Education in India: Lessons from afar

Across the world education technology providers are facing a similar set of challenges and demands dominated by a desire on the part of institutions to effectively offer remote and in-person tuition. Anna Mitchell reports.

As the summer recess draws to a close, technology suppliers to schools and universities, as well as the professionals that manage technology within those facilities, have been busy preparing for the challenges of a new year. Despite increased confidence in the sector compared to summer 2020, there’s still uncertainty as to what the future holds.

There is hope that the new term will bring a degree of normality, but many organisations we spoke to are focused on equipping teaching and learning spaces with technologies that will support smaller class sizes as well as remote learners. Dubbed hybrid spaces, these classrooms come in various forms (more on that later) but the important thing is as teaching scenarios have changed, the requirement for technology to support those new scenarios has changed too.

Mayank Gaurav, director of install sales at Alphatec Audio Video, says over the last 18 months Indian universities and education institutes have held more classes off campus using e-learning platforms. “Most of the higher-grade universities have started student movement only for examinations, libraries, special lectures or any other important work but still largely it’s off campus,” he says. Mayank believes the biggest challenge now is to make classrooms ready for various types of usage that may be required depending on the future twists and turns of the pandemic and that includes videoconferencing, recording, webcasting and more AV-over-IP technology.

These demands mean increased business according to Mayank. “There is a big push to keep all universities up to date with the latest AV technologies to meet all future requirements which could be in-campus or off-campus and we see the education vertical becoming one of the fastest growing sectors for AV in next three to four years.

“Lot of grants have come to open new universities under government and private institutions across India. Lots of work is happening at the backend to devise new norms and practices which would be required in various universities’ campuses of the future in India and the University Grants Commission (UGC) is playing a very important role in this.”

Hybrid spaces

With most new works focused on hybrid spaces, what’s going in to those projects? One size does not fit all, but there are certain commonalities so we canvassed opinion from across the world to find out more.

“We’ve been delivering hybrid solutions across a range of spaces from large lecture theatres to small teaching rooms,” says Martin Clay, head of technical sales and design (HE) at UK integrator Pure AV. “There’s lots of differences but they all involve a camera of some description, a microphone system and processing.”

“We’re adding solutions for audio capture and audio recording,” adds Alexandre Rouvelet, technical and administrative director at Swiss integrator Projection Nouvelle.

“In 2020 and 2021 we have sold numerous Ubicast systems and [Microsoft] Teams and Zoom licenses with their peripherals. “Ubicast systems are directly implemented in the classroom and allow the recording of video content. This solution, appreciated by the professors, is particularly suitable for digital and hybrid teaching. Speech to text features and auto tracking cameras assist professors during their lectures.”

Mayank says, “Lots of investment is happening, making all classrooms videoconference ready, [deploying] recording and webcasting facilities and keeping most of the system on AV-over-IP platforms. These are major enhancements everyone is investing on to ensure they are ready for various challenges ahead.”

He says he’s seen demand for the Music Tribe product portfolio, Audio Technica, Atlona, Televic, AtlasIED and Christie as Alphatec works to provide complete solutions for universities.

UK integrator IDNS has relied heavily on its IT expertise when it came to delivering hybrid or agile spaces. “It’s all shifted to AV over IP and Teams and Zoom integration has become really important in these settings,” says Darren Clayman, the company’s managing director. “Our standard setup now is a large format screen, a codec, a camera, some form of speaker set up and control. Pretty straightforward.

The key thing is content and delivering it in a varied fashion without it being over complicated. That’s where the IT software piece comes in; it’s done by Teams or Zoom.” It’s clear the collaboration platform is now vital to these installations, but which platform?

“[It] varies between schools and teachers,” answers Bohumil Tonkovic, CEO and head designer of AV technologies at MediaTech Central Europe, an integrator headquartered in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Mayank says: “Most of universities and institutes are using Cisco Webex, Teams and Zoom platforms. Some universities are hosting recorded sessions on their servers and delivering content to their students using various webhosting portals and YouTube links on university websites.”

The fact the education sector is mostly having to accommodate both Teams and Zoom users might not sound unusual but, when you add other elements needed to deliver lessons effectively, it can provide extra challenges for technical teams. Michael Sadler, audio visual development manager at City, University of London, says, “For rooms where we are confident it will only be one or the other [Teams or Zoom] we have gone with a room system, mostly standardised on Crestron Flex. Those rooms will either be Zoom Rooms or Teams Rooms with the associated licences.”

James Rutherford, senior educational technologist at City, University of London adds, “We’ll have a large screen on a wall. When there’s group work, Q&As or more discursive sessions going on, this will show the gallery view of Teams or Zoom with a camera above it so there’s a reference to people online.”

Martin Clay says, “If you’re a student sat at home remotely you need to feel part of that audience as well. It’s not good enough to have the visuals on the screen and a view of the presenter; you need to be able to see the questions coming from the audience.

“Dual lens cameras are really useful here. The Aver PTC500 and Lumens VC-TR1 both feature main and secondary camera lenses. The students can get a wide shot of the presentation wall and closeup of the presenter. This also provides the ability for auto-tracking, the wide shot lens is essentially being used to monitor movement and direct the second lens. It delivers two outputs; from a system designer perspective, that means I can also feed the AV system with two options.”

In addition to the cameras, Martin says that the right microphones play an essential role too. “Shure and Sennheiser have the most capable beamforming products in this area. You can usually cover a 200-seat lecture theatre with two to four ceiling microphones and hear where each question comes from.

“You can use that information to direct the camera and that’s the most interesting development from our perspective. The key ingredient that interfaces between the camera and microphone is the DSP and control system and QSC are quite good on this front.

“The feeds generally go into Teams or Zoom [platforms] but it’s making sure the student sees the correct bit – whether that’s the lecturer, a PowerPoint, the audience or a student asking a question – without too much intervention from the lecturer. Making all that happen for them automatically is the tricky bit.”

Of course, there are two sides to this; in many cases the lecturers want to see the students as well. “I think we’ll see more lecture theatres with a row of monitors facing the presenter so they can see the remote students,” Martin adds.

Ease of use for teaching staff is also a priority for Bohumil. “The technology has to be installed in such a way that it works unattended or at the touch of a button. Teachers should not deal with the functionality of technologies and this is a challenge for all system integrators.”

It’s not just the technology that’s important in these spaces. UK integrator GVAV has installed lots of rooms for hybrid teaching this summer based on various systems including Crestron, Mersive and Cynap. Kristian Cutting, joint managing director, at GVAV stresses, “Environmental considerations are important for maximum performance. Typically this involves an acoustic survey and treatment.”

Broadcasting classes

Distance learning was gaining prevalence even before the pandemic and with that an increase in production quality of presentations and tutorials that were purely recorded for ingestion online.

“More studios are being made in each university to cater for distance learning requirements,” confirms Mayank.

Over at University of London, City the School of Engineering, Maths and Computer Science were spurred into action by lockdowns.

“They wanted us to develop a ‘TV studio’ as they called it,” says Michael Sadler. “The quality of the content academics produced at home was dependent on the quality of the hardware they were using and the environment they were working in and lacked consistency.

“We were asked to develop an in-house facility that allowed them to stand in front of the camera and record a piece that could then get uploaded to the VLE. They were looking to do a fully digital course and so having this investment in a dedicated suite made a lot of sense. We decided on the Rapidmooc product that we tweaked a little to suit our specific requirements.”

Rutherford elaborates, “There’s a greenscreen, studio lighting, the Rapidmooc system does all the compositing. There are different ways you can use it: graphics in front of you, graphics behind, a simple key background, could be a PowerPoint presentation.”

Darren Clayman has had similar requests. “More content is being recorded, more content is being made available online. The quality of it needs to be right. You don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a professional recording studio, but there should be space set up in the right way so you can book a dedicated room with the right equipment, you can go in, record your content. You don’t need many of these spaces, you just need to be sure they’re done properly. It’s gaining in popularity and customers are realising they need a decent camera and a decent audio pick up.”

Bohumil thinks that the quality of professionally produced lectures for broadcast could be a differentiating factor between universities. He says as long as copyright issues are addressed this trend could see universities investing more in technology to improve this kind of output and compete against other facilities to attract students.

Darren agrees but adds that because the driving force is often competition on a global stage, it’s often championed by marketing departments, or even ICT departments who are excited about what is possible. “You’ve got to get the lecturers and the chancellorship on board for it to work,” he cautions.

The education sector has changed immeasurably due to Covid and, while some of that is sort-term reactive changes, elsewhere its accelerated trends already happening, made people think carefully about other ways of operating, as well as the flexibility of spaces to handle an uncertain future.

As James Rutherford says, “We’re not going back to ‘normal’.”

Image: Lalit Narayan Mithila University (LNMU) in Darbhanga
Credit: ArnavIG/Shutterstock.com

Article Categories