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Future-proof learning for the unknown

One university is leveraging technology solutions to manage learning today, tomorrow, and into the future
By Joe Way
October 5th, 2020

One university is leveraging technology solutions to manage learning today, tomorrow, and into the future

In 2019 I was hired by my alma mater, the University of Southern California (USC), to rethink how learning spaces look and operate on campus. The goal for more than a year now has been to dovetail the concepts of design and technology in a way that improves pedagogical methods and learning outcomes. Our first major project was to redesign 248 learning spaces with this vision.

As we were midstream in the transformation, the global pandemic occurred. For many, this was a moment to pivot. However, what we discovered was our system was inherently fault tolerant to the challenges of learn-from-home and hybrid-models.

Related content: 5 ways to focus on student success in a pandemic

Because of our decision to build a system on the backbone of AV-over-IP, we were able to quickly adapt to the needs of the university and its students. Further, we were future-proofing for the unknown: we will be able to adapt to the future of learning, regardless of how or when students return to campus.

Thus, as universities and K-12 schools across the world look at the future of schools, it makes sense to share what USC is doing to empower its teachers and students – not just in the short term, but in a way that prepares for the future.

The AV-over-IP solution

We use a Crestron Flex UC Engine that integrates natively with Zoom. This means every space where a lecture is occurring is now a Zoom Virtual Room that can go live. Our video solution uses Huddly IQ video cameras that provide auto tracking and auto cropping of the lecturer or presenter. Zoom, of course, handles screensharing as well.

This was originally planned as a remote learning offering – and that has become a critical use today. That said, as we may eventually need to utilize overflow spaces to keep individuals socially distant, we can also use the Crestron workflow to send video to other classrooms where students may be located.

This leads us to the audio component. The ability to hear – or not hear – what the speaker is saying is a major determining factor on the experience for students. That said, traditional audio cabling and construction across 248 rooms would have been extremely cost prohibitive. Thus, we went with Audinate’s Dante as a backbone for our audio-over-IP offering. Dante provides near-zero latency, and this synchronization is crucial for the learning experience.

Further, Dante proved to be a solution for the remote learning environment as well. It works natively with both Crestron’s solutions and Zoom. Our microphones – Shure MXA 910s or 710s, depending on the space – are also Dante native. Dante AVIO units are also in use in areas where we need encoders with additional handheld mics, or for instances where we need to zone the room and cut the speakers near microphones.

Finally, we use Dante Domain Manager network management software for user authentication, role-based security, and audit capabilities. We have more than 1,100 endpoints using Dante, and the software offering helps us effectively manage all of them.

There are a few more in-house flourishes we provide in the system – native calendar integration and room automation, for example. However, this workflow as outlined is the elegant core of our system. It’s a thoughtful design that allows for effective management, delivery of content, and real-time interaction.

The results

With those core components in place across our learning environments, we can quickly and easily scale or alter the technology to fit any teaching need. In the here-and-now, that means ensuring high-quality video and crystal-clear audio to students remotely. We’re hopeful that in 2021 it will be safe for students to return in some capacity to campus. Our AV-over-IP system will be prepared for that as well, as it is capable of delivering signals both locally and remotely.

Eventually, the system will be used for its initial design: on-site AV that delivers a robust experience to everyone in the classroom. That said, there is peace of mind in knowing that our video and audio signals can swiftly adapt to a new need immediately.

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