Your Current Web Conferencing Technology May Not Be Ideal
by Joseph Bocchiaro III
School administrators, teachers, and facilities professionals everywhere are struggling to create the right environment to ensure the safe re-opening of their buildings. Many have decided that a mixed approach is the most practical, where approximately half of the students are present in the classroom at a time, while others are at home using web conferencing. In many cases, the faculty may also be at home. This appears straightforward at first glance, but in practice, the web conferencing technology that is currently being used to accomplish this arrangement is often not ideal for anyone involved.
Higher education has long been migrating towards a pedagogical approach to teaching and learning called “active learning.” One of the facilities ramifications of this is that classrooms have been designed to be significantly larger than in the past to accommodate tables with small student work groups. These larger rooms are now a boon for COVID mitigation, as students can be spread farther apart from one another. In addition, virtually all classroom on campuses now have “traditional” presentation-style classroom audiovisual systems that include a display device such as a projector and screen, and a variety of source inputs from which to present/teach. It is possible to convert these rooms into “distance learning” classrooms that are better suited to the hybrid teaching and learning situation during our time of social distancing. In the past, distance learning classrooms were mainly designed to communicate with other, similar rooms, usually on other campuses, but now we require communications with remote students.
There are several design elements that are necessary for the “conversion.” One is the installation of video cameras; one facing the professor and the other facing the students. Likewise, microphones are required to capture audio from these sources. Many classrooms in colleges and universities already have one set of cameras and microphones that are used for “lecture capture,” and these classrooms would be the obvious first choices for the conversion. Another design element is the addition of a video monitor and corresponding loudspeaker so that the professor can see and hear the “far end;” the composite shots of the students at home. With this arrangement, these rooms are essentially two video conferencing rooms within one classroom. Professors teaching within the classroom, and the students themselves now have the opportunity to see and hear both in-person and remote students.
The installation of cameras, microphones, monitors, and loudspeakers is only the beginning, of course. The signals to and from these devices must be managed by properly designed audiovisual components. This includes audio and video switching, processing, and distribution, a way to manage the “calls,” record the classes, and to control the system. Much of this is ideally accomplished in software, with minimal technical complexity such that the professor can concentrate on teaching and managing the class. There are now web conferencing platforms such as Zoom Video Communications that have some of the necessary features for distance learning. Other companies are also rapidly developing these enhancements to their products to meet the current demand.
Many facilities professionals have attempted to build such classrooms over the summer and have found some challenges that we can learn from. The most common is the lack of appropriate “echo cancelling” in the classroom itself. This is because the circuits built into laptop computers are inadequate for a room solution. Another is the lighting in the classroom. Many of these rooms have been optimized for video projection and lights are deliberately absent at the screen locations to prevent glare and to optimize image contrast. Lights for distance learning must be adequate to illuminate both the professor and the students.
In well-equipped and thoroughly designed distance learning classrooms there are other things to consider besides the basics of making sure everyone can see and hear each other. The furniture, the lighting, and the acoustics are all optimized for a seamless and excellent learning experience. This can also include architectural details that minimize the visual intrusion of the technology devices. Audiovisual design professionals are well equipped to offer services to help facility and architectural teams to create these ideal rooms.
Joseph Bocchiaro III, PhD, CTS-D, is a principal with Sextant Group / NV5 Engineering & Technology in Boston. He welcomes inquiries into how he and his colleagues can help at firstname.lastname@example.org.