The Edtech Evolution

Steve Wright reveals the latest technology enhancing learning across campus – and explores some future trends

From 4K resolution to Google Cardboard, AR to BYOD, technology (and its application in education) is marching on as fast as ever. Unsurprisingly, today’s students are rightly demanding the very best technology – and expertise in said tech – to enhance the learning experience for which they have made such a huge investment. So, what are the key innovations improving learning and teaching on UK campuses?

“Teaching rooms and lecture theatres are key areas for innovation,” says Phil Waterhouse, Education Business Development Manager at hardware manufacturers Crestron. “Teaching rooms, for example, may have one display but multiple inputs to show on screen simultaneously. Our DMPS range of Processing Systems allow older Video Graphics Array (VGA) devices to be plugged in alongside more modern HDMI devices. The DMPS units can take up to eight inputs – laptop, PC, visualiser, room camera, Blu-Ray player – whilst sending a signal to one or more displays. For lecture theatres, meanwhile, we have a more advanced range of DMPS that combine full matrix switcher, video scaler, mic mixer, audio DSP and amplifier all in one unit.”

4K has emerged as a trend for both classrooms and auditoriums as the crisp visuals allow for the viewing, sharing and collaborating of highly detailed subjects. 

Crestron also offer advanced management software to control and monitor all their hardware onsite. These include Crestron Fusion, which gives the AV/IT department advance notification of issues, not only with Crestron devices but other devices (displays, projectors, etcetera), allowing them to fix issues before the lecturer is even aware of them.

Elsewhere, Crestron’s own AirMedia bring your own device (BYOD) products allow teachers and students to use their own laptop, mobile or tablet wirelessly in class, while its Mercury software allows them to share their personal content with the main display.

The potential for new ways of teaching and learning is huge. “With virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) no longer visions from a distant future, students will soon be able to learn in all sorts of new and exciting ways,” enthuses Martin Hamilton, Futurist at Jisc, providers of digital solutions for UK education and research. “Imagine reorganising atoms or manipulating molecules right in front of your eyes, or learning how to be a surgeon by following a real operation filmed in 360-degree video via your VR headset.”

Technology can also serve as a key enabler and opener of new opportunities. “Imagine that you are a wheelchair user taking a geology class – travelling up a rocky mountain on a school trip might simply not be feasible. VR can make such experiences more accessible, opening up educational opportunities previously closed to learners with additional needs.”

Moreover, says Martin, technology can help overcome problems posed by today’s larger class and tutorial group sizes, which can mean that learners don’t always have the chance to try things over and over, learning from their mistakes and receiving personalised support. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in VR for health and safety training and lab inductions. Practising pouring acid from the bottle into a test tube in VR could be less hazardous than diving in after watching a briefing video!”

Tech that facilitates collaboration and teamwork is now topping many universities’ shopping lists. “The traditional room of students listening to the lecturer is transitioning into a more collaborative way of working, splitting the room into groups of six or eight tables to work together with input from the teacher,” Crestron’s Phil Waterhouse observes.

“This can result in more thought-provoking classes – and a better, shared understanding of the task or subject. We can connect these groups with each other – and also to the front-of-class display. Imagine a lecturer/teacher having a touch panel that enables all screens in the room to see any of the breakout tables at any time – and also for all those breakout groups to see on their displays the lecturer/teacher’s info.” Crestron’s DM Matrix systems allow for up to eight breakout areas to be displayed on up to eight different screens, meaning that everyone can see what everyone else is doing.

Lee Turpitt is Head of Projector Division at Casio UK. “The HE market is a hotbed of innovation, thanks to universities’ efforts to attract the best students. Collaboration technologies, BYOD and 4K are all popular topics among HE IT managers wanting to enrich their classrooms, auditoriums and common spaces.”

Casio has recently launched its first lamp-free 4K projector. “Lamp-free projection is changing the landscape of technology for classroom and lecture theatres by reducing maintenance costs and the need for replacing lamps across campus.” The move towards cloud solutions and remote networking is another big trend: entire campuses are being moved onto Web OS and similar connectivity platforms, so that each can be centrally controlled and maintained remotely where suitable. This is making IT departments more efficient and driving innovation from tech manufacturers to bring these developments into their products.”

Some good news came from the survey: some 85% of the IT leaders were working with the same or an increased budget in the coming year with only 15% working on a reduced budget. “We expect higher resolutions and BYOD to increase as campus Wi-Fi and infrastructure is being improved. 4K has emerged as a trend for both classrooms and auditoriums as the crisp visuals allow for the viewing, sharing and collaborating of highly detailed subjects. With the proliferation of 4K-ready devices and the cost of large-format 4K displays coming down, students can film their own 4K content and share across both platforms. Consequently, adoption of 4K technology is expected to grow from the current rate of under 10% to approximately 40% by 2020.”

Leicester College recently chose Casio’s Core range for a ‘fix it and forget it’ classroom display solution. The College previously used lamp-based projection in their facilities but were becoming increasingly frustrated with the maintenance needs and costs.

Augmented reality (AR) is also poised to make the leap into mass consciousness, with the latest iPads even coming with built-in hardware and software support for AR

Phil Marshall, joint managing director of KPMS, a nationally-recognised AV integrator in the educational market, led the project. Phil brought in a Casio Core V10X for a demo to show the College what high-quality and cost-effective projection could look like – and Leicester quickly realised that a re-fit was in order. Phil and his team were enlisted to install 184 Casio Core V10X projectors across three college campuses.

All of Casio’s laser & LED hybrid projectors are lamp-free, thus eliminating mercury and replacement parts for improved sustainability. Casio’s SSI light source reduces power consumption up to 50% over its lifetime too, boosting the college’s green credentials. Without lamps, moreover, the projectors do not require any cooling cycle, allowing teachers to jump constantly from projector to other teaching methods. They also have no filters or other replacement parts, rendering them virtually maintenance-free.

“HE institutions recognise the need to move with the times, and to resonate with students who are accustomed to interactive, visual experiences,” Phil concludes. “Live lectures still have an important part to play: but another trend emerging is the creation of video collaboration suites that enable students to dial each other in remotely, rather than all being on campus. These ‘huddle spaces’ utilise the most simple systems, such as Skype For Business. There are many cloud-based solutions which have been developed with a specific subject area in mind, especially for medical and technology courses where technology is making huge advances.”

Students expect institutions to collect their personal data and use it to improve their study experience

So, what will be the next technology to gain a foothold on UK campuses? “VR (virtual reality) isn’t going away anytime soon, and Google Cardboard headsets are an affordable way to bring VR to students en masse and on a budget,” Martin Hamilton reveals. “The design is even open-sourced, so you can make your own, and it’s incredibly cheap because your phone does all of the hard work. With VR technology on its way to being democratised, education is set to become truly immersive. Augmented reality (AR) is also poised to make the leap into mass consciousness, with the latest iPads even coming with built-in hardware and software support for AR. If you’re interested in exploring the potential of AR, you don’t need to buy additional expensive third-party software to get started. Microsoft have their own take on AR: right now, their Hololens Mixed Reality developer kit would set you back over £3,000, but they have recently licensed the design for mass production, so over the next year there will be versions available from lots of companies for a fraction of the price.”

As Martin illustrates, the opportunities presented to teaching staff by the likes of VR and AR are almost endless. “The UK is at the cutting edge – see, for example, the University of Leicester Medical School’s pioneering work on VR and 360-video in medical training.”

Digitally-literate staff and personalised content will be high, meanwhile, on students’ wishlists. Rob Parker is Senior Content Producer at FULL FABRIC, providers of student management solutions to leading universities. “HE students are becoming more digitally proficient and have increasingly greater expectations of how technology will be used to enhance their study experience. A Jisc survey found that 75% of 15–24-year-olds believe that having staff with the appropriate digital skills is an important factor when choosing a university.”

Data, says Rob, is a large part of this conversation. “Students expect institutions to collect their personal data and use it to improve their study experience. In the US, an EDUCAUSE survey found that 77% of students believe institutions should use their personal data to improve academic, financial and careers development services. Millennials are not only comfortable with companies and apps collecting their data – they expect it as part of the service.

A student may think: if Netflix can suggest programmes based on which titles I’ve binged on and which I’ve abandoned halfway through, why can’t my university use data in a similar way to recommend eBooks, classes, careers events or job vacancies?”

This personalisation will extend even into course content. “We will see a shift away from lecturer-centred curriculum to a student-centred curriculum design, where students will be co-creators of their education rather than mere consumers,” predicts Rob’s colleague, FULL FABRIC’s Head of Solutions Tania Roquette. “Curriculum design will become a more personalised thing rather than a one-size-fits-all product.”

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