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UNLV's AV/IT Team Executes a Big, Bold Hybrid Plan

UNLV’s senior AV/IT Systems specialist Frank Alaimo
UNLV’s senior AV/IT Systems specialist Frank Alaimo (Image credit: UNLV)

A world-class research university that prides itself on its diversity and competitive academic programs in hospitality, law and many other disciplines, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (opens in new tab) (UNLV) was faced with an unprecedented set of technical challenges amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic. With a diverse student population from around the world and a lingering uncertainty of how the pandemic would impact in-person learning, the University moved decisively to implement a hybrid, flexible classroom scenario that could accommodate both in-person and remote learning.

University provost Dr. Chris Heavy requested a “big, bold plan” that would help both faculty and students navigate a challenging learning environment, while providing lasting value to the university at large. Senior AV/IT Systems specialist Frank Alaimo and Classroom Control Systems specialist Michael Theil worked with the University’s IT team and came up with a plan. “The main goal was to provide a new solution in our classrooms while keeping the existing standards in place,” Alaimo said. “Essentially, we added another flavor of classrooms to our classroom ecosystem.” The new hybrid classroom was named “RebelFlex” after UNLV’s mascot.

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RebelFlex Hybrid Classroom Mission

TeamConnect Ceiling 2’s Dante compatibility makes it easy to control, monitor, add or remove devices on the network.

TeamConnect Ceiling 2’s Dante compatibility makes it easy to control, monitor, add or remove devices on the network. (Image credit: UNLV/Rakitha Perera)

To prepare for the rollout, UNLV converted 73 classrooms into RebelFlex equipped spaces. “It was what I like to call the Swiss Army Knife of classrooms, because while it is a typical classroom, we added lecture capture and web conferencing into the rooms. Now the room has synchronous and asynchronous capabilities; recording capabilities; and live, “in-the-room” capabilities,” Alaimo explained. “The room has everything.” 

A specific requirement from the administration was that each room had to be a technical ‘carbon copy’ of the other. “While the rooms might be different sizes and contain different furniture, it was important for us to deliver similar functionality in each room,” Alaimo said. “One thing we wanted to guarantee for our instructors was that when they go from one building to another, the touch panel would be exactly the same and they will be able to record lectures while experiencing top-quality AV conferencing.”

[ UNLV’s RebelFlex Classroom, Immersive Theater Showcased (opens in new tab) ]

The RebelFlex rooms have the equipment needed for both synchronous and asynchronous learning, allowing instructors to leverage enhanced technology in the classroom to teach a face-to-face class, and to students who are joining remotely simultaneously. Instructors can engage both sets of students in real time using Webex, as well as capturing the content for remote viewing. Instructors can engage both audiences in a typical lecture scenario or by using active learning techniques, which may include class discussions, live polling, or group work.

Students are enrolled into two groups for a RebelFlex class: one group meets in the classroom for each scheduled session, while the other group joins remotely at the same time. “Everyone interacts with the instructor and their classmates in real time using Webex or similar technology,” Alaimo said. The instructor can explore new teaching techniques while teaching both sets of students simultaneously. The students can enroll in the section that fits their learning style and engage in active learning together, in person or remotely.

The first RebelFlex was deployed in UNLV’s faculty center, and the IT team then provided recommendations on how to migrate both new and existing classrooms to newer, state-of-the-art HyFlex environments. “The concept was little bit overwhelming for instructors at first, so as part of the RebelFlex pilot program, we included a RebelFlex assistant in each room to provide support, so instructors could remain focused on their agenda during the initial rollout,” Alaimo added.

The primary rollout comprised 58 classrooms. “We took eight rooms that we had on campus that already had a camera and a Panopto recording device and converted those to RebelFlex rooms,” Alaimo said. “The remaining 50 classrooms are completely brand new, with equipment including Sennheiser (opens in new tab) TCC2 microphones.”

Audio is a Top Priority

AV TECH SNAPSHOT

Sennheiser TeamConnect Ceiling 2 microphones

(Image credit: Sennheiser)

> Sennheiser TeamConnect Ceiling 2 microphones (opens in new tab)

> Sennheiser SpeechLine Digital Wireless lapel microphones (opens in new tab)

> Sennheiser Control Cockpit (opens in new tab)

> Vaddio PTZ cameras (opens in new tab)

> Inogeni Share 2 (opens in new tab)

> Crestron (opens in new tab) 8x8 AV switcher, processor, and 10-inch touch panel

> Panopto (opens in new tab) lecture capture

> Webex (opens in new tab)

Part of the new solution featured several Sennheiser TeamConnect Ceiling 2 (TCC2) microphones, which are being deployed across 58 multi-purpose classrooms across the campus. “We already had Sennheiser's SpeechLine Digital Wireless and Sennheiser Control Cockpit in place, and we added the TCC2 as part of our overall web conferencing solution,” Alaimo said. “Now, the instructor has a mic at the lectern, and the TCC2 is able to capture both the students or the instructor, should he or she choose to lecture while moving around the room.”

The patented beamforming microphone technology on the TCC2 is particularly useful in a classroom with many student participants. “The microphones pick up voices really fast and are able to move to wherever a student is talking, and then is able to bounce back and forth as needed,” Theil explained. “This also simplifies our lives in IT so we don’t have to make microphone adjustments. That is a huge time saver.”

“The most important thing is that the content from the microphone and any slides are captured,” Alaimo added. “The TCC2 not only helps capture the lecture but also enables students to feel like they are part of the experience.” Theil agreed, “We wanted to be able to offer a similar experience for the student, whether they were in-person or remote. If you are at home and you’re getting a subpar lecture or feel that you can’t hear the other students, you won’t get the same degree of value. Our system was designed so that people at home have the same opportunities that students have on campus.”

It was critical that UNLV instructors were able to go from one building to another, and the touch panel would be exactly the same.

It was critical that UNLV instructors were able to go from one building to another, and the touch panel would be exactly the same. (Image credit: UNLV/Rakitha Perera)

TCC2’s network compatibility made installation seamless. “Using Dante with TCC2 makes it a lot easier, because everything shows up as a network device,” Theil said. “Being able to route all the devices with a simple click of a mouse simplifies everything, and it means that we can monitor the performance with Control Cockpit right here in the office. Also, with the Dante connectivity, I am able to merge the conferencing capabilities of two or more rooms quickly if needed.” Using Sennheiser Control Cockpit, the IT team can also monitor things like battery levels, muting functionality, and other features. “This kind of remote monitoring through Control Cockpit gives us added confidence that when someone walks into the room there won’t be issues. We know everything will just work as it should,” Theil added.

Theil also appreciates TCC2’s exclusion zone functionality, since each room comes with its own set of noise challenges. “If we are close to an HVAC register, we can bring the pickup pattern so we are no longer picking up noise from it,” he said. “Or if there is a door where the students are coming in and out, I can slice out that one little section of the room with an exclusion zone.” Once the exclusion zones are defined, Theil simply drops in a standard audio processor. “I don’t have time to make a custom DSP program for each room, and that’s what makes it really nice, it works wonderfully out of the box.”

Setting a New AV Standard

THE AV/IT TEAM

UNLV

(Image credit: UNLV)

The project was split into the “What” group, which was responsible for campus needs and ease the transition to a flexible model or provide options; and the “How” group, which was responsible for the design, implementation, and support after install. 

The Classroom Technology Services and E-Learning Technology departments collaborated on the design, use, and support models of this project.  Key players included: Frank Alaimo, senior AV systems specialist and acting manager of CTS; Michael Theil, senior AV/IT control systems specialist; Joseph Chrobak, AV/IT systems specialist; Matthew Broughton, IT technician 6; Rohan Palmer, IT professional 2; Andy Borts, instructional technology support specialist, OIT e-learning technology; CCS Presentation Systems, Las Vegas

The RebelFlex classrooms vary in size, ranging from 25 seats to 179 seats, with the larger sized rooms being served by a pair of TCC2 units. In addition to several more RebelFlex classrooms that are currently in the planning stages, Alaimo and team are looking at converting a campus auditorium that is currently undergoing renovation. “The auditorium has all the recording features already in place, so if the administration decides to move forward, we’ll be ready to roll and could easily deploy the TCC2 in there,” Alaimo said.

RebelFlex has caught on among the administration and student population. “We are getting positive feedback,” Theil said. “We have teachers calling us and saying, ‘I need you to turn my room into a RebelFlex room by tomorrow.’ Additionally, we are seeing a push from our administration to get more and more rooms online.”

Alaimo added that the RebelFlex rollout has set a new standard for the University’s classroom capabilities, and expects the trajectory to continue: “We have projects of all types and sizes, but we feel like every classroom will be RebelFlex by default going forward.”

AVNetwork Staff

The AVNetwork staff are storytellers focused on the professional audiovisual and technology industry. Their mission is to keep readers up-to-date on the latest AV/IT industry and product news, emerging trends, and inspiring installations.