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Going the Distance

Mar 1, 2005 4:07 PM, By James A. Dias

Rich Media Drives New Classroom Design


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For years, higher education institutions treated their traditional classes and distance education classes as separate entities. Each had separate rooms that were designed differently and outfitted with their own unique, specialized equipment, which was determined less on learning outcome goals than the method of content delivery.

Villanova University's College of Engineering uses rich-media-style classrooms to engage students.

Today, a new style of classroom that blends the goals of these two designs has emerged. These dual-purpose rooms feature all the sophisticated audio and video equipment of the most progressive smart classrooms, with the added benefit of being able to transparently capture and stream that experience to online learners. The new classrooms are, in large part, the result of the AV/IT convergence, which is driving the introduction of a whole host of new technologies and applications that are relative newcomers in the AV space, but offer tremendous opportunities for forward-thinking integrators. Indeed, in its 2005 Market Forecast Survey, ICIA (www.infocomm.org) predicted significant market growth for web-enabling technologies, such as streaming media, webcasting and wireless.

In many ways, these new technologies are helping to drive pro AV market growth, both in actual revenue—a reported 8.7 percent increase from 2003 to 2004—and renewed optimism. According to the survey, the typical North American respondent expects revenue to increase a median of 16.7 percent next year. In addition, dealers believe that higher education is second only to business/corporate as the most important market to their business growth over the next three years.

The Growth of Online Learning

To understand why higher education will continue to expand its influence over the products and services resellers offer, look no further than the growth of online learning, which is now generating billions of dollars in tuition revenue each year. According to the Sloan Consortium (www.sloan-c.org), higher education institutions project a 25 percent annual growth rate for online learning, with online enrollment rates outpacing that of the overall student body. Likewise, a majority of the more than 1,100 colleges and universities surveyed in 2004 believe online education is critical to their long-term strategy.

The emergence of rich media, which combines audio, video, and synchronized instructional content, as the preferred method of distance education delivery is being driven by a number of factors, not the least of which is technology. Advances in rich media recording and streaming devices, the prevalence of broadband, and constantly improving compression technologies provide a richer, more dynamic experience for the growing number of students learning remotely—whether live or on-demand.

For students, a web-based rich media approach also carries with it the benefits of convenience, as the promises of anytime/anywhere learning finally can be realized. Indeed, the rapid growth of online learning has created one of the most significant paradigm shifts higher education has ever seen, enabling institutions to expand beyond their physical borders and recruit an entirely new class of students, typically working professionals who enjoy the flexibility of being able to take courses from schools around the country.

Villanova University's online classroom helps distance learners participate.

To Be Smart and Rich

As distance education transitions from a studio-centric, broadcast model to an integrated web-based rich media delivery, the role of AV professionals is evolving as well. In many ways, it marks the dawning of a new type of classroom that both enhances classroom-based learning and teaching and supports the exponential growth in online learning.

Rich media-style classrooms provide an optimal learning experience, regardless of where the student is sitting when the learning occurs. Featuring high-definition screens, ultra-light projectors, powerful document cameras, and interactive whiteboards, these classrooms look very much like the smart classrooms we’ve come to admire. But they have a few important additions to the AV portfolio that web-enable the room and essentially transport it to the growing number of students participating remotely.

This style of classroom is found at Villanova University’s College of Engineering (engineering.villanova.edu). In the fall of 2003, the college completed an infrastructure upgrade that included an integrated systems design for rich media classrooms that provides optimal learning for traditional classroom-based students and supports web-based and video teleconferencing delivery. Built in redundancies enable synchronous and asynchronous learners to receive their course materials three ways—in person, via the Web, and through VTL—yet the instructors only have to give each lecture once.

This innovative yet practical design enabled the College of Engineering to offer Villanova’s first fully online master’s degree. Since then it has added an additional degree each year, and by fall 2007 it will have at least five fully online master’s degree programs in engineering to offer its students, as well as a number of web-based certificate programs. It will continue to provide traditional, classroom-based courses in line with its distance education program offerings.

The Villanova’s College of Engineering is the perfect example of a program that has successfully solved the technology puzzle that so often prevents universities from realizing the enormous benefits of making their courses available via the Web. Furthermore, not only has the College of Engineering scaled its program to meet student demand for educational flexibility without burdening faculty, but the graduate program now generates more than $500,000 annually in tuition revenues from distance education students alone. That's after they've paid for the technology, facilities, and operating costs, and represents a nice, healthy ROI that will grow each year as more online courses are added.

An operator station in a Villanova University College of Engineering classroom.

Building the Rich Media Experience

In order to provide education that’s relevant to all of today’s students, colleges and universities are requesting technology-enabled learning spaces that are easy to teach in, exciting to learn in, and provide the exact same experience for both traditional and online learners. The ability to provide a complete and convenient replication of classroom course content can be a powerful competitive differentiator in attracting today’s tech-savvy students and, increasingly, the faculty who teach them.

One of the business benefits of a rich media classroom is that it takes advantage of all the infrastructure investments institutions may have already made in developing smart classrooms, while enabling web distribution. As a result, pro AV dealers can go back and enhance the teaching facilities of existing customers, creating entirely new business opportunities.

As with any room project, when it comes to rich media classrooms, pedagogy should drive the design. Although educators are increasingly embracing technology, they don’t want it to get in the way—physically or otherwise—of how they teach. Nor do they want to be confounded by multiple cords, wires, and buttons that each professor needs to adjust every time he walks into a classroom. Simplicity and transparency are key.

The emergence of rich media technologies has enabled higher education institutions to re-think the learning experience. As demand grows for this new genre of classrooms that seamlessly function between traditional and online learning, dealers and integrators need to understand how to build precisely that type of educational environment.


James A. Dias is the vice president of Sonic Foundry Inc. The company’s Mediasite rich media recording and publishing systems are used to capture and stream courses for web-based distance education and to support in-class learning. Email him at JDias@sonicfoundry.com.



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