InfoComm: The Evolution of Higher Ed AV

By Dan Daley
InfoComm International

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When tech managers and AV pros gather in Pittsburgh this October for the annual conference of the Consortium of College and University Media Centers (CCUMC), they’ll have a lot to talk about. The use of AV is evolving rapidly in the higher-education space, but experiences vary widely, based on everything from budgets to the types of schools that tech managers work in.

CCUMC, an InfoComm partner and participant in InfoComm shows, had a role in preparing the InfoComm white paper AV/IT Infrastructure Guidelines for Higher Education. We talked to some of the conference’s higher ed presenters to get a preview of some of the topics they’ll cover.

Moving to IP

Steven Anderson, CTS, instructional technology manager at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), is working on the school’s new and still-unnamed performing arts center — a process he’ll discuss in a CCUMC presentation and that illustrates the convergence of AV and IT in higher-education environments. What had been the school’s AV department was absorbed by its IT group about seven years ago. In the process, the AV division’s mission, which had been pedagogical support, morphed into a more comprehensive role of technology-infrastructure support.

Although there may have been some initial trepidation about the AV/IT consolidation, it has proven to be a positive transition, says Anderson, with a substantially larger budget for all of the services and platforms the group serves, including AV systems. At the same time, the technology simplification that comes from moving what had been legacy “one channel, one wire” AV solutions to a packetized networked environment has increased reliability by reducing the number of potential failure points. It’s also been more cost-effective.

“Renovating the AV for a lecture hall used to be a $50,000 project,” Anderson explains. “Now it’s much less because there are fewer components and less labor.”

Still, as AV moves deeper into the digital IT space, its analog heritage remains. “People still want to work on the platforms they’ve been used to,” says Anderson. “That’s human nature. And there’s lots of content out there that still needs legacy analog systems to be accessed.”

In other words, higher education technology won’t be 100-percent digital for some time yet.

No Pain, No Gain

Not far away from UMBC, at American University in Washington, D.C., Katie Kassof has undergone her own transition. Her title recently changed from Senior Audiovisual Technician to Instructional Technology and Learning Space Designer, but Kassof still faces the same challenge of securing budget dollars for new pedagogical technology platforms at a liberal-arts college.

The school is transitioning from a Panopto video-capture platform to the Kaltura platform, which she says offers more software-based options, which is especially important as classrooms try to integrate more sophisticated AV hardware. This means moving away from the webcam-based portable kits that her department used to distribute — a somewhat higher-tech version of the high school AV carts of yore, but which cost only about $150 each to assemble — to an integrated AV package with ceiling-mounted webcams and microphones that can record a wider range of classroom activities and distribute the content more widely.

The steadily falling price of consumer electronics is helping the transition, allowing classrooms to have integrated webcams, DVD players and HDMI inputs. However, Kassof says that her CCUMC presentation, wryly titled The Horror! Switching Video Content Management Systems, will also focus on the human element of platform change. Millennial students may enthusiastically embrace technology change, she acknowledges. Teachers? Not so much.

“You can never make it completely painless,” Kassof says.

All About Training

Lauren Turin, Manager of Media Services at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, hasn’t seen her title change, but most everything else has. Her Department of Media Services moved three years ago from the support side of the school’s organizational hierarchy to the academic side. Reporting now to the school’s associate provost — who’s been a big booster of the technical changes the school has implemented — while maintaining a good relationship with the university’s IT department has exposed AV to the best of both worlds there, she says.

“They like what we’ve been doing,” she says of the university administration and professors who use the 100 classrooms they have been outfitted with audio, video, Internet connectivity and Extron MLC226 control systems. Five of the university’s spaces are active-learning, pod-type “FlexTech” classrooms with advanced AV systems, such as Barco’s ClickShare collaborative platform.

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“That makes it easier to get funding going forward,” Turin Says, such as for the fourth and fifth FlexTech spaces, which are going online this fall. After the school’s president was so impressed by the first FlexTech spaces a year ago, he gave the green light to additional ones. She’ll talk about it during the session titled Building an ‘Affordable’ Active-Learning Classroom.

But as other AV managers have experienced, Turin says that although AV in higher-education spaces can be engaging for students, it can’t reach its full potential if teachers aren’t well trained. And getting them to embrace new platforms can be challenging.

“We explain to professors you can’t teach the old way in new rooms,” Turin says. “But at the same time, we have a responsibility to provide them with the right training.” She says AV tech managers in higher education also have a responsibility to pace the rate at which they implement change.

Pacing change, says Turin, means focusing on simplicity and ease of use. Her department works with the school’s Center for Teaching Excellence to help train instructors in the pedagogy of new learning spaces.

Plus, Turin says, it’s important to make sure both technology and the people who use it are in sync at a time when more learning — and more tuition dollars — are moving to online teaching. “This is all about creating the best possible classroom experience,” she says. “The technology has to be used to make the face-to-face experience memorable.”

Who Has The Podium?

Just as Albert Einstein, for much of his career, pursued a grand unification theory of physics, Rutgers University’s Digital Classroom Services (DCS) department has been chasing the idea of a single podium to contain most of the AV technology needed for teaching. Matthew Wilk, a DCS associate director who heads up Rutgers’ Technical Services and Operations, believes they’ve nearly reached that goal, though it’s still a work in progress.

Finding a median solution for the university’s 250 classrooms across five campuses, most of which are general-purpose rooms that can be used for English one period and STEM studies the next, was a challenge. All of those rooms now have basic AV, such as a projector and screen, and the vast majority of them have digital AV components. But the podium remained the Holy Grail. “The challenge was to find a way to fit it all together and make it affordable,” he says of the project, which began in 2012 and will be the subject of a presentation at the upcoming CCUMC event.

One tactic was to exchange the Crestron control and routing processor the school had been using for homegrown software that runs on Apple computers. They also added a 21-inch Planar touchscreen as the podium’s monitor. And although HDMI and USB inputs and a Blu-ray drive are used to bring in content, the next iteration of the podium will incorporate more wireless connectivity; the stand already has a wireless microphone that lets teachers move about the room.

DCS settled on two sizes of the podium — a 30-by-28-inch version and a larger one at 30 by 43 inches — to accommodate different-sized classrooms. Both types are movable and connect to the installed AV in classrooms through Cat-6 cables.

Wilk says they’ve established a five-year refresh cycle for the podiums’ components, but tweaks will inevitably happen more frequently, such as the Barco ClickShare collaborative platform and Mersive Solstice shared displays they’re planning on experimenting with in a few classrooms this year. But like his colleagues at other schools, Wilk says forward progress always has to accommodate legacy mindsets. “We still have one faculty member who insists on using a VCR,” he sighs.

What these conversations reveal is that in the university space, the transition from analog to digital — from conventional to new teaching paradigms — is a work in progress. It’s also one that will proceed at a different pace at different schools, dictated by budget and the ability of teachers to process the shift in pedagogical technology. What won’t slow it down is the enthusiasm that AV and IT managers at schools are showing to help make the transition happen.

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