Chi Wah Learning Commons, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Teaching and learning methodologies have changed and the campus needs to evolve. The University of Hong Kong and ASCL detail how they upgraded the Chi Wah Learning Commons.

The Chi Wah Learning Commons is 6,000 square metres of dedicated learning spaces for students and teachers at the University of Hong Kong [HKU]. Spread over three levels, the facility recently underwent an upgrade to transform the Chi Wah Learning Commons into a modern and effective education space.

Dr Wilson Kwok, assistant IT director at the University of Hong Kong, details: “Our provost started a conversation around the new teaching methodologies that have emerged over the past two years and whether we should reconsider our teaching and learning spaces especially with regards to the audio and video technologies deployed to better accommodate the new methodologies. This conversation led to us talking about the Chi Wah Learning Commons, which was established in 2012, and is the largest learning space we have at HKU. We began to look at how we can go forward in the direction of hybrid learning and all that entails in terms of technology from conferencing, video, audio to lighting. The conclusion that we came to was that teaching and learning is now all about convenience.”

HKU secured funding for the upgrade project from the Hong Kong government and proceeded. Dr Kwok says: “We were very ambitious with the planned upgrade for the Chi Wah Learning Commons. There are a lot of students that access the space and we wanted to make sure that we catered to all of them and that meant looking at study rooms, meeting rooms, open spaces for student collaboration and much more. We started looking at the Chi Wah Learning Commons at the very core level and considering it for the visual online component of teaching, the acoustic and audio component for learning and whether the materials used were in line with what we wanted, whether we have the right reverberations, the right absorption, the right isolation. We looked at lighting and the HVAC. We were very thorough.”

The upgrade began with coordination works with discipline consultants and architect. Karho Wan, IT manager at the University of Hong Kong, says: “Acoustics were a main consideration, and we engaged a consultant. There were two main issues we wanted to address. First, was privacy. We wanted to make sure that the isolation was good between the different spaces. And second was sound intelligibility. We wanted to make sure there were no issues with hearing content because we found that audio issues were the biggest detriment to learning activities.”

The Chi Wah Learning Commons now comprises an active learning classroom, multipurpose studios for learning and content creation, one button automated studio, study rooms and learning spaces.

A core requirement for HKU was to ensure that operations for these spaces were simple and intuitive. Dr Kwok says: “We’ve paid special attention to control because what we wanted to do was make sure that the teachers and students could just pay attention to their own work. We wanted them to be able to come into the rooms and spaces and just start their work without having to struggle with technology.”

A combination of Extron and Crestron control has been deployed across Chi Wah Learning Commons. Extron and Crestron products are also used for video switching and transmission.

Wan says: “To have that unified experience with control, we spent a lot of time on the graphic user interface. We looked at the existing GUIs and we have templates that we use across the HKU facilities for our Crestron control systems. But the spaces at Chi Wah Commons were very different, and we developed new GUIs for them and programmed special features for the users. It was important that we get this part of the project right because we did not want users requiring assistance to operate the spaces.”

Delivering ease of use also guided the selection of products deployed and this is clearly evident in the audio system at Chi Wah Learning Commons. Wan says: “Traditionally wireless handheld microphones are used in learning spaces for events purpose. But in order to create the flexible spaces we envisioned, we decided to move away from this. We have spaces that have different sizes and different functions so voice lift was the way to go. There are also hygiene considerations as we didn’t want a microphone being passed back and forth.”

Dr Kwok adds: “With remote and hybrid learning models, we also had to look at the interaction between the near end and the far end. This led us to select the Shure MXA 910 ceiling microphones for the relevant spaces.”

A QSC Q-Sys Core 110f DSP serves as the processor for the audio system. Tannoy speakers paired with a Lab.gruppen amplifier deliver audio. Patrick Leung, director at ASCL, the integrator for the project, talks about how the audio system came together: “The acoustics had been improved but no environment can be acoustically perfect. With the Chi Wah Learning Commons, the ceiling microphones and speakers were on the same level which meant we had to be careful with how the audio system was tuned to make sure there was no feedback. To enable the voice lift and the easy operations that HKU wanted, we had to ensure that the audio was tuned properly, and that the DSP was programmed properly to accurately identify the speaker and adjust the volumes automatically. We had support from the manufacturers to be able to deliver these features.”

He continues: “We’re very familiar with the QSC system and we have worked on some of the largest Q-Sys Core deployments in Hong Kong. What was unique about the Chi Wah Commons project was the fact that they did not require a very big, powerful system. They didn’t have a lot of input and outputs. But in terms of how the inputs and outputs were to be managed, the project was very complex. We had to make sure that the audio levels were controlled so that the voice lift feature would provide automated operations. The project really tested our programming expertise, and I am happy to say that we passed the test.”

A unique addition to the Chi Wah Learning Commons is the multipurpose studio. Wan details: “The multipurpose studios can be operated in two modes. The normal lecture mode is when students and teachers can just come in and use the spaces for teaching and learning. But the second studio mode is where the recording equipment comes into play. We have expertise on our team to ensure that the studio mode can be operated smoothly. We have quality Sony cameras and Blackmagic recording equipment, together with professional Arri lighting fixtures and ETC panel and iPad control for high quality and controlled light. The multipurpose studio is a space that is made for the new methodology of teaching focusing on content creation that enables students to learn on their own schedule.”

The quality of local support from Blackmagic was cited as a reason to go with the manufacturer’s product suite. Signal transmission in the studio is over 12G-SDI with provisions having been made to expand via NDI in the future if required.

Lastly, we come to the meeting rooms and spaces. Dr Kwok says: “The pods and meeting spaces in Chi Wah Commons have a look and feel very much like corporate meeting rooms and that is by design. Corporate meeting spaces get a lot of things right, they are easy to use and can be self-operated and we wanted to make sure that we had the same features for learning.”

The meeting spaces are VC enabled with Poly and Samsung Flip displays provide interactivity where required.

Regarding the challenges faced from the integrator’s perspective, Leung says: “The integration was simple and straightforward for the video, audio and lighting systems. However, the designs at the start did require a few tweaks and adjustments. We looked at the socket design and the patching at the beginning and then worked with all the parties involved to do some finetuning. The second challenge was timing and coordination. The upgrade at Chi Wah Commons was very extensive, and we had to work together with the architect and interior designer to make sure that HKU’s desired end result was achieved.”

Dr Kwok concludes: “We are still implementing flexible learning schedules based on the directives of the Hong Kong government. But while students can study and attend lectures from home, we have to consider that they still require dedicated spaces to study and learn on campus. We don’t have a crystal ball but based on the initial response these is a desire and sentiment among the student body to return to the campus and the facility.”

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