As it transpires, school wasn’t just out for summer – it was also out for spring and a great deal of autumn and winter too. But if Alice Cooper’s classic early 70s banger could withstand a pandemic-era rewrite, it’s nothing next to the changes we are likely to see in how schools and colleges utilise AV over the next few years.
It won’t come as a surprise to hear that many of these changes will be directly descended from pandemic-era requirements – not least the need to support more fluid remote and hybrid learning. But it’s also probable that there will be a heightened awareness of quality all-round – and that applies as much to pupils as it does to teaching staff and school management.
Whilst noting that the drive towards a digital future in education was underway well before the pandemic, Crestron’s director of channel marking, John Hulen, observes that, in the last 18 months, students, faculty and other stakeholders have come to “expect a digitally-enriched, future-proofed and layered education experience”. More and more, he indicates, education will not be about packed classrooms, rigidly defined rules and traditions. “It is about meeting students where they are and empowering them to reach their desired life goals,” he says , adding that the future of education is in HyFlex – a term coined by academic Dr Brian Beatty that combines hybrid and flexibility to evoke the new era of education.
In the comments that follow there is a recurrent feeling that we are on the verge of an extremely dynamic period in the education sector. “I think it has really sharpened up expectations across the board,” says Martin Clay, head of technical sales & design HE at Pure AV. “Not only from the [lecturer] perspective, but also the audience and remote contributors… there is a great awareness of how important it is to have very good audio, video and connectivity.”
Before going any further, however, it’s important to note a not insignificant caveat regarding education spending – and the fact that, in many countries, it is bound to be under further pressure as governments seek to balance the books post-pandemic. In the UK there weren’t too many implications for central government spending on education in the recent budget, although in fact education spending has been falling ever since 2010. EdTech spending specifically is thought to have been in the region of £900m per year prior to Covid-19 – a not insubstantial figure, but one certain to be under great scrutiny than ever in terms of how it is allocated.
Jonathan Cooper, sales consultant EMEA – higher education at Sharp NEC, puts recent events in their context. “AV managers have had a very important role to play in researching the options available to deliver learning during times of complete and partial lockdown across the UK, he says. “They have been required to put forward investment plans and procure new technology at very short notice to enable first class learning to be delivered. In addition, lecturers and university staff have had urgent training to develop the skills and knowledge needed to deliver lectures and seminars in new ways.”
The priorities for spending limited budgets will have had to change and some capital projects put on hold, he adds, while the realities of providing teaching in an efficient and professional way have been critical.
Cooper: “After the initial need for communicating social distancing measures and the safety precautions required for students and staff, educators will then have had to accelerate their distance/blended learning approaches with procurement earlier than originally planned. Some education establishments had already been adopting a more varied range of teaching methods and these will have had some experience of what worked well and what did not.”
Nonetheless, it is almost certain that – armed with observations from the last 18 months – a sizable percentage of educational facilities will be looking to spend soon on technology that makes classes run more smoothly, however they are configured.
“Similar to the workplace, education is taking on a hybrid approach and teachers need to know their remote students are not just seeing and hearing clearly, but are also able to interact during class,”
opines Martin Bodley, director of emerging business at Bose Professional. “This requires a collaboration platform – like Zoom and Microsoft Teams – plus the right equipment to capture intelligible audio and a clear image.”
For Sharp NEC, Cooper reveals that the company has recently been working “with a few institutions in the UK” to investigate current solutions as well as proof of concept ideas in three specific areas: broadcast-only solutions; small meeting blended environments with approximately four students in-person during lectures and others attending remotely; and a larger scenario with 10 to 12 students on site and a similar number attending from home.
Across these scenarios, effective collaboration and communication have emerged as constant priorities. Cooper: “For blended solutions, it is important to consider how many remote attendees can engage actively in discussions, what the format is for students to see their peers during a seminar, capturing key questions and answers, and the management of the ‘event’ to ensure that certain rules of engagement are followed – for instance, so 10 attendees do not all speak at once.”
Mindful of economic constraints, Sharp NEC’s latest launches into the education sector include the new value-oriented dvLED ranges (E Series and FE-E Series) that are “designed to bring the latest extended-life technology with NEC’s trusted quality to the budget-sensitive education sector”. The company also continues to see high demand for its NEC WD551 Windows Collaboration Display, which is geared towards small group learning scenarios.
With COP26 and Net Zero targets very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds, demand for technologies that can support green strategies will also continue to grow. Display technology will be a particular focus given the advent of technologies that offer both reduced environmental impact and extended lifecycles – making for a type of product with a compelling TCO (total cost of ownership).
“Looking ahead, dvLED technology, whilst a relative newcomer, is fast becoming a mainstream technology,” remarks Cooper. “With its impressively long-life cycle and low power consumption, it meets the demands of sustainability targets yet delivers more in terms of visual impact. We will start to see a lot more dvLED solutions in the education sector and this technology will be an increasingly important contributor to our business.”
ViewSonic’s Dean Tsai, head of LED display & projector business at ViewSonic, highlights the use of “second generation LED technology” in high lightness LED projector models such as its LS600W, which debuted in 2020 and avoids the use of mercury lamps and continuous waste disposal of bulbs. “In addition,” he says, “they are ensuring impeccable image quality and a long maintenance-free lifespan of up to 30,000 hours. An automatic on/off feature delivers efficiency and power savings, while comprehensive LAN control ensures easy classroom management. These feature designs are in line with many environmental protection policies and are popular among schools.”
Not surprisingly in the wake of Covid-19, ’smart’ displays with sensor technology to monitor environmental parameters and usage stats – including air quality, humidity and room capacity –
are also generating considerable interest. Notes Cooper: “This data enables [educational facilities] to work with their estates teams to improve the learning environment and even synchronise data with building management systems.”
In Installation’s October Hybrid Workplace special we highlighted how much the awareness of audio quality has increased over the last few years. This arguably applies even more to education, where poor audio can be a genuine hindrance to the learning process.
“Audio fatigue is now a more common occurrence,” says Bodley. “When you are struggling to hear, trying to comprehend new and even complex information becomes that much harder. When there is clear, intelligible audio you remove a significant barrier to learning.” Hence, he adds, there is an increased focus on every aspect of the audio chain, spurred on by knowing that “‘good enough’ won’t cut it if you want others to stay engaged.”
It is likely that we will see more spending on solutions that enable audio to be optimised in whatever configuration the teaching session is taking place. In this regard Bose points to its Videobar VB1 collaboration system, whose ‘exclusion zones’ capability allows teachers to determine where the six beam-steering microphones are focused to ensure maximum audio clarity. “The 4K Ultra-HD camera with auto-zoom capabilities enables teachers to show the entire room or zoom in on a whiteboard so remote students can see important content and details,” explains Bodley. “Plus, the remote management means the university’s IT manager can deploy updates for each device without having to enter the room.”
However much schools and colleges are able to invest over the next few years, the solutions they buy will have to be highly future-proofed and, as much as possible, support ease of integration with other systems and the existing AV/IT network infrastructures. Moreover, the signs are that schools will have to place a greater emphasis on security after a recent spike in cybercrime attacking the education sector.
Cooper indicates that the issue is especially acute in universities: “The need for data security is increasingly key as high profile ‘raids’ on institutions across the globe become more common, attempting to disrupt the smooth running of universities.”
Quite how troubling this issue is now becoming can be ascertained by looking at some studies published in recent months. In data released in August, Check Point Research reported a 29% increase in cyber attacks in the global education sector, compared to the first half of 2021. The top five most attacked countries were India, Italy, Israel, Australia and Turkey, but the situation in UK/Ireland/Isle of Man was far from cheering, with a reported 142% increase in weekly cyber attacks targeting the education sector.
In a text accompanying the research Tom Kendrick, EMEA security evangelist at Check Point Software, suggested that education continues to be seen as an attractive target for cyber-crime because it tends to be under-resourced from a security perspective. Moreover, the shift to remote learning is exacerbating the security risk: “With so many students logging on from their home networks using their personal devices, the current back-to-school season presents a range of new security threats that many aren’t prepared to address.” He goes on to recommend a range of proactive protection behaviours, such as regular changes of password, and technologies that combat ransomware and other security risks.
With so many factors now in play, training will also assume a higher priority in the agenda – effectively becoming part of an ongoing programme of staff development. Inevitably, the AV companies who can provide comprehensive training and support will be best-placed to prosper.
Monica Sun, director of the Presentation Group at ViewSonic Corporation, uses the term “comprehensive total solution”. She explains: “This should include not only the hardware and software, but also the training and professional development as well so that the new technology can be integrated seamlessly into the school’s existing IT infrastructure, and truly supports the schools and educators to succeed in switching to the new educational approach.”
Last word to Crestron’s Hulen, who pinpoints several fast-rising technologies that are set to make a growing impact on HyFlex. “We are working with many different HEI [higher education institutes] to provide solutions for HyFlex education, VR/AR immersive environments and simulation labs. Robotics labs and manufacturing training areas are becoming more popular. Using sophisticated AV tech in business schools for mock trading floors and law schools for mock courtrooms is a growing trend. [HEIs] with revenue-generating event spaces and multipurpose rooms are also using ed tech. There is a huge amount of exciting work going on.”