Australian Catholic University, Australia

Hurrairah bin Sohail examines how Periera Projects helped Australian Catholic University shift courses to address Covid-19 disruption at the Inavation Award 2021 winning Blacktown campus.

Changing within a short span of time is difficult. Unfortunately, this was exactly the predicament the education sector found itself in during the disruption caused by Covid-19. Thankfully, technology stepped up to the plate to help universities and learning institutes pivot and continue operations.

At Australian Catholic University [ACU] Pereira Projects was the university’s technology partner to design, consult and manage the deployment of new technology systems. XCite AV served as the integrator.

Jack Wilson, director at Pereira Projects, begins: “ACU had a number of standards, like most universities do. And then Covid-19 hit, and they realised that these standards were not going to cut it. For us, we had already started the project working with the parameters established by the standards, so the change came at really short notice.”

The short notice meant that there was no time to waste, and Wilson shares how courses were shifted: “We started with emergency meetings with the university stakeholders which were spread across various teams and departments. We realised that due to our role and the nature of the job we were going to be the ones that would need to consolidate their differing needs and requirements. Needless to say, the design phase of the project was pretty frantic.”

To ensure that the project did not get derailed, Pereira Projects prioritised. Step one was to ensure that essential works for infrastructure were implemented within timeframes. Wilson details: “We recognised that this was going to be a challenging project because the construction had already begun and changing the design while you are in the construction phase is a big risk. So, we focused on ensuring that we put down the infrastructure that would be required and built a shell for the classroom and learning areas during the construction phase and we made sure that the different university stakeholders signed off on these decisions.”

Simultaneously, work was done to envision what the ‘new’ modes of teaching and learning would be and how these changes would impact the spaces at ACU. Wilson elaborates: “It sounds obvious now but moving from the old way of teaching to the new way of teaching didn’t just require a change of technology, it also required a complete change in how the classroom was organised, furniture layout and teaching styles. We went from the traditional orientation of everyone sat in chairs and desks facing the front lecturer to a more free-form layout with smaller, self-served pods of five to six students that could essentially function independently from whatever else was happening in the space. Our answer to this design challenge was to come up with technology-enabled trolleys that could bring all the functionality required to teach to these pods whilst allowing students to communicate and collaborate with remote participants, the typical barriers to in room teaching were successfully broken.”

Learning spaces at ACU Blacktown feature Panasonic projectors and PTZ cameras in room. The rest of the technology resides in the trolleys and pods which comprise a PC with VC soft codecs included, 4K display screen, wide-angle Huddly camera, Shure boundary microphones together with Connecti and Echo 360 software.

Patch points around the learning spaces allow the trolleys to be moved, enabling different orientations and layouts for teaching and learning.

Creating the trolley was far from simple and Wilson says: “ACU went from having a standard for technology to new ‘hyflex’ teaching rooms in the span of three to six months. There were large steps that the university made and in a nutshell, they were around the topics of videoconferencing and recorded content. Both features have become essential for education during the pandemic.”

Identifying the VC requirements of the university was important and was the first point of interest for Pereira Projects. Wilson details: “Zoom was what the teachers used internally. But the brief that we received was not just restricted to Zoom. They wanted to have the option to jump to a Teams call and really wanted to be VC agnostic. So, from the start we knew that we had to go down the route of soft codecs running on a PC. It was a challenge when this project was on-going, and these challenges have been solved to a much greater extent now.”

Bringing all the requirements together, the trolley took shape. Wilson says: “Our solution was a trolley, that you could roll out on wheels in minutes and then patch into the infrastructure to have it up and running. This would allow for compliance with flexible furniture and changing classroom layouts that was required due to the pandemic. With the trolley you had the ability to create different formations for the classroom depending on teaching styles. But the trolley needed to have all the functionality required to enable this flexibility. The core of the trolley is a PC that is used for VC, live streaming and recording. On top of that it has the cameras and the microphones required to make sure the experience is smooth. We’re using Connecti which serves as a software matrix. And on the backend, there is a Crestron control infrastructure that allows seamless control for students and teachers.”

Through the course of design and development, the trolley was refined. Wilson says: “The functionality of the trolley was not easy to develop. We needed videoconferencing and live streaming for remote participants. But we had to account that the near and far end might not be fixed. So, we had to make sure that the engagement for remote participants was there and it wasn’t just a Zoom call that they logged in to. To democratise the whole process, it isn’t just the teacher that has access to microphone and speakers. All the participants around the pod have their microphones and the ability to really participate. This equitable distribution of resources was a big part of helping the users, the students and the teachers, transition from the traditional way of teaching and learning to the new hyflex methodology we were creating.”

Special care was taken when selecting the components of the trolley and Wilson details: “We’re using a Huddly camera, that provided a fixed 120-degree field of view which was great for the usage of the trolley. They provide a wide angle of coverage and good capture for the students. On the audio side, we were thinking about including Shure microphones into the table pods with push to talk functionality, but we just weren’t sure how good the pickup would be. The first thing Shure did was give us six sample units and told us to just play with them for a week. In a proof of concept room set up in North Sydney with ACU’s in house AV guru, David Prentis, we tested the concept thoroughly and the results meant this quickly become ACU’s new standard.”

In addition to the learning and teaching spaces, Pereira Projects also worked to design larger spaces that ACU could use. Wilson details: “ACU Blacktown has this big multipurpose space. They have three large classrooms that can be used in silos or combined to become a much larger multipurpose space. Additionally, the space is not just meant for students or for teaching. It can be used by teachers for meetings, for larger presentations and even for Blacktown council sessions. There were about eight different room type scenarios and we had to develop the custom programming code to enable each mode.”

The Moot Court space of the connected spaces in particular is worth investigating. It features three projectors strategically placed to ensure everyone can view the content required. Preview monitors have been provided on the floor in purpose-built joinery on wheels as there were restrictions on the usage of ceiling space.

Wilson says: “Ceiling space was complex to navigate. There were a number of architectural features and other services were abundant. During the design phase we had to model everything with extra care to make sure that we could have the cable placement and the speaker placements that we needed in pre-cut feature ceilings. We had to inform the build teams about what channels we needed in the ceiling and where the projectors, speakers and sensors would go to make sure that they could be installed without fault.”

Lastly, we examine the simulation labs at ACU Blacktown. Jamie Pereira, director at Pereira Projects, says: “Before the Blacktown project, ACU had developed new standards for its medical simulation spaces nationwide. These served as the baseline of the project. We developed that standard and essentially now it was all about pulling that standard into the Blacktown project simulation spaces.”

The simulation labs feature Laerdal Sim Capture Nodes and Axis cameras along with the required mannequins. Pereira details: “ACU decided to go with Laerdal sim capture for the simulation spaces. Laerdal is a massive simulation and capture company, and it is being used as an on-premises solution. There are several simulation spaces, and these have been equipped with Axis cameras. Axis cameras were chosen specifically due to their compatibility with the Laerdal platform.”

He continues: “The real issue was with how the simulation space would be used. Evaluating the old simulation system, there were too many touchpoints. The user was presented with too many options without really any guidance as to the best course of action to take. We worked on developing better and simpler workflows for the users. On the backend, we simplified control over the system for the Axis cameras via Sim Capture and then control via a web-browser. We worked closely with both Laerdal and Axis to ensure that the entire system was improved.”

On the side of the viewers of the simulation lab, a QSC Core DSP and Crestron switching serve as the heart of the system. AudioTechnica microphones are present for audio pickup and interaction.

To conclude the discussion, Wilson says: “Whether the university decides to permanently move towards a hyflex model or lean back towards traditional teaching, the aim of this project was to make sure that ACU had the standards and infrastructure, in the shape of microphones and cameras and the backend, in place to be able to make the decision based on the prevailing circumstances. Now, ACU has an elevated baseline standard in their classrooms which can help them be agile and move quickly to respond to any disruption.”

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