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Will 2020 prove to be a milestone for the education sector?

Despite the many challenges brought by the lockdowns, 2020 looks set to have been instrumental in defining the future relationship between technology and places of learning, writes David Davies.

For schools and colleges, 2020 has been anything but a normal year. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that educational institutions around the world have been shut for extended periods as a result of national lockdowns. Even when schools have been able to resume, they have still been subject to temporary closures when possible outbreaks have been detected – meaning that, overall, it’s surely been the most disrupted year educationally since the Second World War.

If this has meant that home IT technology has played a greater role in learning than ever before, it’s also meant that there have been some opportunities to conduct upgrade work inside educational facilities. Quite a few countries have announced investment packages to overhaul facilities, including the UK, where in July the Government announced details of 1,243 sites to receive funding as part of a £434m investment scheme to upgrade schools.

From a manufacturer perspective, it has surely been an unpredictable year. But it’s also been one in which the ability of technology to facilitate distance teaching and a greater level of interactivity in classes has been strongly underlined – indicating that an exciting future in which hybrid or blended learning grows in prominence across the curriculum is just around the corner. Hence the reflections of the vendors featured in this article are rather more upbeat than might have been expected.

In particular, though, it is generally felt that teaching for older age groups will never be quite the same again. As Philippe Remion, education specialist for Sony Professional Europe, remarks: “We don’t believe that education will return totally to the way it was. A hybrid approach to learning with a focus on remote teaching will still be key for universities, and technologies that capture clear high-quality audio, crisp video and allow teachers/lecturers to provide interactive seminars and activities will be essential to offer the best possible immersion for students while remote, and almost like they were onsite.”

Historic opportunity

Reflecting on the year drawing to a close, Simone Martorina – business manager, visual instruments, Epson UK, believes that there’s “no denying” that the global pandemic has caused major interruptions to the education sector and students’ learning.

“With educational institutions being temporarily closed to reduce the spread of Coronavirus, schools across the country have had to quickly adapt to the use of remote learning programmes, tools and platforms that can be used to reach students outside of the classroom.”

The extent to which there has been an uptick in home learning is underlined by an IDC reported cited by Martorina that reveals the shipment of ink tank printers in the UK during the first half of 2020 rose by 56% compared to the same period in 2019.

Like most observers, Martorina expects there that remote learning will continue to play an enhanced role in the curriculum – especially in secondary and higher education. But for younger pupils, he says it’s important for primary schools students beginning their education journey to have daily face-to-face integration.

“It’s therefore vital that these lessons are productive and effective, while keeping students safe and socially-distanced, which presents a unique challenge for this sector,” he adds.

Jon Garaway, education account manager at Sharp NEC Display Solutions, notes that thanks in part to recent government investment programmes to digitise classrooms, the  AV business has fared surprisingly well in the education sector, in comparative terms.

Noting that the current crisis has given universities, in particular, an “opportunity to re-invent their approach”, he remarks that “different education providers have used a varied mix of teaching delivery methods, but in general online distance learning via both live and recorded sessions – supplemented by some carefully managed face-to-face time – has provided students with connection they need.”

Nonetheless, with student life generally expected to encompass much more than learning per se, there could be significant challenges ahead for the university sector. Given that the student experience is “the all-important rating by which universities attract prospective students, getting them back for the full university experience will be preferential,” says Garaway.

“In particular, campus-based universities will strive to get students back onsite where much additional revenue is sourced through student services back onsite where much additional revenue is sourced through student services such as food outlets.”

Jess Golding, B2B marketing manager at BenQ, highlights the “emergence of hybrid or blended learning” across the entire educational system, with the result that “the whole sector [has been compelled to] think about how we use technology and future-proof what we are putting in place now to avoid any further disruptions to learning.”

An increased confidence in the value of interactive learning, including via BYOD, is likely to be one lasting legacy, believes Golding: “With students joining a session from their own device they can, in real-time, take part in discussions and annotate the content. They can even be given control of the master screen so that they can present and feedback to their class.”

Solutions for the times

Underlining the responsiveness of the AV vendor community to changing times, many manufacturers have taken the opportunity to introduce or re-promote solutions or initiatives that resonate with current needs – not least with regards to cleanliness and wellbeing.

In the midst of a pandemic, there has obviously been an increased emphasis on regular cleaning of shared spaces, including interactive surfaces. Notes Golding: “We have prioritised these concerns through our HealthCare+ technology. We have an antibacterial, non-toxic nano-ionic silver screen coating for our RP Series of interactive flat panels that kills bacteria on touch and is resilient to heavy use and cleaning. This has been available for several years, but is now seen as a must-have feature rather than an added extra.”

Golding also highlights the ability of BenQ’s EZWrite Live solution – which was launched in May – to assist with present teaching practices. A free, cloud-based interactive whiteboard and lecture broadcasting software, it is designed to streamline classroom discussions and make it more intuitive for teachers and students to bring the classroom online. Sharing the same screen, they can annotate in tandem on the same documents, ensuring those learning from home can have the same experience as those in the classroom. All materials are saved in the cloud and teachers can access them from any classroom device.

EZWrite Live, says Golding, “transforms remote learning through one intuitive platform which is accessible on any browser and doesn’t need any specific hardware set-up or the purchase of expensive software licenses. This has helped disadvantaged school systems to navigate the disruption due to Covid-19 more easily.”

For Sony, Remion acknowledges that the company saw the needs of its customers “change significantly” from what it thought this year was going to require.

“In previous years, we had been working on significantly improving teachers and students’ experiences by providing technology that would adapt to the way teachers are teaching and offering students the best comfort to follow the course. In a way we were prepared for the shift that was requested by universities and so we quickly changed our course and focused on communicating our creative solutions to engage and inspire students.”

Hence the attention to developments such as the Edge Analytics Appliance, which uses AI technology combined with Sony SRG cameras to deliver content in real-time. “We found that a feature such as handwriting extraction – which ensures that any words and diagrams written on a board or screen remain in full view to the audience – was highly useful for online lectures whether live or recorded,” says Remion.

For NEC/Sharp, measures this year have included warranty enhancement. “In order to support higher education customers who typically follow a 5-year refresh programme for their installed estates, we have introduced a free 5-year warranty upgrade on our large format display ranges including touch screens, bringing them in line with our laser projector offering,” says Garaway.

Hartmut Kulessa, European marketing manager at Panasonic Visual System Solutions, points to the company’s recognition that as institutions look to implement permanent blended learning solutions, “the configuration of classrooms and lecture theatres will change”.

As a result, he says, the technology requirements in the rooms will also change. “With a wide range of professional displays and projectors able to deliver crystal clear images from 43 inches to 600 inches, Panasonic is able to advise on the best solution with the correct sized display, brightness and contrast for any learning environment.”

Heroic products, trying times

Invited to consider their current leading offers for the education sector, our featured vendors alluded to a range of products that – more often than not – encompass the full spectrum of learning environments. At the present time, these clearly include classrooms in which pupils are more spaced out than would normally be the case, sometimes making it more challenging to deliver a good audio and video experience to every pupil.

Epson’s Martorina notes that many schools presently use flat-screen displays, which can be problematic for students positioned at the back of the classroom. With this in mind, Epson’s projectors allow teachers to scale up screen sizes without losing clarity, making the content more accessible to everyone in the room while maintaining social distancing.

“All our models have a minimum screen size of 83 inches and can go up to 120 inches, which helps tackle the challenge of ensuring every child can adequately see what the teacher is presenting at the front of the room. With projectors teachers can also continue using their traditional whiteboard for lessons without the hassle of wheeling in an additional device to show other content. Additionally, teachers don’t need to worry about cleaning a projector or projection surface as they do a flat panel during Covid-19, and can benefit from a lower cost per inch of an interactive project versus an interactive flat panel.”

January 2021, meanwhile, will see Epson company introducing a new line of education-oriented interactive projectors using laser technology. “Not only does laser technology require no maintenance (no more replacing lightbulbs), the models automatically switch on within seconds too and are silent, meaning the teaching environment will not be interrupted as it can be if a lamp needs to heat up or fan starts whirring.”

Garaway notes that large format displays and touch screens remain “by far the biggest winner” in higher education,, but confirms that there continue to be opportunities for solutions that suit informal social spaces equipped for small group collaboration.

“Touch screens with whiteboarding functionality for annotation and screen sharing such as the NEC CB Series support all-inclusive participation,” he says. “The cost-conscious price positioning and functionality of the CB Series makes it appealing to the education sector.”

Continued focus

For Panasonic and its partners, there is a continued focus on offering a range of technologies that facilitate high-quality lecture capture. These include Panasonic professional cameras with a wide range of capture and zoom options, as well as auto tracking software with facial recognition technology to automatically follow the presenter. Lecture capture software is clearly critical and Panasonic has partnered with video platform Panopto to allow recordings to be scheduled ahead of time.

The Panopto solution, notes Kulessa, also enables extra information feeds to be integrated into the recording: “For example, to capture 4K quality content projected onto screens in the room or content shown and annotated on multi-touch displays. Lastly, it has the capability to livestream the lecture as a webcast and record for later viewing.”

On the audio solutions side, the emphasis continues to be on quality of audio regardless of the learning environment, application or configuration. Rob Smith, senior director integrated systems sales for Western Europe at Shure, remarks: “Capturing spoken word in a clear, natural way can be a complex issue, especially if the room isn’t designed with a high-level of intelligibility in mind. We knew that our award-winning Microflex Advance MXA910 Ceiling Array Microphone was more than capable of meeting this demand from our many successful experiences with the system in the corporate sector. It has been used with great success within the education sector, offering faculty the ability to teach effectively without the need of handheld microphones and [providing] the freedom to express themselves without the negative impact of equipment clutter or focusing on microphone placement.”

Shure also reports continued strong interest in the Microflex Advance MXA710 Linear Array Microphone for classrooms and auditoria. “The versatile mounting options and minimum setup mean they can be positioned anywhere within a learning environment to produce the same audio clarity whilst offering faculty the platform they need to communicate lessons effectively to students in the physical environment while adhering to social distancing guidelines and those learning remotely,” says Smith.

Along with the aforementioned Edge Analytics Appliance, Sony highlights products including the MAS-A100 beamforming microphone, which was launched in April and offers advanced speech reinforcement live in the room and a dedicated record channel.

The company has also launched the 4K BRAVIA Professional Display BZ40H range and the new VPL-PHZ50 and VPL-PHZ60 business laser projectors, “which we believe will still be prominent features in classrooms and lecture theatres when we move out of strict lockdown rules, and universities move into a hybrid teaching and learning model,” says Remion.

A few final predictions…

As well as reiterating the consensus view that 2021 will mark a continuation of more hybrid learning patterns – regardless of what happens with the virus and the vaccines now being rolled out – some manufacturers point to specific technologies that they expect to achieve greater prominence.

Garaway cites the rise of dvLED video display technology, which uses LEDs to produce bright, vibrant colours: “Whilst a relative newcomers, [dvLED] is fast becoming a mainstream technology. With its impressively long lifecycle and low power consumption, it meets the demands of sustainability targets yet delivers all and more in terms of visual impact. We will start to see a lot more of this technology in the education sector.”

For Kulessa, the continued integration of lecture capture and other new AV technologies into the teaching environment will be key to getting education back on track and equipping it for the future-blended learning environment. “In addition, there will be an increasing focus on collaboration technologies for the classroom. Panasonic has a range of collaboration solutions available and will be launching more next year.”

In Martorina’s view, there will be more and more “personalised” learning supported by new technologies, with teachers acting as guides rather than instructors. “The integration of new technologies such as AI, augmented reality, interactive projectors and robots will also be introduced into schools to future-proof these learning institutions.”

Given the current rate of technological change in the classroom, it’s heartening to hear that there is also an abiding emphasis on delivering solutions that, in the words of Golding, “are intuitive and easy to use, so that teachers aren’t spending time at the beginning of the session getting set up. They must also integrate with the digital ecosystem, so that teachers can move between teaching spaces and access everything they need from the cloud.”

When the lockdowns became more widespread in March, it would have been reasonable to expect a hugely problematic year for education sector manufacturers. And whilst it is unlikely to be a record-breaking year sales-wise, the dramatically increased need for remote learning and tech-driven education in the classroom has unquestionably reinforced the value of the flexible and collaborative solutions that many vendors have been bringing to market for some years now. In that context, it is probable that 2020 will prove to have been instrumental in defining the future relationship between technology and learning spaces.