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University AV: From Luxury to Necessity

New AV technology continues to march through colleges and universities despite economic upheaval. More than ever, universities see the value in bringing high-resolution presentation systems and online collaboration tools to educate the 21st century workforce faster, better, and more affordably.

Penn State: The Art and Science of Law

Penn State

Penn State

Credit: Destiny Heimbecker, Vistacom

Videoconferencing is a medium that will allow Pennsylvania State University's Dickinson School of Law take distance learning to a new plateau once its Carlisle campus gets the AV makeover that University Park received last year. All told, 113,000 square feet will be upgraded, including 75-seat tiered classrooms, a 250-seat auditorium, and two 50-seat courtrooms. The eventual goal, say school officials, is to make the two campuses mirror each other so students can get their legal training at the most convenient location.

But this isn't just any old videoconferencing. Unlike lecture-based majors such as physics and accounting, instruction in law is built around intense and frequent dialog among teachers and students. "In the legal profession, facial expression, hand gestures, and inflection of voice are all important," says Jim Ferlino, vice president and principal of project integrator Vistacom. This requires videoconferencing systems that preserve body language and the aural dance of verbal give-and-take.

"Law schools, historically, didn't believe in distance learning," says Jim Sanphy, senior associate at AV designer Shen Milsom & Wilke. But the school did such a good job with its new systems that it claims to be the only law school approved by the American Bar Association for distance learning in the last two years of the three-year program.

It accomplished this not with pricey telepresence systems, but with standard-definition videoconferencing units choreographed by a custom AMX application that maintains pre-set configurations for student presentations, distance-learning, and teaching modes. Ferlino credits the human-centric system to the clear expectations Shen Milsom & Wilke established while gathering customer feedback and showing flexibility in accommodating change. One example was the decision to use projectors nstead of 65-inch plasma screens, for which infrastructure was already in place in the rear of the lecture halls. Teachers said the approximately 40-foot distance didn't provide enough realism when viewing students at the remote site, so projection was brought in to enlarge the image to about 120 inches diagonal. "It's probably unusually large for a teacher's monitor," Sanphy says.

It also helped to have a technically savvy client with experience using push-to-talk mics and preset cameras.

"We've been doing what we're going to be doing for the last three years," says John Davie, director of instructional and information technology. Davie had discovered a formula that preserves the feel of a normal dialog when a student releases the mic button and the camera reverts to the instructor shot. In the local room, the camera stays on the student for two seconds, but in the remote room, it stays for eight seconds. This allows instructors to continue viewing remote students' body language and pick up cues that suggest, for example, whether they understood the last point. "The sound goes away, but the camera remains," Davie says. "It's all about body language."

Each campus will have a functioning courtroom packed with AV, including an evidence station that lets people submit evidence in various formats selected from a control panel. The judge can view the evidence before deciding who in the courtroom can see it. The witness's display has an overlay that lets them annotate the evidence.

HD-SDI AV over fiber was rejected in favor of Magenta Research unshielded twisted pair devices to distribute video over Cat-5 among instruction rooms and a master control room. Each room needs multiple signal paths for cameras and PCs, which would have been prohibitively expensive over fiber. Extron DVS 304 scalers sit in equipment racks in lecterns. Integrating AV into the lecterns was a challenge because of the space taken up by the motor assemblies that move the work surfaces up and down. The solution, says Ferlino, was to remove casings from equipment and cut back the rack.

Other hurdles included distributing audio and maintaining quality through numerous breakpoints, as well as programming Biamp AudiaFlex DSPs to configure equalization, compression, and amplification of dozens of student mics. The Biamps had to be pre-set for the two- and eight-second videoconferencing delays. And when interference from the building's Wi-Fi network caused clicks and pops on the 20 Sabine wireless microphones, Sabine's president flew in to recommend amplified antennas that fixed the problem.

In the end, Penn State had an AV infrastructure finely tuned to its needs. Now it will replicate it. "I don't think I've ever seen a client that's done so much analysis of what works for them," Sanphy says.

David Essex is a technology writer based in Peterborough, N.H.

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