Making Distance Learning Collaborative

Making Distance Learning Collaborative

When considering distance learning, it all comes down to collaboration. At least that's how Peter Berry, a senior associate at Shen Milsom & Wilke, sees it.

"In traditional distance learning, the professor would be captured by a camera and the image transmitted to its end point, and there would be a formal Q&A format at the end of each lecture. But that is not a truly interactive experience. Collaboration has to be interactive by nature, and that is what is blurring the lines between distance learning and conference systems," he explained.

While the term telepresence seems to be something that comes up more and more in distance learning design, Berry said true telepresence is seldom used in these rooms.

"The reason is that they are extremely expensive," he said. "Telepresence requires custom architecture that is the same in every room."

However, Berry argued that telepresence as a concept may be linked more to the widespread idea of having multiple participants in a session. When designing a room specifically for distance learning, Berry said it's important to think about whom you are collaborating with and what your end points are. But to make a classroom fully interactive for distance learning, there are some key components you have to consider when installing your AV technologies.

First, how many cameras do you want to use? Is this a one camera or multi-camera setup? In most cases, having one camera on the instructor is enough—you won't need an operator for this, and can run the camera in a wide-angle shot. However, if you want to involve the audience in the feed, a multi-camera setup may be your best choice.

"Multi-camera setups need an operator because you never know who is going to speak and when," said Berry. "This can be tricky, unless you have fixed seating to program the camera to who is speaking, but that is the exception, not the rule."

There are solutions available for these multi-camera setups where the microphones are synced to cameras, so when a speaker pushes the button to use his or her mic, the camera will turn to the speaker. Other options may include designating the instructor or a teacher assistant to control the cameras, but that can cause more disruptions in the sessions. "Technology should be there to facilitate the use of a space, not get in the way," Berry said.

Microphone placement is another important factor when designing these distance-learning rooms. For the longest time, Berry said ceiling microphones were not suitable for these environments. "It picks up too much ambient sound," he said. "It doesn't matter how good the video is if people on the other end can't tell what you're saying."

However, in recent years, the invention of line array and electronically steerable microphones have allowed integrators to create ceiling mic setups that are more directional and can create the intelligible sound you need for these transmissions.

Finally, integrators need to consider display options for document collaboration for these sessions, which will allow those following along to interact with the instructor on a higher level.

"We're introducing wireless collaboration systems to do document collaboration, so users can interact remotely," explained Berry. "Students can participate on screen or on their own devices to see what is going on (during the lecture)."

Berry predicts that distance learning will continue to evolve from the amenities we have today, with more and more components shifting to software and the cloud. However, some components of telepresence will remain constant, such as the need for pristine audio, video, and document capture.

"Our role as the consultant is changing, too," he said. "We're not just designing systems now. We're talking about return on investments and life-cycle costs, and we need to learn the language of that. We need to know the total cost of ownership versus building it and walking away, and continuing client engagement is the secret to that."