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Once in a lifetime opportunity for education

Mark Perrett, public sector account manager at PTS, looks at how Covid-19 presents an opportunity for the sector

An awful lot has been written about the impacts of Covid-19 on the sector and technology use, and most of it will come as no surprise to anyone; greater uncertainty, more reliance on blended learning, greater concern for student and staff welfare in what is a very stressful and pressurised environment.

When we hit the first lockdown, universities nationwide had to move wholesale to virtual learning, at the drop of a hat. They then underwent projects during this lockdown to prepare for students to return to campus but engage with their courses and the technology in a completely different way. These projects ranged from rolling out lecture capture across all spaces, and adoption of entirely new unified comms platforms and their integration with AV systems.

Previously, these sorts of transformational projects and programmes would rarely have been so ambitious in their scope, and would still have been planned over multiple years, to allow for proper stakeholder engagement, options analysis, scenario mapping, and risk management. Instead, they were doing so across a couple of months; in some cases, weeks.

Remarkable achievement
What has been achieved in many universities over such a condensed period is nothing short of remarkable. And whilst there was obvious panic and concern from students as to the quality of their learning experience, this is a reflection of their dampened expectations; there is a general view that universities have done as much as could be reasonably be expected in this regard. Indeed, at some Universities, the IT and AV teams are riding the crest of a wave in terms of their internal reputation based on their ability to migrate to such a completely different way of working; without them, who knows how disastrous it could have been for the sector.

Part of this success is demonstrated by the fact we have almost entirely dispelled the notion that remote working and learning cannot work. As an example, we have been undertaking an occupancy study for one university aimed at using sensors to show how buildings are being used by academics and students, partly to explore the use and benefits of collaborative working as opposed to individual office space. The way they have responded to lockdown has made the case far better than the study ever could!

In the medium term, mistakes will have inevitably been made in fast-tracking decision-making to prepare for the new term, and the next couple of years will see IT and AV teams struggling to unpick them. This is in no way a criticism of those teams, but merely an unfortunate by-product of having to transform so quickly, especially in institutions that usually take a consensus-based approach to projects and programmes.

Fantastic support
It should be said that the AV supplier and integrator community has largely been fantastic in supporting their institutions, with Universities relying more and more on the supplier ecosystem that they know and trust. But this does come at the expense of taking an independent view of the best solution to meet the changing and future needs of students in a post-Covid world.

But beyond these teething problems, there is a bigger challenge. Whilst technology teams have thus far surpassed all reasonable expectations, there is a danger that we underestimate the extent to which student expectations will continue to rise now that they have been shown what is possible. There will be a desire for long-lasting change, and students will begin to look disapprovingly at any institution that fails to satisfy them.

Higher video and audio quality has to be a bare minimum when addressing the current online learning experience. Patience is already wearing thin with Zoom and Teams calls, and technically un-savvy lecturers. One place to look for inspiration is the Oxford Hive at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. The Hive is a bespoke professional broadcasting space, equipped with high quality cameras, a video wall, enhanced acoustics, integrated to a variety of VC platforms, with students and participants joining remotely. It takes the online seminar to a different level of immersion and collaboration.

Reduced bandwidth
This rise in quality will put greater strain on wi-fi, especially in halls of residence that are already awash with student devices eating up bandwidth and detracting from even the most basic remote lecture. Whether privately or University-owned, there will be no excuse for wi-fi that doesn’t support this level of activity; AV teams are very aware of this fact, and of the increasing need to communicate with their IT Network peers to deliver this.

In-person learning will be under pressure to evolve as a direct consequence of the online learning experience. The face-to-face lecture will need to earn its place to an even greater extent. If students are going to take the time to come to campus for sessions, they want to know that the experience will compensate for the travel with a better experience than if they join online. It’s very similar to what cinemas have had to do with the rise of home entertainment.

And as with cinema, they will need to avoid gimmicks – most people look disparagingly (literally and metaphorically) at 3D technology these days. Things like virtual reality promise a lot in the long-term and should be monitored, but I’m yet to be convinced of their practical applications beyond a few very niche examples; at least until the technology and ubiquity improves.

There are really interesting developments in immersion rooms; 360 video walls that can be useful for more practical courses that would benefit from real-world simulations and visualisations. The innovations that will stand the best chance of adoption are those that require next to no prior knowledge to work; it must be effortless and intuitive.

Learning trends
The bigger trend is the changes in the way that students learn. Studies have shown how an abundance of information on, and our propensity to use, digital and social platforms have dramatically shortened our attention spans, particularly amongst Gen Z  – the current student body. They bring these preferences into their educational lives, and the pandemic has only increased the volume of educational content consumed online and on smartphones.

In the consumer world, the response of advertisers and entertainment content providers has been a far greater focus on short-form content. To what extent will Universities adapt in a similar way? Will lectures be broken into bitesize chunks? Will inspiring parts of seminars go viral over Blackboard or Moodle?

Technology can help universities to package learning content in ways that best suit this mode of learning, but the bigger questions are:

  • Are universities aware of these changes?
  • Do we worry that this will damage the sanctity of the teacher/student dynamic?
  • Will universities resist this change and maintain their current teaching methods?
  • If not, are they capable of that change at an academic level?

Whatever the answers to the above questions, and whatever the real impact of some of these changes on universities, the risk of settling for the comfort of the old world will be tempting. But many Universities do see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to effect real, positive change.

A lot of work we are doing in the sector is about addressing this wider point. For example, we are working with the University of Birmingham to develop an Intelligent Campus Strategy, which looks holistically at a range of physical and digital innovations that will underpin their ability to navigate the changes to the sector, not just surviving post-Covid-19, but thriving. This encompasses a wide variety of developments, including IoT, artificial intelligence, the digital learning experience, digital twin, smart environments, enhanced collaboration technologies, 5G, and mobile integration.

The aims of the strategy are very clear; to enhance experiences, improve efficiency, and achieve environmental sustainability. Whilst we are early in the process, it is clear that AV technology will have an important role to play within the University’s Intelligent Campus, across both its Birmingham and new Dubai campus.