Arden University is a higher education institution with approximately 10,000 students. It focuses on providing access to flexible learning for ambitious students of all ages around the world and provides a mixture of distance (online) and on-campus teaching services at five UK sites and one in Berlin. Owned by multinational education group Global University Systems, it became a University in 2015 and has around 700 employees and contract workers.
Arden concentrates on student choice, enabling people to learn in a way that suits them best under an initiative that it calls Your Degree Your Way expanded from an exclusively distance-learning model to a blended online and on-site model in 2017. This enabled students to visit one of its three study centres in London, along with sites in Birmingham, Manchester, and Berlin. The blended service had been working well, but shortly after the pandemic struck in March the team realised that it was going to be a long-term crisis that would require a different technical solution.
The University wanted to continue its on-campus learning service when classes restarted in September 2020. This meant offering an in-classroom experience to students who were unable to attend a study centre in person, explained Rob Palfreman, IT Director at Arden.
"We were committed to providing a high-quality learning experience to all students whether they were on-campus or attending remotely” he said.
Running separate classroom and online sessions would segregate students, his team reasoned, and would also place more pressure on lecturers who would have to teach the same session twice.
Instead, the IT team resolved to make on-campus lecturer-led sessions available both on and off campus. To maintain the level of quality that Arden students were used to, the experience for remote students had to be as seamless as possible.
"It became apparent quite quickly that the quality of our sound and video would become fundamental", Palfreman said. "If you can't see and hear the person who is delivering information to you properly, you're less likely to be fully engaged with your learning."
Ease of use was also a must. Lecturers focusing on delivering an engaging learning experience would not have the time to configure audio-visual equipment. Moreover, they would need to interact seamlessly with both in-class and remote students at the same time. Palfreman wanted the experience to be smooth enough that the lecturers would almost forget the equipment was there.
If that wasn't enough of a challenge, the equipment needed to be set up in 70 rooms stretching from Manchester to Berlin for the start of the September term . Following a successful trial and the setup of a concept classroom, the team was given the green light to begin the installation in mid-August.
Arden had worked with Probrand before and the experience cemented the IT services company as a go-to supplier that would pay attention to detail under pressure. Probrand helped design the perfect in-room setup for Arden.
The video component comprised a 4K camera supporting three preset perspectives. A lecturer could focus the camera on themselves, widen the angle to take in the whole class, or switch to a student-centric view for discussions. The camera was powerful enough to resolve text on an A4 sheet at five metres.
Sound was equally challenging. Lecturers and students must be heard equally well. Probrand demonstrated a cutting edge ceiling microphone array that could pick up crystal-clear audio anywhere around the room.
Installation was a complex job that had to happen quickly given Arden's tight schedule. Probrand's technicians had to position the equipment differently in each classroom to provide an immersive experience. This involved surveying each room before installation, including those at the site in Berlin. The company employed four teams of technicians working in parallel to get the job done.
Sourcing equipment was also a challenge given the time constraint and the general squeeze that the pandemic had put on supplies.
"Probrand stepped in and shared the risk by ordering equipment, even though it hadn't been officially signed off, so that we could keep on track," said Palfreman.
The result was fantastic, Palfreman continued. Probrand navigated the tight installation deadlines to deliver a system that went live with no technical issues at all.
"The feedback we've had has been nothing but positive," he continued. "Including our academic staff, who see it as a great tool in continuing our Your Degree Your Way initiative."
The installation process left lecturers with a hands-off system that didn't need any support from audio-visual engineers, he added.
With many students choosing to study online, the solution was crucial in maintaining a quality learning experience during pandemic conditions, Palfreman explains, adding that it will be an asset for many years to come.
"Probrand and Arden were in this together," he concludes. "We shared the same goals. That contributed to our success."