How AV Will Shape the Future of Education

Today’s classrooms have numerous AV aids, but still require teachers and students to share the same physical space (with the exception of distance learning) at the same time. Will this be true in the future? Or will the integration of IT-enabled AV into education allow professors to record their lectures once and then deliver them repeatedly using holograms—with students attending from anywhere using virtual reality (VR) avatars?

The Classroom is Not Doomed, But it Will Change

First things first: None of the three AV experts interviewed for this piece expects classrooms and lecture halls to vanish in the future. “Even in today’s technological world, students want face-to-face contact with their instructors,” said Rob Lipps, EVP of Sonic Foundry. “So the notion of the facility-less campus, with all students logging in remotely for lectures, is not going to happen. After all, 15 years ago people predicted that videoconferencing would be the death of in-person meetings and business travel, but it wasn’t. The same is true for advanced AV technology in the future; including AR (augmented reality) and VR.”

Still, everyone we spoke to expects tomorrow’s classrooms to be quite different from today’s—and the change is being spurred on partly by the realities of the world. “We’re seeing a real push from businesses for more collaborative spaces that support teamwork and active learning,” said William O’Donnell, AV network design engineer at William Paterson University. “Employers want students to learn how to work together and to show initiative, with instructors acting as interactive guides rather than talking heads.

“This doesn’t mean that lecture halls will vanish. They’ll still be needed for large enrollment courses like Poli Sci 101. But we will see more emphasis on collaborative spaces—and the AV technology we use will have to support that.”

Technological advances are enabling distance learning students to receive the same quality of education as their in-room counterparts.

Technological advances are enabling distance learning students to receive the same quality of education as their in-room counterparts.

Where AV Will Fit In

With schools moving their content into the cloud, and students toting more devices, educational AV is poised to be more important than ever before.

“We are going to see ever-more wireless connections and gateways on campus, as students use their own devices to connect directly to their school’s content and resources,” said Michael Lucas, senior director of instructional technology services at University of Massachusetts Lowell. “This means that the network, its access points and scalability, and its security will be more important than ever before.”

As the personal devices used by students become more affordable and capable—be they smartphones, tablets, laptops, or a mix of all three—tomorrow’s schools will have to support their growing access and charging demands. In the same vein, educational institutions will have to ensure that their cloud-based content can be easily accessed on these devices, and that their campuses’ AV equipment and networks can carry this load.

“It’s not just classrooms: I foresee study rooms and other informal spaces being equipped with wireless nodes and 50-inch monitors, where students can throw up their work and look at it on the big screen,” said O’Donnell. “Students will expect to be able to access and use the same level of AV equipment currently reserved today for their teachers.”

The Role of AR and VR

Cutting-edge AV technologies such as AR and VR are already expanding throughout all areas of education. At University of Massachusetts Lowell, “we’re seeing wearable VR suits being used both to teach modelling in art, and to explain concepts in health,” said Lucas. At William Paterson University, “art students are creating 3D sculptures using VR, which are then brought into reality using 3D printers,” said O’Donnell.

Looking ahead, AR and VR offer educators countless opportunities to provide their students with new and engaging learning experiences. But as with today’s educational AV technology, how AR and VR are actually employed will depend on what instructors choose to do with them. “It all pivots on whether teachers are willing to make the effort to move into AR, VR, and other advanced AV technologies to make their courses more compelling,” Lipps said.

With students increasingly toting their own devices, many schools have noted a vastly reduced need for dedicated computer labs.

With students increasingly toting their own devices, many schools have noted a vastly reduced need for dedicated computer labs.

Distance Learning in the Future

One area where AR and VR could have a real impact is distance learning—providing remote students with far more immersive and inclusive learning experiences. But again, this will depend on how much educators commit to making this happen; both in terms of their course content and the technology available to distance learners.

“Having a Ferrari-quality distance learning origination site doesn’t matter if the students on the other end are huddled around a 19-inch Dell monitor,” O’Donnell said. “AV-enabled content delivery is only as good as the weakest link in the chain.”

Rob Lipps would like all forms of connected learning to be of consistent end-to-end quality, so that the notion of “distance” becomes irrelevant. “When you think of someone as a ‘distance learning student,’ what you’re really saying is that they are separate from a more local group of students, and that may imply the quality of their educational experience is different. Using IT-enabled AV technology, the classroom of tomorrow could eliminate this distinction entirely, ensuring that everyone receives the same quality of learning, no matter where they are located.”

Technologies on the Chopping Block

Is the computer lab of today doomed? It’s a good question. With students bringing their own devices to campus, it is hard to see how computer labs will remain relevant in the years to come.

“About 75 percent of our students have their own devices, which is why we’ve become so BYOD-focussed at University of Massachusetts Lowell,” Lucas said. “With Chromebooks being so inexpensive, and the space and technology required by computer labs costing so much, it might make sense to offer students access to carts of Chromebooks while closing the labs down!”

Maybe so, but William Paterson’s O’Donnell isn’t ready to make this leap yet. “Colleges such as ours serve students with lower incomes, who rely on access to the technology provided by computer labs,” he said. “This spares them from having to buy laptops and tablets, which may be money they don’t have.”

This said, “I am still surprised to come across VHS/DVD decks in some of our classrooms: Does anyone still use physical media anymore?” he quipped. “In the future, such devices will be gone from classrooms. So will standalone document cameras, because the USB-connected models are so much cheaper, smaller, and useful.”

The Bottom Line

The classroom of the future will be more connected and more IT-enabled/AV-enriched, with innovative technologies such as AR and VR making learning more interesting and fun than ever before.

Yet, there will still be a demand for face-to-face interactions between teachers and students. Savvy AV manufacturers and vendors will shape their offerings to satisfy this need while delivering the “wow” factor that AV excels at.

  • Classrooms will focus more on collaborative active learning rather than talking heads lecturing passive students.
  • AV technology will enable emphasis on active learning through multimedia demonstration/learning devices, AR, and VR.
  • AR and VR will spread across all areas of education, and make distance learning more engaging and inclusive.
  • Students will increasingly use their own devices to connect directly to the school’s cloud-based resources.
  • Once a staple of educational institutions, the computer lab will have its core value diminished by this trend and will need other reasons to justify its continued existence.

James Careless is an award-winning freelance journalist with extensive experience in audio-visual equipment, AV system design, and AV integration. His credits include numerous articles for Systems Contractor News, AV Technology, Radio World, and TV Tech, among others. Careless comes from a broadcasting background, with credits at CBC Radio, NPR, and NBC News. He currently co-produces/co-hosts the CDR Radio podcast, which covers the Canadian defense industry. Careless is a two-time winner of the PBI Media Award for Excellence.