Over the past 14 months, higher ed technology professionals have been scrambling. Whether we were sticking webcams on tripods, placing cameras/mics in classrooms or working with faculty on how to use all of the above — the past year has been more about preparing for tomorrow than for the next six months or year. While this has been fun and kept us all very busy, things will start to change quickly. We all have hope that the pandemic is coming to an end, and most of us are expecting that we will have an “almost normal” school year next year. We need to start thinking about what faculty have gotten used to over the past 14 months, what we’ve learned during that time and how we make sure that the technology is ready when the faculty and students return.
In my discussions with higher ed tech managers, I believe that quality audio and class capture are what we will see a high demand for in the fall. Many of us have always been audio people who cringe when we hear bad audio. Yet, bad audio has always been acceptable for the average person because they don’t necessarily know better. However, after a year of nonstop videoconferencing, we’re all tired of struggling to hear people (either via videoconf or recorded content). Additionally, many of our faculty (and students) were introduced to class capture during the pandemic. The students have loved this technology. At my college, the class capture requests and support have doubled over the past year, and I expect that to grow going forward.
So, what do we need to do to prepare? In my opinion, we need to provide these advanced capabilities without burdening faculty with the training that we would typically think was normal. Let me explain: Many of us have treated class capture like a special request. Since it was a special request, it was alright to send a tech out and do the training on using the class capture equipment. As we advance, it will become standard. I have long believed that if you need to train people on how to use a standard space, you have designed and programmed the space wrong. The space needs to be completely simple to use. It needs to be intuitive.
Now, how do you make a space intuitive? The first step is to talk to the people that are using said space. While we like to think we know our customers well and understand their needs, we are not the end users. Therefore, we need to listen to the end users, implement what we hear from them, show them, get feedback and then make revisions. We also need to think about what we can learn about programming and automation.
Much of this is going to require us to acquire new skills, new people or new resources. While I know that many of us have programmers on our staff, we may need to think about when they last updated their skills. When was the last time they had a room that was a real challenge, and they needed to do something very different? When was the last time they really had to challenge their own thinking when programming a room? If it has been a while, now may be the time to refresh those skills.
I also think that having user design or user experience experts on staff is not common. The two are critical skills that will come into play and may be something for which we need to reach out to outside resources. It is challenging for someone who understands the technology and has designed, installed and programmed the technology to understand how an actual end user reacts to the user interface. People who are real user design experts have processes and procedures to figure that out. This may be the point where we think about automating the systems in the classroom for specific faculty. Why should a faculty member who teaches in a classroom 48 times in a semester have to do the same thing every single time to get the room configured to their needs? Can they just scan their ID card, and it happens automatically?
Quality audio is less about the user interface and more about detailed audio programming and design by your audio experts. Installing quality equipment and balancing and configuring it properly to meet all needs (recording, live videoconferencing, voice amplification for faculty and students and hearing assistance) requires skills and expertise. It’s important here to consider ways that things go wrong and prepare for those things. For example, some tech managers buy lapel mics that can give feedback on their battery status. How about programming that feedback to go back to your central monitoring? If you see batteries getting critically low, you can proactively go to the room and replace batteries or place the equipment in the charger.
These are great opportunities for tech managers to team up with their local integrator or independent programmer. Many will likely have these skills in-house and/or be willing to offer training to in-house teams. There may be some hesitancy in higher ed to do this, with the reasoning of not having the money to hire these services. Most money that exists will likely be spent on equipment. However, I would argue that if you need to spend time creating training manuals, training videos or meeting with faculty in the rooms, that costs money. And it costs not only your money but the money of the people who have to take time training how to use a room that should be intuitive.