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The long read: AV’s role in the future of ed-tech

This coming December, Installation revisits the education sector in a special digital edition to gauge the enabling effect that AV technologies are having on institutions as they embrace increasingly hybrid learning environments. Ahead of this, we invited a selection of experts from around the industry to offer their thoughts on AV's role in education's new evolution

It’s probably safe to say that the pandemic has forced the accelerated adoption of remote solutions for businesses in most sectors, and for many the changes made to their day-to-day operations will become permanent with ‘hybrid’ in-person/remote environments set to become part of a ‘new normal’. But what does this new reality look like for education facilities and how important a role will AV solutions play in enabling flexible learning into the future?

To find out, we assembled a cast of experts from the supply chain to offer their perspectives. Joining the debate are Adam Harvey CTS, solution architect, AV and digital media, University of Hertfordshire; Alistair Meachin and Ross McLee, Harmonia Consulting; John Hulen, national education director at Crestron; and Colin Etchells, group technical director, Saville Group

What would you say is the biggest effect of the pandemic on the ed-tech sector? It has obviously accelerated the adoption of distance learning solutions in the short term, but will it trigger longer term effects such as a more deliberate shift to hybrid physical/remote learning environments? 

Adam Harvey (AH): In my opinion, what this has given us going forward is the ability to deliver a blend of teaching. Our teaching had to rapidly move online due to necessity; some of it works well and will no doubt continue but some disciplines need to use campus-based facilities to enable the teaching to be the best it can be. The forced online adoption has given academic staff the ability to try new things but balanced against the fact that it was a hard and fast learning curve. We do seem to be getting more ‘Why can’t I do this with product x?’ over the ‘How do I use product x?’. Support staff have been busy helping staff adapt content for online and we can now look at the technology we have and whether it is fit for purpose for all.  What you do lose by teachers not attending on campus is the ‘University life’ which is a very important part of the journey.

Alistair Meachin/Ross McLee (AM/RM): Teaching institutions have been forced to acknowledge that they are not always in a position to deliver high quality teaching to remote audiences especially at short notice. Those most affected were the primary and secondary schools who provide face-to-face teaching for the majority of their lessons. As the pandemic forced us into a lockdown state, the likes of the universities who already have invested heavily in virtual learning environments were able to pick up the reins and fill the gaps relatively easily. Whereas younger students were only able to download worksheets and watch YouTube videos with sporadic interaction with their class teachers.

The lockdown has meant most educators have stayed at home, and there was little need for them to go back to the classroom and deliver their lessons from there. It is likely we will continue to see a greater demand for IT-based solutions for virtual classrooms at home, with the AV elements provided through consumer products that your average YouTuber might use. Improved audio (be it a headset or studio microphone) along with improved lighting and acoustics will possibly become the norm. Educators may set up a space in their homes as a dedicated studio space. With the advent of virtual backgrounds, with or without a green screen, teachers may even take a photo of their classroom and set it as their background.

Virtual classrooms are all very well but does it lead to the best teaching experience, where students learn effectively? Probably not. The social interaction and visual cues students and educators get from being in the same room together is a far cry from clicking a mouse on a button to raise your hand and ask a question. Certainly for younger students the whole online meeting experience with the likes of Zoom or Microsoft Teams has been overwhelming, to the point where many are either disengaged or no longer attend. They are unnatural and create a distraction from what you are trying to achieve, and that is teach.

Practical activities: PE, art, lab experiments and technical skills cannot be solely taught online. So a balance has to be struck between virtual and reality. These activities may very well be recorded and distributed to learn how to do them, but you still need students to practice them so hybrid environments do lend themselves well in this respect.

We may see a more obvious division between subjects that can be taught well remotely, and those that need real interaction. If school attendance is limited, this time may be focussed on the latter. ‘Hybridised’ classrooms will continue to be developed and deployed both to aid current distancing requirements and provide future resilience.

John Hulen (JH): The pandemic has exposed how institutions which rely solely on in-person learning and their brick and mortar campuses will struggle in the new era of online education and remote learning. Today’s students value the virtual experience. They move easily between interacting physically and virtually. Student engagement and teaching material should be viewed in the context of being equitable whether students are physically in the room or joining remotely. Crestron is offering mobile UC cart solutions and installed UC systems to accommodate groups meeting regardless if some members are in-person and others are located elsewhere.

Colin Etchells (CE): Many higher education (HE) establishments already had distance learning solutions in place, with managed and virtual learning environments (MLEs and VLEs) in common use for delivering content perhaps to a smaller population of a university’s students. Suddenly and with limited notice, lecture and lessons plans needed to be rethought, rewritten and delivered in a completely different way. Distance learning, just as video calling from home, suddenly became mainstream. Videoconferencing, video streaming and content management platforms such as Blackboard, Moodle, etc became business critical like never before. The ability for many HE institutions to cope at short notice has, without doubt shown that a hybrid learning model is here to stay. The benefits have already been demonstrated and as we enter a post-lockdown era, many educational facilities are starting to roll out their ‘new normal’ learning experiences that combine the best of online and in-person study. 

“AV is the king, enabling technology for one-to-one or one-to-many information transfer and the pandemic has aided its rapid adoption by everybody” Colin Etchells 

From your perspective, do you think that the full value of AV solutions is becoming better understood by the education community, or is there an ongoing education process (no pun intended) that needs to take place? 

AM/RM: There has been a significant acceptance of remote working and now remote learning across all areas in the education sector. Students are ever more capable of accessing content online, live and recorded. The expectation is that content (educational or otherwise) should be accessible online 24/7.

Expectations are raised even further when the quality of material is of a high standard. YouTubers who have poor quality videos are often ignored and channels with the better production standards are followed in their millions. To keep students engaged remotely requires the content to be engaging and interactive. A deck of PowerPoint slides, a voice over and a worksheet just won’t cut it.

Educators are realising this and their ability to produce high quality and engaging material is now under scrutiny. The quality of the AV systems needs to support this.

Rapid deployment of simple solutions has filled a gap, but may not be strategically aligned to long term plans. The ‘just get it done’ approach we have seen to accommodate the pandemic conditions needs to be readdressed and a strategy needs to be developed on how to produce such content.

While students and parents are very much appreciative of the efforts our teachers have gone to to continue to deliver ‘something’ during lockdown, there are educators out there who are reluctant to record their teaching material in fear that it will simply be copied and distributed, devaluing them as mere talking heads on-screen. Indeed, there are instances where microphones have been deliberately removed from classrooms to ensure a recording cannot take place. This is a mindset that is not without justification; institutions need to reassure their teaching staff that their intellectual input and their ability to engage with students is still highly valued.

CE: Having worked in the HE sector in a number of roles, I can in all honesty say that the value of AV within the education sector has always been well understood and over recent years the innovation and adoption of state-of-the-art technologies has become more prevalent. There are huge benefits to be gained by both lecturers and students when technology is embraced correctly so that it empowers both. As the sector has become more competitive and commercialised, the focus on leading by technology has become more intense. Many institutions have AV systems that align with many high-end corporates. This in itself is a positive as businesses look to enhance and improve their AV systems so that the full potential of postgraduate students can be realised in the working world.

JH: The education community is beginning to understand how impactful AV technology groups are, and do collaborate with them to some extent. However, we envision a time when the faculty and administrators aren’t just asking for input, but instead depend on the AV groups to help them deliver the necessary learning objectives. Schools which have prioritised the use of technology are requiring faculty members to learn how to use the tools and are investing in the training/support which will help those instructors be successful. And as they are learning about how technology can help them, teachers will be able to improve and adjust course material for more effective results.

AH: Luckily my institution has long appreciated the role AV plays in delivering gold standard teaching and we have had great investment over the years. A lot of the conversations I have now are about how we deliver a range of products and services via the AV to support a diverse teaching programme that is simple to use.  Using technology to collaborate in-room and remotely and helping everyone engage is a key part of the standard design now. We have a good real estate of great quality AV solutions so that does help teachers think about how they use it to support their teaching and we have a team of people to assist with that.

“The pandemic has exposed how institutions which rely solely on in-person learning and their brick and mortar campuses will struggle in the new era of online education and remote learning” John Hulen

How important a role does AV play in the future of education, both on and off-campus? How much of an enabler can/should/will it be?   

CE: AV will always play a pivotal role in the transfer of information/knowledge from one person to another. Whether that’s a lecturer presenting in front of a lecture theatre full of students using extensive AV facilities or using VC and associated peripherals to deliver a remote tutorial to a student sat at home. AV is the king, enabling technology for one-to-one or one-to-many information transfer and the pandemic has aided its rapid adoption by everybody. That said, there is typically no single one-size-fits-all solution and different facilities will need to discover what works for them and their particular circumstances. Students still need to access and learn from a collaborative, group focussed style. The change is that for many, that has now moved from the lecture theatre to a multi-party online experience. Without streaming AV solutions and the traditional, premise-based infrastructure that supports them, the modern learning experience cannot function. AV is pivotal to the success of HE into the future.

JH: Our vision is that AV technology plays a vital role in enabling learning, increasing student engagement, and empowering instructors to use every effective method. Automated systems can work with scheduling software to start/end classes, get voice commands to change volume levels or video sources, provide remote access for support teams, as well as allow for analytics and metrics to better manage and monitor systems all around campuses. In addition, as augmented/virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and other smart sensors or devices are integrated into teaching spaces, Crestron will continue to provide AV groups with the resources to enable any type of learning experience which is desired.

AH: It’s extremely important as a tool to deliver. Using the right tool for the job is always the key. Also important is not to make complex systems complicated to use. The user experience is the major factor in design right now. We have a role to ensure that all academic staff, and professional staff for that matter, have what they need to do their job and there is no massive ‘joining tax’ to using it. The pandemic and switch to working from home has pushed a lot of people onto the likes of [Microsoft] Teams very quickly so we now need to make sure everyone knows how to use the technology to the best advantage.

AM/RM: AV will continue to play an important part of teaching. Students are able to absorb more information through watching multimedia content. Anyone with children who watch the likes of Horrible Histories will know their kids love the gory details of the past and are able to retain far more information than if they had read it from a book or photocopied worksheet. Being able to show this sort of content in-lesson and have access to it at home is ideal. But is that what AV in a classroom means?

‘A screen on a wall’ does not replace the teacher. Their skill-set goes far beyond a few clicks on a computer and getting the kids to watch TV all day. Sometimes the technology is a distraction from the other skills children need to develop: social interaction, questioning, arguing a case, physical activity, art, sport, creative writing and expression… the list is endless. That is where a real teacher is able to develop our children’s knowledge and skills. Indeed those parents who needed to home-school their children during lockdown will realise that maintaining a child’s attention for six hours a day takes more than tables and chairs and a dry wipe board!

I think it is likely that online learning content (like BBC Bitesize or Open University) will become more prevalent in the classroom. With other online content creators producing more material to be played out, good quality AV systems will continue to be needed in every classroom.

The bottom line is that forced rapid technology adoption has driven a leap in acceptance that will push up production standards and expectations, but has also made very clear where AV is no substitute for real life interaction.