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The State of AV in Education

What does Scott Walker, a 20-year veteran of AV in higher education, have against lecture halls? Campus Technology spoke to him to find out.

It's Scott Walker's business to know AV in higher education. Walker, president and CEO of Decatur, GA-based Waveguide Consulting, has been an independent AV consultant for 20 years. Up to 70 percent of the projects his company handles are for colleges and universities. At his current company, which he founded in 1996, he's handled more than 160 higher education projects at 50 universities in 20 states.

Given his role in system design and project planning, he, like all AV consultants, must have a special perspective, a birds-eye view, if you will, of technology trends. Consultants know which investments made now will pay off later and which won't. They see what's happening with corporate and education audiovisual needs, and they see the differences. They are also manufacturer-agnostic, so their only loyalties are to the institution that hired them.

We spoke with Walker about how AV technology is evolving in education and asked him about the trends he thinks will be significant for academic institutions moving forward. What he told us is that the lecture hall is becoming an anachronism. He told us why new AV standards are having an impact on technology planning. And he explained how classroom capture is poised to transform learning.

Denise Harrison: What have you seen in terms of the evolution of AV in higher education?

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Scott Walker: At this point in time, campus AV groups have matured; AV has matured; and there is a proliferation in technology.

Early in our Waveguide experience, in the mid to late 1990s, we were in on the first wave of very large higher ed projects on the major campuses. These projects tended to begin in the specialty locations, such as business schools, law schools, and medical schools. The large specialty schools had the competitive vision to be more state of the art than their peers. They also had the funding. Those projects quite often set the technology level on the campus. Then, other departments would come to see the audiovisual capabilities at those schools, and they recognized it as the latest and greatest. It didn't take long before there was a clamor of interest from other departments.

After the first wave of those mega projects came the classrooms. Universities decided they needed state-of-the-art classrooms, and they built 50 to 60 classrooms to replace legacy rooms. These were large and complex projects, too, with lots of infrastructure, lighting, shade, and furniture. The sheer volume of systems made classroom audiovisual design large and challenging.

Quite often, consultants were brought in to design the projects. Some campuses, though, wanted to bring the design in-house to have tighter control. That was a bellwether of where things are going today.

Harrison: What prompted the boom in education AV?

Walker: The growth was mostly fueled by new construction. People would build a new science building more often than they'd renovate the old one. They would build a new classroom building rather than work with what was already there. Technology was ubiquitous, and new construction ... provided the means to obtain it.

Harrison: And then more about standards?

Walker: One of the challenges of new construction, however, is that quite often it's a different architect at each project who brings in a different consultant who bids it out to a different integrator. Campus technology managers were challenged to have a consistent standard, which is difficult when the model meant the players were changing each time there was a new project.

Yet another problem came when the consultant wasn't well selected, or the integrator, despite having no proven track record, was chosen because of a low bid. So campuses began to take a more serious look at how to use consultants and how to standardize on integrators.

The university then did what made sense: They pulled more of the work in-house, with employees specifying the systems and in some cases doing the installations and even programming the software. They basically became small design-build integrators.

Harrison: How was that working for them?

Walker: Pulling the work in-house made sense in terms of controlling standards, but it's not very scalable from a financial standpoint. In recent years, what we've seen is some colleges and universities being overwhelmed trying to do it all internally.

For one, they can't grow big enough for the big projects. Most institutions are loath to hire a lot of technology people when it's tied to construction. Construction has a beginning and an end. What do you do with all those employees when the construction is done?

Harrison: What was the solution, or has there been one?

Walker: What we have seen in recent years is small, quick projects are done in-house. They handle internally the design, sometimes the install, and sometimes the software programming. Then for the mega projects that involve 3 to 4 years of meetings and drawings, those are typically done with external consultants and integrators.

Harrison: What are some of the challenges for consultants working in education AV?

Walker: Now campuses have developed standards, and they ask the consultants to design to those standards and integrators to build to those standards. This is a challenge to consultants because technology marches on, but the standards were frozen in time. The standard set in 2002: Is it valid in 2010? Now we have HD video, media capture, etc., but we are still designing the same room with 10-year-old technology in it.

Also, how viable is it for the lifespan of that building? No technology will last the lifespan of the building, but with these large projects, it could be a huge investment, such as $3 million to 5 million just for the AV. If you don't go as far out as you can safely go in terms of the technology curve, you may [find you've] opened a building that needs an immediate infusion of capital just for new laptops being brought in. Then administration will be asking why they have to spend more when they just spent $3 million.

So, for large projects, we do have to balance campus standards with where we know the technology will be going tomorrow.

Harrison: What are the some of the future trends for which you are planning in current projects?

Walker: We need to plan for different infrastructures. One example is that the analog VGA port is going away. The analog VGA port will be replaced by DisplayPort on the computer side, and DVI and HDMI for other content sources. So our systems simply have to accept that signal type in some form. This is a seismic shift because these are digital versus analog, and you can convert from digital to analog to a point, but not when you are dealing with digital content copyrights.

Another example is the trend of going from 4:3 to 16:9 [aspect ratios]. We encourage clients to put everything in 16:9 because all flat screens are 16:9, and enough projectors are. Then you have 16:10 and 15:9 as well. It can be a big challenge designing class presentation walls and sizing the screens in order to accommodate the larger images. Then, as the front wall becomes dominated with projection screen, how do we deal with what used to be done with white boards? We have to find a way, some form of digital annotation.

Technology never rests. Next, faculty will come in and say, "I want to integrate my iPad into my classroom." We have to look at those trends and make sure we have the infrastructures to be able to avoid an expensive renovation in the first year or two of the building.

Harrison: How is lecture capture changing education AV technology?

Walker: Classroom capture has huge implications on room design, lighting, budget, surface space, and staff, but it's a fantastic way to improve education. As a student, you can go back and watch a lecture you were just in, or, at exam time, you can rewind the whole thing to help remember what the point was of a particular idea or revisit an equation.

Our challenge as designers is, if I have 30 to 40 classes dealing with lecture capture, we know they are not going to hire that many technicians. We need to design systems to automatically handle the capture, to track presenters as they move around the room, and capture students--and do it with minimal human interaction. While this has huge budget implications, it has a huge payback in quality of education and leveraging faculty.

One of the biggest areas of impact of classroom capture is that classes can be more about discussion and less about sitting in a big auditorium writing down everything the teacher wrote on the chalkboard. It becomes less about how fast can you write before they erase everything off the board.

That allows problem-based learning.

Harrison: What are you seeing in terms of problem-based learning?

Walker: This is an exciting trend: putting students in collaborative groups and giving them opportunities to learn as a team. To accommodate this, we design rooms with multiple displays and projectors to be used by the students. We recently designed a room like this at Georgia Tech. The students were already working with content on the screen when the teacher arrives and asks how they are doing. The teacher becomes more of a guide and facilitator.

The big benefit of that is we all learn in different ways: some are good at quick memorization; some can visualize; and some have to find a metaphor. Each is coming at the problem from a different angle. In problem-based learning, you are sitting with your peers and may be less afraid to ask a question than you would if raising your hand in a 60-person classroom. If you are sitting at a table with classmates, you can say, "I don't get it," and in helping their peers, the students become the instructors. This creates a dynamic environment where learning is reinforced when they are being both student and teacher in the same environment.

Harrison: What are the implications on room design and equipment?

Walker: All of this requires a different way of laying out rooms and not having same density of seating per square foot. So, spaces are more generous, but we are creating a different learning environment.

All four walls are now teaching walls. We have digital capture white boards, flat screen displays, multiple projectors, collaboration software, and servers where students store work. They can work throughout a semester as a team, and anyone on the team can pull up a file and see where they left off yesterday.

Harrison: You mentioned that classroom capture is a good antidote for auditoriums. What are the trends with auditoriums?

Walker: With many projects, there is a discussion about whether we need a 300-seat auditorium, and we typically talk about all the reasons that they are not necessary. We try to talk people out of them. They are giant space hogs that often aren't filled with 300 students. If you are teaching and have 60 students, you have students in the back row sleeping and others are spread all over the place. It's not a pleasant environment.

And it's expensive. You need speech reinforcement, lavaliere mics, and to reach the back of the room, you need bright projectors and you must scale everything up to super-sized.

An alternative is to link rooms together to make a virtual big room, but most people feel uncomfortable lecturing that way. They do it all the time with distance learning, but people have more difficulty saying this room and the four next to me are where my students are, even though we are already linking rooms for overflow. But at the end of the day, the people always come back to asking where they'll host VIP events. They tend to keep that big auditorium in the project. [They try to justify it by saying] "let's do distance learning there too," but a 300-person room is hard. You have to figure out how to mic all those people.

We have done many distance learning auditoriums, but as a technology consultant, I'd like to see them if not go away, or at least be minimized. They are very expensive to do right and do well. We think interactivity of distance learning is best done with 20 to 30 people in a room that has cameras, rear projection, and lighting controls.

Another reason we advise against auditoriums is that they are large rooms that don't get used 10 hours a day, yet they tend to want to put all the bells and whistles in the biggest rooms. Then, you have the cost of labor to staff that kind of room.

Yet another reason is that, as the current generation of teenagers winds its way to college, they will have grown up with Internet and Google. I'm not sure the 300-seat auditorium resonates for them. A Chemistry 101 class in 300-seat room wouldn't connect with them, not that it ever connected with anybody.

Harrison: We see a lot of digital signage going into campuses. What is your take on digital signage?

Walker: One challenge of signage is: Whose budget does it fall under? If the business school builds a new building and there will be signage on each floor, is that a business school thing funded by the business school or a campus thing funded by the campus? And who owns the content? Signage often becomes, unfortunately, too parochial of a thing. It should be the campus's digital signage system with some local information about the building you are in. Most days of the year, when there is no crisis, you want to have local content. That way if there is an emergency, everything on the university system gets the same content with the same audio. That would be the right way to do it. It has to be designed as a campus asset.

Harrison: Any final words?

Walker: I recently toured one of those mega classroom buildings done in 2001. There are 50 classrooms in the building. I peeked in the rooms, and every single one of them had the AV turned on. That is the difference between education and corporate. With corporate, the AV is used 2-3 hours a day. With education, it's used every hour, back-to-back.

The reason is because instructors didn't want to have to create two different lesson plans to accommodate being in two different rooms, such as different lesson plans for when they have a projector and when they don't. Once faculty adopts the technology, as they are now,the systems are being used full-time.

Now, the classroom is becoming technology-rich. Once that water level is set, it's hard to go back.

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