Education: Roll call?

Covid-19 was hard for teachers and students. Hurrairah bin Sohail discovers where tertiary education is headed after making it this far through the pandemic.

It is interesting to see how the tertiary education sector has changed through the disruption caused by Covid-19. Deep Batra, IT manager (Eng & Desg Svc), Computing Services Centre, City University of Hong Kong [CityU], shares some good news: “The Provost Office of City University has communicated the operations for the coming semester, and we are looking to welcome students back on campus. Our approach has taken into account the directives from the Hong Kong government as well as our own commitment to ensuring the safety of our students and staff. All class sizes of below 50 people will be held face to face and the bulk of these will resume from this September. For class sizes between 50 to 79 people we will be taking a mixed-mode approach which will be a mix of teaching in-person and over Zoom. And for class size above 80 people, these will remain over Zoom. If the situation in Hong Kong continues to improve and as more citizens become vaccinated, we can maybe see these demarcations change.”

Over in Australia, universities seem to be proceeding with caution. Sam Moore, national sales manager at Engie Services, AV Technology, says: “The world since Covid-19 is a very different place and we have seen universities bear the brunt of the restrictions. In Victoria, we saw a very long lockdown that really hurt a lot of clients and universities lost all their international students basically overnight. Once the lockdowns opened up a little, there was some return of students to campus, but still in limited numbers with limited to no international students.”

Let’s start with a focus on City University where students will be returning for in-person classes by September.

Batra and his team have been tasked with ensuring the return of students is smooth and he details: “We’re starting off with health checks for the equipment in all of the rooms. Our primary objective is to have all the rooms ready, especially those meant for class size of 50 students or fewer because these will be back in use soon. In the past months, we’ve replaced most of the legacy equipment, taking advantage of the fact that students were not around for most of last year. But after these equipment health checks, we will evaluate how these rooms can be beefed up to ensure that the resumption of classes is as smooth as possible.”

The term ‘health check’ minimises the scale of the task and Batra offers more details: “In total we have about 140 spaces, divided into roughly 30% lecture theatres with the rest of the 70% being meeting spaces, classrooms and other spaces. As part of our health checks, we are going to be examining the technology systems in these spaces. This could be a projector that is not switching on because it has not been used for a long time, or it could be a microphone where its batteries have run out. Once these problems are identified, we have a staff of six people who handle the repair and maintenance.”

Moore paints a similar picture for Australian universities: “Many universities have had their budgets slashed and using external contractors for basic tasks such as health checks is not top priority. Whilst some clients are asking for assistance many are keeping the work in-house.”

The work is difficult as even with hyper-connected systems designed to be remotely managed, a human touch is still required. Batra says: “We have Crestron Fusion deployed and that is the first check for us. But site checks are still important. For example, a projector might be turning on and off as expected but the projected image might be slightly blurred. Crestron Fusion does not have the capabilities or the AI to diagnose this problem. So unfortunately, even with remote monitoring on-site checks are still critical for us.”

One thing is made evidently clear when examining the tertiary education sector, a return to how things were pre-pandemic is not on the cards even if students return to campus. With this in mind, universities are evolving. Batra says: “Necessity is the mother of invention and what the education sector has ‘invented’ is a new way of teaching and a new way of learning. City University has introduced a number of different hybrid or mixed rooms which support hybrid teaching for remote students.”

Moore talks about a template for these hybrid or mixed rooms: “Ultimately they [universities] need a good quality camera, a good microphone and some acoustic treatment. The microphone is sometimes under appreciated until they use a good one and hear the difference, then that often becomes the standard quickly. A remote session can still function with audio only, so it should be considered the heart of the space. Each client has different methods for recording and streaming services, and we find they are typically managed in-house.”

Moore also highlights how existing spaces can be converted to mixed spaces: “Adding the basic VC technology is one thing, the recording or streaming facility is another. As mentioned, remote teaching software technology is often managed by the universities in-house already and we simply make the new hardware upgrades link into those systems.”

Interestingly, universities do not seem keen on creating spaces exclusively for remote learning. Moore says: “I haven’t seen many spaces that were primarily designed for remote students. Australian universities really make campus life an experience, and so they promote students to come in as often as possible. This is changing with social distancing and the occasional lockdown, but ultimately teaching is becoming a little transient much like the corporate world. A good headset and webcam and you are on your way. We have seen that for primary and secondary schools as all teaching was done remotely during Covid-19 lockdowns.”

According to Moore, mixed spaces are not a new challenge for AV to crack: “I think a lot of the undertaking is essentially the same with some new gadgets here and there. As we have seen in the past, the IT/AV convergence is still evolving and has some kinks to work out before it’s a completely smooth process. Software and licences are something that clients can still overlook, but it’s much smoother given the rapid acceleration into post Covid-19 life requirements.”

Covid-19 has shown that even the best laid plans can go awry. But that does not mean we do away with planning and just wing it. How is the tertiary education sector charting a course forward?

Batra says: “E-learning is still going to be a large part of what we do, and we have seen that the professors are doing a much better job of transitioning to the digital space. They’re becoming proficient with the platforms and the technology and how to operate them and now we are moving into the exciting phase of them experimenting and figuring out how they can teach better and in more innovative ways.”

City University is looking to capitalise on the increasing proficiency of its staff by providing them the tools needed to explore further. Batra says: “We’re looking at many future classrooms technologies out there. We’re looking at multi-monitor setups, multiple cameras and integration with our Crestron control system to really create spaces that address the new needs of our teaching staff and our students. The first department onboard for these future classrooms has been the Business related executive and management programmes which makes sense. The students and the staff are really international and come from all around the world and they are motivated to try new technologies to counteract travel restrictions all around the world, in addition to staying on course with the teaching and learning schedule.”

But is an out-of-the-box solution the way to go? Moore offers alternatives: “Vendors are great sales guys. Their glossy brochure often tells us about the ideal scenario that is not true in real life. As a leading integrator we are often deploying equipment that is a new to market. This is where the real testing comes into play and the vendors really need to support their product well. Some do, but some do not. It can often be a matter of once bitten twice shy with technology as budgets are tight, hours are tighter and so the out-of-the-box solution needs to be flexible to suit a client’s systems, protocols and timeframes. We have seen ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions that break multiple times due to software updates neither the client nor integrator has done.”

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