Audiovisual Makes the Grade

Aug. 1, 2005
How new technologies affect learning in education facilities.

Audiovisual technology in education facilities is changing the way instructors teach and students learn.

“Smart controls” give instructors instant access to tools such as Power Point or the Internet for flawless “one-button” multimedia presentations. Cameras and microphones in distance-learning classrooms relay audio and video to remote sites. Students can view live presentations in remote learning rooms across campus or across the world. Faculty members can view student presentations from their offices via distributed multimedia. All sessions can be recorded, stored and made ready instantly for transport over a school intranet for timely playback by students, wherever they may be.

At any teaching facility, defining a classroom's purpose helps determine the level of AV and technology system complexity. For example, a classroom in a law school may be set up as a moot courtroom, and feature various audio and presentation systems that one would find in a modern courtroom. Business school classrooms may call for integrated distance learning or business-simulation training.

Some community college classrooms may begin with modest presentation capabilities and include the ability to expand applications in the future. At larger universities, the classrooms may serve multiple departments and require a flexible, multiuse audiovisual system. This is the case at University of Washington's William H. Gates School of Law, where lectures and courtroom exercises occur in the same space. A robust AV system can record (or distribute) all events in the room, with full presentation capabilities, a podium with imbedded technology such as a touchscreen, and various source devices, including an integrated document camera.

Regardless of school size or project budget, new audiovisual trends and tools are giving facilities the flexibility to use the latest technology while preserving the integrity of a classroom space.

Networking is the key

Imagine a staff member being able to control a projector or camera in a classroom across the state with the touch of a button. Networked control systems make this a reality.

These control systems also make more efficient use of support staff resources. As budget and staff reductions occur, the benefits of this type of remote control and access become obvious. A university with 50 classrooms can provide control of any of these rooms from a central location on campus or virtually from any location that has web access.

Networking technology can provide a tremendous savings in staffing costs. For example, Central Washington University (CWU) provides live distance-learning presentations to and from several community colleges, including Highline Community College and Big Bend Community College. These three campuses are more than two hours apart in Washington state. Currently, a staff person must be in each room to operate or adjust the AV system while in use. Using a networked control system, CWU staff soon will have the capability from their campus control room to remotely monitor or control any classroom equipped with distance learning at any college campus that is online.

Cable in the classroom

One of the more promising trends is the emergence of audiovisual equipment that makes use of unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cabling — commonly referred to as Cat 5e and Cat 6. This type of connectivity permits a wide range of “day one” capabilities, as well as a flexible future growth path. Using UTP also reduces costs because, compared with traditional AV cable, less of it is needed to provide similar capabilities and connectivity.

UTP also is becoming more prevalent in the AV system design itself. Traditional AV system design typically is “application dependent.” This means that specific cable types are selected and planned based on the type of signal they will transmit. Consideration must be given to what signals will be sent, where they will be sent and how far they will be sent. Thus, a lot of time is used to determine the amount of audio, video and control cables needed for a particular system design. The drawback is that if you change the signal, you may need to change the cable. If you add a signal that wasn't planned, you may have to add a cable. This could mean spending construction or “reconstruction” dollars if you want to change technology.

Cable design to support a LAN is different, as by and large the cable is “application-independent” and benefits from a common interface. In other words, the same standard UTP cable can be used to transmit a number of signal types. One day it is a telephone, the next day a computer and the next day a printer. With LAN design, there rarely is a concern about which type of cable is installed.

The “application-independent” approach is much more appealing, and the AV industry is following suit. Transmission of audio and video signals over UTP is becoming more prevalent, and many AV devices now have network/IP connectivity on board. If this trend continues, AV cable design may one day soon be as application-independent as the LAN design. One day a DVD player will be the device, the next an amplifier, and the next a touchscreen. Soon, schools never will have to change or worry about what type of cable is installed. As the cable design to support AV systems becomes application-independent, classroom technology applications will become virtually limitless. When the AV system devices themselves become network appliances, plug-and-play via network connections become the norm, with the added benefit of network diagnostics and control. This means that a projector can send a notification that a lamp was left on and should be turned off, is burnt out, or is approaching its expected useful lifetime and should be replaced.

UTP connectivity has multiple benefits. Whole areas can be pre-wired to support whatever technology may be required. Installation costs and time can be reduced as UTP cable installation requires less conduit, cables and contractor staffing. A single low-voltage cable contractor can install all cables at once and gain economies of scale. Design costs can be reduced, as less time is required to plan all of those different cable types. Most important, by not having to change cables, a room or system can change simply by unplugging the old device and plugging in the new device.

Keep in mind that UTP connectivity is not a panacea. Space planning and good room design still are required to ensure that rooms meet and exceed design criteria. Proper speaker coverage, screen sizes, camera placement and room geometries are important considerations. The difference is that with UTP connectivity, a single cable type to each device location may be all that is required.

“Windowing” to the world

Many educational facilities are building designated distance-learning classrooms that can link to remote locations. These types of rooms generally require multiple images to be displayed during an event.

Rather than install multiple display devices (projectors or LCD panels), schools are finding that image window devices are a good alternative. Image window devices are processors that allow multiple images from distinct sources to be displayed via a single device in various sizes and locations on the screen. They range from simple side-by-side images to four or six stacked images. The more sophisticated windowing devices can progress from a single full-screen image to multiple images and back again, with one touch on a control panel. The number, size and location of the images can be stored in a preset, so customized setup can be recalled simply by pressing a button on a touchscreen.

These devices lower costs by reducing the number of display devices required. They also make the presenter's life easier by reducing presentation setup.

Audiovisual technology is advancing quickly, making technology planning even more critical to the present and future functionality of a building in an educational setting. The price range of new systems in classrooms can be tremendous depending on the complexity of a given space. Whether it is a $20,000 classroom or a $200,000 auditorium, integrated design solutions yield maximum benefits for any AV installation.

With proper understanding of the current capabilities and the future trends, rooms can be designed to stand the test of time and better accommodate change.

Eastman is principal of audiovisual consulting at Sparling, an electrical engineering and technology consulting firm with offices in Seattle and Portland.

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