Walk onto any college campus and the optics will tell a story. Trends in BYOD, distance learning, and active learning are dramatically changing how classrooms operate. Expect to see teachers and students moving from seats to smartboards to reconfigurable huddles. While learning spaces look different than the chalky classrooms of yore, the core objectives remain the same. The success of any learning experience—on-site or virtual—depends on the ability to share ideas clearly and easily. If a student cannot see materials or hear properly, learning processes will be severely compromised. Video is usually the first thought in the classroom technology discussion, but uniform audio coverage is absolutely critical to student success. New IP-based developments and industry standards promise to bring more audio fidelity into classrooms large and small.
Justin Rexing, CTS-D, ISF-C, DMC-E-4K, audiovisual systems engineer at Western Kentucky University, is passionate about technologies for learning spaces. He asserts that the most challenging part of the classroom audio equation is—ironically—education. Rexing, who is also the owner of the Rexing Consulting Group, believes we need to inform end users about room acoustics and how it affects the selection of a microphone as part of an audio system.
He shared an example: “We have end users who request a sensitive, headworn mic to be used in a room where RT60 is simply terrible. [RT60 is a measurement of how long it would take a sound to decay 60 dB in a large room.] Just a little amount of gain creates problems, even with the proper DSP configured with the proper speaker design. For a noisier room, we would suggest using a handheld-based mic that is less sensitive if no acoustical treatment is being considered.”
AtlasIED IPX Series
AtlasIED’s IPX Series uses existing IT infrastructure for convenience and cost savings, and it offers auto provisioning once it is on the network. “Talk to Me” interoperability ensures the IPX units can work within any VoIP system, as they are open-platform engineered to communicate and be controlled by the top-selling providers of unified communications software platforms and standard SIP PBX systems.
Biamp Tesira DSP
At the Boston University School of Law, each of the Sumner M. Redstone Building’s classrooms, practice courtrooms, and seminar rooms are equipped with Biamp’s Tesira DSP to enable webcasting for remote learning and record-and-playback capabilities. HB Communications managed this integration project.
Addressing acoustics and alerting stakeholders early in the process are of paramount importance, especially in older rooms. End users or venue managers need to understand the relationship between the return on investment for an audio system as it pertains to speech intelligibility.
When Rexing specifies amplified audio in a room, he follows industry best practices. “TV speakers are wildly inconsistent,” he said, “and you never know what your quality will be from a consumer or pro-grade display from model to model. When we do provide amplified audio in rooms, it helps to follow the AVIXA standards for audio coverage uniformity.”
While specifics are decided on a case-by-case basis, contingent on seating and ambient noise levels, Rexing generally uses amplification in auditorium-style rooms or larger.
Audio Affects UX, So Don’t Chance It
Rexing encourages using modeling software to ensure predictable results, even on “simple” 30- by 30-foot rooms or huddle spaces.
“The right amplified audio system makes a difference for the user experience,” he added. “If you are not going to do it right, then you might as well not even do it. Nothing is worse than spending money on something that doesn’t work with the room.”
AtlasIED offers all the pieces of the classroom audio puzzle, such as ceiling speakers and intercom, but Gina Sansivero, the company’s vice president of marketing and corporate communications, pointed to the new IPX speakers as reflections of key trends: enhanced intelligibility and IP flexibility. “They have improved intelligibility—market-leading intelligibility, as far as IP speakers go,” Sansivero said. They also incorporate visual displays.
The IPX line can be used with existing infrastructure, another benefit of next-generation, network-ready systems. If category cable has already been run, the AV professional can add the IPX onto the network, and it auto-registers.
“Not only is it great for classroom audio, it can be used with audio reinforcement,” Sansivero said. Installers can also tie IPX into critical alert and life safety systems, and it can be used with third-party software like Cisco.
Sansivero added that the IP-based approach can streamline setup, and it supports multi-use applications. “That’s part of where we see classroom audio going—in a more nimble direction,” she opined. IP speakers, like AtlasIED IPX endpoints, allow for two-way communication so users can both hear signals and seamlessly send information back.
“That’s what higher ed and K-12 users are looking for: dynamic, multi-use systems that will give them the sound they need with no quality tradeoff, but also the flexibility to coordinate with life safety, critical alerts, emergency communications, and mass notification.”
Audio for Distance Learning
As online models—including asynchronous and flipped—become more popular, classroom designs are adapting. In some cases, the shift to distance learning can counter some of the budget shortfalls due to dropping enrollment. Flex-use and multi-use classrooms can support more modular designs, morphing when and where needed; a morning class might include distance learners, while the afternoon course may consist exclusively of on-site students. No matter what the setup, audio quality must stay consistent. Every seat should be the best seat in the house.
According to Joe Andrulis, executive vice president of corporate development at Biamp, smart audio systems can bridge on-site and virtual learners. Audio reinforcement is often needed for an instructor, and when there is a remote component, support needs to be extended “so virtual students can still be part of the classroom experience,” Andrulis explained.
One challenge in the contemporary classroom is providing audio coverage for distance learners if a professor is moving around a large classroom. Lecturers are no longer stationary or fixed behind lecterns; they might work on smartboards, demo a 3D-printing skill, or engage with students in smaller groups.
“For that scenario, we’ve been focusing on—and this is true for both corporate environment conferencing and distance learning—microphones to support the speakers’ interests without being encumbered or worrying about microphone placement.” The goal is to deliver an audio experience for distance students that is just as good as it would be if they were hearing the material in situ.
Andrulis explained that the technology in Biamp’s dynamic beamtracking microphones tracks an active user as they move around a space. The solution picks up other participants, too. If a student asks a question, the mics can zero in and capture her voice. Even if a teacher turns away from students to write on a board, or the room doesn’t have great acoustics, the coverage should be consistent.
As with other elements of the AV ecosystem, including UCC and VoIP phone systems, software-based updates can extend audio products’ longevity, efficiency, and economy. Some technology managers are still reticent about distributing media from one classroom—or satellite branch—to another, but the interest is growing in centrally managed systems remote access. The ability to push firmware updates and monitor audio endpoints via a network promises to save time.
Audio and Accessibility
Higher education stakeholders, from professors to technologists, are tasked with cultivating inclusive environments where all students feel welcome. AV is leveling the field for many nontraditional or differently abled students. Wireless collaboration systems and voice-activated interfaces, for example, can help make classrooms more conducive to various learning and teaching styles. While some students may be initially shy about using microphones in a larger classroom or lecture hall, personal audio presents alternatives to raising hands. “A microphone can dramatically increase engagement because it is so straightforward,” said Andrulis.
The idea then is to extend this mic sensibility to off-site participants so they can ask questions remotely just as if they were sitting in the space. “They can digitally raise their hands,” he said. “There are many possibilities for audio now—how it can encourage richer conversations within classrooms.”
Bonus: Additional Online Resources
AVIXA AV/IT Infrastructure Guidelines for Higher Education
AVIXA Standards for Uniform Audio Coverage
Steelcase Education Insights + Applications Guide