Can you AV it at all?

Nicola Yeeles looks at how the latest AV technology is transforming learning environments on campus

A human is the ultimate audio-visual machine: usually able to see and think and hear and speak all at the same time. Can audio-visual technology (AV) in universities really work in tandem with that most sophisticated of technologies, the human brain? There’s no doubt that the role of the university lecturer will continue to be refined and debated. For instance, an interesting study of small group teaching in healthcare education by Davies et al (2012) found that the presence of a face-to-face introduction made students more accepting of a session in which audio was the only contact with the facilitator. A trained professional can bring hardware and software to life, but they are also considered a necessary part of the education process for many in traditional, offline educational settings.

Nevertheless, numerous studies have shown the effectiveness of group learning and universities have been keen to harness the benefits, so their technology investments are often designed to make it easier for lecturers to facilitate this in their classrooms. Michael Bailey, director of product planning and marketing at Sharp, says, “Instead of a one-way dialogue from lecturers to students, we’re seeing much higher levels of engagement and collaboration with screens that allow up to four people to write at once or even simultaneously together from different touch displays. Certain displays allow members of the audience to share their content from their tablet or mobile onto the screen, creating the sort of interactivity that stimulates active learning.” What’s more, high-quality lecture recordings can be shared and replayed later, also allowing lecturers to experiment with a flipped classroom model.

By way of example, the University of Manchester recently decided on a state-of-the-art upgrade for two faculties. “Having such high teaching standards means we need technology solutions that are reliable and consistent to help us meet these high expectations,” says Bill Ayres, service delivery manager at the University. They contacted Casio with a shopping list of high-quality visuals, a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) requirement, plus equipment with minimal maintenance, no long waits on start-up and a long lifespan. 

In the end they opted for ultra short throw (UST) projectors, which were installed in the 24 different study rooms. The projectors only require there to be a distance of 27cm from the screen to create a large image, so they are ideal for smaller spaces or where flexibility is needed. As a result, staff can feel free to configure the rooms in different ways, without worrying about visibility or on-screen shadowing.

Another thing that humans need is confidence with the technology, or any IT investment may be rendered useless. Michael Bailey says, “We know that for lecturers the most important thing is simply that AV equipment works every time, without needing much training, and we focus on that reliability and intuitiveness of use. Displays need to offer a better alternative than using a flipboard and marker pen, yet still be as simple and intuitive, otherwise people won’t see the point.” 

Using a range of media engages students and has been said to aid retention of learning material, meaning that universities are frequently investing in AV solutions to improve student learning spaces. The University of Surrey’s Veterinary Biosciences degree is ranked number one in the UK by the Sunday Times. The new £45m vet school reflects their success. Recently AV functionality was installed by Crestron across the facility with both 3D and 2D displays in the laboratory, which are used to present streamed content from connected devices, 3D cameras to stream content out to the network/IPTV distribution, flexible 2D cameras, microphones and controls. The return on investment is supported by continuing income from corporate and private hire of the new facilities. This investment is a good example of how any new equipment needs to integrate with the University’s existing IT systems and standards, as well as staff and student devices. With a new wave of digital natives flooding through the doors of our universities, the pressure is stronger than ever for institutions to provide them not only with technology solutions that are robust and innovative, but that also fit seamlessly into students’ device-driven lifestyles. As a result students can review learning material on the go, accessing anytime anywhere content from the University’s virtual learning environment, for example, but also produce content and share it with their cohort in connected spaces.

What of the future? Will universities continue to make the same investments given students’ increasing hunger for all things digital? Change is a certainty in universities; there will be an evolution in what students expect: just as we have seen a move from 2D images to video, so augmented reality (AR) may become the next go-to digital content. Augmented reality is just that: when our regular view of the world is supplemented by extra digital information, which might include sound, graphics or other data. One example is when watching sports on television; broadcasters frequently overlay the images with extra information about players like their vital statistics. But Manchester Medical School has recently become one of the first medical schools to implement this for the benefit of education. 

One of the largest medical schools in Europe, with nearly 2,500 students, the school is using the technology to standardise how students prescribe medicines using posters and digital storytelling on iPads given to the students. Matt Ramirez, senior innovation developer in the future technologies directorate at Jisc who has been working with the University, explained that patient/doctor simulations were much improved using AR: “Previously this was quite a time-consuming process because the facilitator would have to print out each of these role play scenarios to each of the people and remember to take them, but with this it was a standardised experience, and it could be easily adapted or amended going forward.”

AR brings students face-to-face with unseen phenomena like the reactions between medicine and organism that happen at a microscopic level. Ramirez says, “It can allow the user more of a visual understanding of how things work at that macro level, which is quite difficult to comprehend when you’re reading it from the book or even watching an animation on a computer because it’s not self-guided then, whereas within AR you can decide the journey that you go on.” If AR is to be used in education, however, it will require intuitive software, high-quality audio visual equipment, and likely portable devices to allow for that personalised experience.


That brings us back to the role of the human in the institution. AV technology is also crucial for bringing people together, not least for efficient video-conferencing. Educators working in remote environments or with tedious commuting distances can get involved in university education with even the most basic of AV technology on their computers, thereby widening the pool of staff diversity. On the other hand, as the technology improves, and its portability becomes more viable, perhaps more and more students will be learning in groups in less traditional environments like work-based settings, allowing universities to reach out and widen their participation even further. With greater use of AV technology, then, the contributions of the talented people inside and outside our institutions can be made even more significant. 

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