InfoComm: Giving AV the Old College Try

By Dan Daley
Special to InfoComm International


The buzz around concepts such as distance learning and massive open online courses (MOOCs) make it seem as if media and higher education have suddenly and serendipitously collided, like some professorial version of chocolate and peanut butter. In fact, universities and media technologies have been trying to connect for decades.

Between World Wars I and II, for example, in a precursor to today’s distance learning initiatives, the government granted educational radio broadcasting licenses to 202 colleges, universities, and school boards in order to transmit classes over the ether. Unfortunately, by 1940 there was only one college-level credit course offered by radio — and no one bothered to register for it.

Academia and media technology kept at it, but it wasn’t until cable television became ubiquitous in the 1980s that electronic learning began gaining real traction. The Education Coalition, a non-profit developer of web-based training courses, offers a useful insight: As the quality of the picture and sound increased, in part as cable television became more widely available, so did the deployment of education via media systems. Citing the rapid spread of video-based services, such as the PBS Adult Learning Service, the Annenberg/CPB Project, the National University Consortium, and the University of Mid-America, the Coalition observed that, “Likely catalysts for this increase were the refinement and sophistication of telecourses and the technological means to deliver them.”

Scott Walker, president and CEO of Waveguide Consulting, an independent technology-consulting firm in Atlanta that specializes in higher-education facilities, concurs, adding that higher-resolution video is changing the design esthetic at colleges and universities.

“Architects are beginning to realize the importance of lighting and camera angles in schools, something that no one really had to think about until a few years ago,” he says. “You can really see that in the MOOC classes online, where the codec was the real bottleneck in the beginning. Now, the audio and video quality is excellent, and the backdrops and sets look very professional.”

The growing ubiquity of broadband has helped move “telecourses” to the Internet, where MOOC aggregators and marketers, such as Coursera, Udacity, and Academic Earth, have exploited the web to boost student participation levels to the millions, publishing courses from schools such as Harvard, Stanford and MIT.

In fact, several important trends in the delivery of higher education rely heavily on AV systems. And their continued growth will undoubtedly depend on how well audio and video can engage students.


According to the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition, “Education paradigms are shifting to include more online learning, hybrid learning, and collaborative models.” Moreover, according to the NMC, institutions that “embrace face-to-face, online, and hybrid learning models” have the potential to engage with students who “already spend much of their free time on the Internet,” learning and exchanging new information.

In other words, the AV components of education will have to become increasingly flexible to allow for more peer-based education (students collaborating with other students) in addition to (or instead of) the one-way, teacher-to-student, top-down model. Corporate videoconferencing techniques and platforms are already beginning to appear in university classrooms, driven by the increased availability and affordability of more powerful codecs.

Alpha Video & Audio, an education-focused integrator in Edina, Minn., recently enabled greater student collaboration at Minnesota State University. In 2013, the school’s construction management program asked the company to design and integrate collaborative learning systems that would support a project-based learning initiative. The classroom was reorganized to get away from rows of students facing one professor’s desk and to incorporate seven student tables and one instructor station.

“The collaboration begins at the student tables,” explains Alpha Video systems engineer Matt Rasmussen. “The students share a 40-inch monitor that is wall-mounted above the worktable. Each student’s own computer device is connected to the monitor through a Kramer Electronics HDMI switch. HDMI technology is required to provide the faster throughput for quickly transmitting large engineering files. Once connected to the HDMI switcher, the students select the input to the monitor using a Kramer eight-button room controller pad.”

Other technologies include a Crestron DigitalMedia control system, two Sony projectors, two Da-Lite 94-inch screens, and a ceiling-mounted Vaddio HD document camera to let the instructor can share documents with students.

“The result is that all students can be working on separate steps of a project and easily share that data with other members of the group,” Rasmussen says.

New Styles of Learning

The halls of education have hosted several alternative schools of thought recently. They come with a variety of names, but the most common are “flipped learning,” “active learning,” and “blended learning.” And they all have AV requirements.

  • In a “flipped” classroom, students learn new concepts online by watching video lectures and other content — usually at home — and do what used to be called homework in class, where teachers can offer more personalized guidance and interaction.
  • With blended learning, face-to-face classroom methods are combined with computer-mediated activities, synthesizing conventional and flipped styles of education.
  • Students working in an active-learning environment might watch a video in class, in chapters, with numerous breaks for discussion or written evaluations.

These new teaching/learning modalities are spawning a cottage industry of software solutions, such as Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite webcasting and presentation system and Juno Connect, an integrated system that projects audio in the classroom but also has an AV content-capture feature.

These new approaches and platforms are an opportunity for teachers to test the limits of technology-aided education. They’re also a chance for AV specialists to do the same. However, cautions Peter Dugas, president of Athens, Ga.-based integrator TSAV, it’s not just about plugging in gear.

“For integrators to be effective, they need to understand the pedagogy,” Dugas says. “They need to know what teachers are trying to accomplish.”

There’s opportunity for AV manufacturers, too. Scott Walker alludes to what he says is a tech deficit in education.

“There’s a giant need for an automated camera tracking that works; that will let a teacher use the entire room to teach and still have it captured,” Walker says. “That’s going to be fundamental to physical classroom design going forward. As teachers have to move among groups of students in the room, they won’t be lecturing from a stage at the front of the room anymore.”

Interactive Classrooms

Although higher education is moving deeper into the online paradigm, the classroom itself is not going away. It won’t, however, remain traditional for much longer.

Lev Gonick, vice president for IT services and CIO at Case Western Reserve University, remarked in an article on, “There’s been a traditional conversation about change in lecture halls in [terms of] more interactive and active learning… But the real opportunities seem to be the ones that will evolve over the next 5-10 years which are, essentially, life-size, wall-size, interactive, multi-touch experiences that actually beg you to come up and touch the learning, that encourage you to have an opportunity to engage and share, not only at the front of the room, but from anywhere in the room as part of the experience.”

In that sense, the classroom of the future may become what museums have become: interactive, immersive experiences. Walker says to expect the classroom to become a multimedia space, with multiple displays using several types of platforms, including projection, LED screens and both live-streamed and archived content. “Lots of tables for collaboration on-site and a more software-based than hardware-based experience,” he says.

In fact, we may be getting closer to the display-less classroom. TSAV’s Dugas says his company is in the midst of a university project in which the only displays are the ones the students bring, in the form of their personal mobile devices. These devices then log into to a class’s or professor’s website, which takes a streaming feed from the instructor’s device, which is connected to an encoder in the room.

“It’s incredibly efficient from an ergonomic perspective, and offers obvious cost effectiveness, with so much less hardware to buy,” Dugas says. However, he adds, “It’s not a slam dunk. The jury’s still out on it as a mode of teaching; many instructors want students’ eyes looking up, not down all the time.”

No doubt, higher education is undergoing a turbulent phase of its evolution. New teaching/learning models arrive at a time when college costs have skyrocketed. The AV technology necessary to support new approaches to education definitely require investment, but like all new technology, the cost of equipment gets cheaper all the time.

Combined with the fact that much of the infrastructure for the next wave of learning will comprise personal mobile devices, the price tag to keep education state of the art could end up being lower than anyone expected.

This column was reprinted with permission from InfoComm International and originally appeared here.

Image via Flickr user Prima Vista