in a large lecture theatre through earphones plugged into their mobile phone.

It is also looking at mic arrays that resemble a ceiling tile with a steerable microphone beam that follows a speaker around a room and ensures all students always get a decent audio pick-up. Fixed to the ceiling with no wires, it covers a 10sqm area and can thus pick up the entire audio in the room.

All of Essex’s main learning spaces have lecture capture and, as part of its equality policy, the university is trying to automatically caption lecture captures when at least one student present is known to have a disability

“We take the audio file – the voice part of the recording – and ‘throw’ it at Amazon’s web-based voice recognition service (Google also has one),” says Tessa Rogowski. “It interprets the audio file and supplies a subtitling file that we then blend back into the lecture capture.

“You do, though, need top flight audio and a fairly neutral English accent for best results. But it’s getting us ready for the forthcoming accessibility rules in 2020; we just can’t have someone sitting there transcribing lectures.”

IT system maintenance
According to Eliot Fulton-Langley, solutions architect at integrator CDEC: “One of the advantages of AVoIP is the freedom it gives managers to instantly control a whole building rather than single independent rooms.”

An AVoIP system can be managed remotely from a central software platform, with physical visits to a room with a problem no longer the norm. Systems manager can tackle the problem centrally, reroute software around the ‘obstacle’ and with a couple of clicks very often have the room’s system up and running in seconds rather than hours. 

He goes on to highlight a recent breakthrough in system maintenance made by the cloud-based AVoIP Atlona control system. “We’ve known about this device for a while,” he says. “But we are only now installing it for the first time in a UK university and talking to several others. 

“To make a change on a cloud-based system such as this, which connects to a main server in the switchroom, you go on to a computer, press a button and it automatically makes the change on every system across every lecture theatre and every campus you have. It’s so simple to administer.”

Cameras and projectors
Last but not least comes the AV improvement in film and projection quality. “Students want more engaging and higher quality footage,” says Canon’s European project marketing specialist, Colin Boyle. “They’re getting used to the high 4K definition of Instagram, Facebook Live and the home cinema market.”

A Turkish medical school at Yeditepe University Oncology Specialised Hospital enabled students to watch live brain surgery in 3D by filming and projecting the operation through two Canon 4K XEED projectors fitted with 3D Infitec filters and then providing 3D Infitec passive glasses to view the film in 3D. Two cameras were set up to send left and right eye signals (one to each projector). 

A media faculty at the German University of Emden filmed a live band in 4K. It then projected it back via a Canon 4K XEED projector on a wide screen at the back of the stage in such high detail that it could be used to train camera operators to film a live event without the band being present.  

Lastly, holograms of four women from different parts of the world were projected onto a London stage using ‘invisible’ holographic foil. Clever use of cameras enabled people from the audience to ask questions of and get answers back from the holograms in real time.

“Lecture theatre time is now much more for engagement and collaborative work – that is where part of the challenge is for universities and HE,” says Boyle. “It’s about having to provide things that are not just within the confines of their space.”