The COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of hybrid and HyFlex learning have fundamentally changed what it means to work in IT. In this episode of the Simplifying Remote Collaboration podcast, Ben Thomas talks to a group of higher ed AV and eLearning pros called the AV SuperFriends. They tackle a range of questions, including, “What are the needs of digital learning today? When should the AV designer come in on a project? How do you know what tech you actually need? How do you factor in the needs of faculty and students?”
1:23 – Meet the SuperFriends
3:10 – The state of digital learning in higher ed
6:20 – What are administrators looking for?
8:30 – Catching up the “trepidation people”
12:06 – What is the goal of the space?
14:20 – Not every space is right for technology
17:08 – Paying attention to how instruction happens
20:08 – An experience that matches a school’s brand
21:50 – When to bring in the AV designer
23:25 – Defining a successful project
25:35 – We want our teachers to teach, not troubleshoot
28:00 – The students are the true customers
30:24 – Support is crucial to the design process
Ben: Hey everybody. Welcome back to Simplifying Remote Collaboration. I’m your host Ben Thomas. We’ve got a great conversation lined up today focusing on integrating, installing and specing some of the awesome tools that we’re seeing in places like higher education and learning institutions.
I’ve got a great panel of experts on today who are each pretty cool in their own right, but when they all come together they like to call themselves the AV SuperFriends. Pretty incredible guys. We’ve got Chris, Marc, Larry, Justin and Jamie. We don’t have Larry today. I forgot to take that out of the notes, but we’re going to go with it. Gentlemen, thanks so much for coming on the show today.
Various guests: Thank you for having us. Thank you. Larry is missing. Can we kick Larry out?
Ben: He’s not here, so it’s not quite the complete group. For the benefit of our audience who may not know each one of you specifically, I figured it’d be easy just to kick it right off to have you introduce yourselves. First name, last name, where you work, what you do. Chris, we’ll have you start.
Meet the SuperFriends
Chris: Sure. Thanks Ben. My name is Chris Dechter. I’m the manager of instructional technology at University of Wyoming, a founding member of the AV SuperFriends, long-term AV professional and general jerk to anyone who asks. I enjoy long walks and frozen hot dog eating competitions. There we are – something like that.
Ben: There’s a story there. I don’t know if you’re going to let me chase you down that rabbit hole. Marc, go ahead and hop in next.
Marc: Marc Cholewczynski. Currently the associate director of academic technologies for Oregon State University Technical Services Group. All things AV design, broadcast and general problem-solving and AV mystery-solving, of sorts. Part of the AVSF alliance here. Hopefully, we’ll have a good show.
Ben: Looking forward to it. And then Justin.
Justin: Hey, my name is Justin Rexing. I currently work at Western Kentucky University as the audiovisual design engineer. I pretty much do pencil CAD all day. Co-founder of the AV SuperFriends and also owner of Rexing Consulting Group.
Ben: And then Jamie, bring us home.
Jamie: I’m a nerd. No. Okay – riveting, riveting conversation. I just wanted to make sure that we had the short and sweet answer in there first. So, Jamie Reinhardt, I work at University of Missouri in Kansas City. I’m the AV design engineer and jack-of-all-trades. And just like most of us higher ed AV nerds, I also program, make drawings and other such things. I am a member of the AV SuperFriends podcast group, so make sure you listen to us because we really go crazy on some of those things as well.
The state of digital learning in higher ed
Ben: Well, we’re not going to tone you down today, that’s for sure. We’ve only got four of the five or the six of you now, but I’ll tell you what, we’ll make up for the rest of them. So we’ll start here. Chris and Marc, first question to you guys. Coming out of a post-pandemic world or coming into it, I guess the education market, specifically on the higher ed and learning side, underwent this massive transformation. And now there is this amalgamation of different ideas and thoughts and technologies. Just level set with us. Where are we in terms of the needs of digital learning today in higher education?
Marc: Chris, you want you or me to jump on the grenade?
Chris: I’ll jump you, correct. I would say as far as where we are right now, we’re still learning, we’re still figuring this out. I would say we’re past the initial – for lack of a better term – knee-jerk response of, “Oh my God, we have to do something!” A lot of people went out and bought random stuff and whatever they could get and just kind of threw everything at the wall to see what would stick. Others kind of built upon an existing model of distance learning and distance education and are sticking with that.
The question is what worked better? And honestly, I think we’re probably all somewhere halfway between those two. But I think at this point we’re past that initial response and now trying to triage and determine which of the solutions we should actually select and move forward with. Is it both supportable and scalable? Is it something both the students and the instructors can actually make use of without a whole lot of additional work and jumping through hoops? Any of that stuff. And we can make it as simple and straightforward as possible – something that just fits in with their existing workflow and lets them focus on teaching. They’re the subject matter experts in their fields, not in AV. So if they can pick it up and run with it, even if it’s a little clunky, I think that’s a success. But Marc will now tell me I’m wrong. Go.
Marc: You’re wrong, Chris. No, I think that’s awesome. For the most part, you captured it. I think we talk about this a lot – that early on we did this mass amount of quantitative solution, right? “Let’s just go out there, bite up, put the stuff out there and see what happens.” Now we’re kind of pivoting into that qualitative thing. What does work? What works well? What doesn’t work well? Why does this not work? Why does this work? But, primarily, we’re still wrestling with the four or five basic things: See. Be seen. Hear. Be heard. And share – right? In teaching and learning spaces, how do we do all those things? What are the tools that do it in an effective way?
I think we made great strides having LMSs [learning management systems] and feeding our analog selves into these digital realms. But not everybody was prepared. Some did it better than others. And it resulted in a mixed bag of experience. So now we’re looking at this lagging data set. Where does it fit? Obviously, it doesn’t work for everything. If we’re going to offer it, where does it make sense to do it? And is there actually an opportunity to say, “maybe we don’t need to do it?”
And maybe there are some spots where we don’t need to have a whole lot of technology. I’m actually more fascinated by that spectrum. Like, where do we need to have these really, really rich experiences? And where can we just offer simple experiences and be just as effective?
What are administrators looking for?
Ben: Well Marc, you bring up a great point – something we’ll touch on a little bit later. I think historically we’ve seen – and this was probably a little bit more pre-pandemic – the shoehorning of technology just for technology’s sake. And I’ll kick this next question to Justin and Jamie. You know, when we talk about – historically – that idea of technology kind of being almost a nice-to-have? Right now it’s moved – especially for a lot of these universities that are commuter-specific – where it’s nearly essential for the business model of the school. Talk about some of the things that you’re hearing from administration, as far as implementing technology. Are they hearing demands and opportunities for things like hybrid learning? Or is it fully online, fully remote? We talked about LMS technologies – where’s the balance there, and what are you primarily seeing demand for?
Justin: I’ll go ahead and take this, Jamie, unless you want to start?
Jamie: Nah, go ahead. This way I get to tell you you’re wrong.
Justin: This is where we’re actually the outliers. We’ve had a lot of marketing and messaging for “in-person only.” And we’re trying to separate ourselves from what everybody else is doing. So going back to the first question, we did kind of just throw everything at the wall – bought a bunch of cheap stuff and kind of let it sit. And now we’re seeing faculty and staff being very intentional on where we’re deploying these technologies. And what we’re hearing from administration is, on our side, very ad hoc. For instance, in the business college sometimes they want all of their classrooms to be HyFlex and hybrid. And yet, biology and chemistry, and all these others, are just needing in-person only. It’s very all-over-the-board. But now we are more intentional about which rooms we equip because we don’t need every room to do everything. That’s more of a supportable mission for us. And obviously it’s more affordable. What do you think, Jamie?
Jamie: Well, we’re going to have a lot of this “I agree, but...” Back to the original question. I feel like we were headed in that direction over the past decade. On our show and amongst our discussions, we like to say, “the pandemic is...” That’s over. The response happened and it’s done. And really it escalated the need for some of these other things we’ve seen over the last decade. The thinking about technology wasn’t, “It’s nice to have PowerPoint®.” No, the students today are digital natives and more and more faculty are becoming that way as well.
Catching up the “trepidation people”
That transition was happening. Now, in higher ed we don’t always have the young guns they have in the K–12 market where they’re still young, they’re eager to have tech and they just do it. And they find their ways, whether they’re supportable or not. In higher ed, we still have some of the 50-year, experienced, tenured faculty who don’t really want to change their ways because they’re really good at what they do, the way they’ve been doing it – and they are. So we don’t want to take that away from them, but we were headed down this path anyway. LMSs were starting to become a requirement for faculties prior to this. This just expedited everything. It made it so everybody now realizes that we have to have this. We live on our cell phones. We live on our laptops. We live on our computers. That’s where we live, and now we’re bringing education to that. So I think what we are seeing now is that we have the “trepidation people” who we’re trying to get caught up.
That’s the way I see it – that the tech and the need for technology has been there for a long time. And we’ve always said, hey, we can do this better. We can present information better. We can do things better. And now people recognize that if they invest a little bit here, we can create better – and different.
Ben: Jamie, that’s a great point. Especially when you start talking about people aging into the digital-native realm. And I’m going to open this up to everybody. As digital natives continue to age into the higher education learning markets, I think most, if not all of you, would agree that our universities “as-is” are largely ill-equipped to have a lot of the technologies that they want. Especially from an architectural and infrastructure standpoint. Whether that’s viewing angles. Whether that’s audio intelligibility and being able to mic people in a room. What are some of the challenges you guys are holistically seeing, specifically on the integration side, that people really are having a hard time figuring out?
Justin: I think most of those challenges come from just the environmental challenges that we deal with. At a lot of our colleges – Chris coming from IU, myself being at W K U and Marc being at Oregon State – we’re dealing with old buildings and old problems. And now we’re trying to use these rooms for new things, and it’s not really meshing well. So the biggest challenge that I’ve seen for us is the cost of creating that experience. Not just the cost of the AV equipment, but the cost of what you have to do to the room to prepare it for that AV experience.
What is the goal of the space?
Marc: Yeah, I’ll piggyback a little bit on that, Justin. I think most of our institutions have old buildings and new buildings. We have a spectrum of different types of systems out there. So how can you provide a uniform experience when you have legacy systems and you have edge cases that are maybe more modern. But then also you may be getting these requests from different project managers that, “we need to do this.” But there’s no real definition driving the goal of “why?” You made this assumption you need to have mics and speakers and all this stuff, but what’s the goal of the space? Really focusing that attention back to what is the actual mission of this environment that you’re actually going into. And not just knee-jerk deploying and just putting a bunch of stuff out there because there was some dream, but really understanding if we should even be doing that in this environment. Should I have a bunch of microphones in a giant auditorium? What’s it going to sound like without spending a whole lot of money? It’s being responsible and saying, yeah, how do you carry that message to all the people and the clients that are using these spaces? Well, are you sure you really should be doing that in this room to begin with? And let’s have more of a holistic view of like all of our environments, all of our buildings. Where’s the right place? Because it’s not necessarily scalable to just have everything everywhere all the time. And so, what does that mean? How do we balance that?
Ben: Well, you bring up a good point, and that brings us to the next topic. In some cases, professors are switching buildings all day. So that level of uniformity is almost essential. And can I talk about those teachers and professors? They are often the primary operators of a lot of these technologies. And yes, as we mentioned, we have some people aging into the digital native realm, but we have tenured professors utilizing projectors. How do you find that balance of not only consistency, predictability and general accessibility with some of that legacy mindset? Do you do that in the design process? Is that in the training process? Or is it “yes” to everything?
Justin: I think it’s more in the marketing education process and kind of also in the training process. It’s something that grows as you continue to develop these relationships at your university. And that’s just something that you’re always fighting.
Not every space is right for technology
Chris: I think a lot of it comes down to setting expectations. What can this space do? Or what can I do in this space? What can I not do in this space? Ben, you mentioned early on that previously – 10, 15, 20 years ago – having some sort of presentation and conferencing technology in a space, or even just presentation technology, was a nice-to-have. It was not a guarantee. And now it’s expected that there will be some sort of capability for that. If a professor goes in and there’s no projector in a room, they think “I can’t teach in this room” – even though I’ve been teaching for 40 years. Which raises some interesting questions. But that aside, if we try that approach of “let’s try to enable that sort of capability in every space, regardless of age of building,” you’re going to have a wide, varying level of experience in there. Some good, some bad.
I was in a space this morning, which absolutely should only not have been used for presentations. But somebody, years ago, stuck a projector on the ceiling and a giant screen on the wall, about one third of which is blocked by the lectern. It’s just not set up for that. It shouldn’t have any technology in it. To Marc’s point, this space should be a more informal seminar room or a conference room or something like that. It has a different purpose. We don’t need to lift every space to be capable of this, because now I’m going to get people who teach all over campus and think, “I was just in this room across the hall and it was great. Now I come over here and it’s terrible. What’s going on?” I don’t disagree with that. I have a brand-new building on campus, which has awful technology in some of the spaces because of the way the building was laid out and designed, et cetera, et cetera. So those challenges exist regardless of the age of building and regardless of the people using it or the subject matters that they’re teaching – that sort of thing. It comes down to setting expectations of what’s capable of being done in this space rather than everything being the same. I think that’s something we’re all trying to triage and determine how we best identify those spaces. Whether we have a tier 1, 2 or 3 classroom, or we identify some as Zoom enabled versus Zoom capable versus Zoom Rooms. To me, those are very different things. I think we’re all trying to work through that. There is no single answer. It will be a challenge for years to come.
Ben: Chris, I love what you said. And Jamie, I’ll kick this to you. On the AV side this is where you start talking about the AV installer, the integrator community, having to be the expert or in some cases the bad guy, right? You talk about those rooms that are poorly designed, poorly laid out then somebody says, “Uh, hey, we need to stick a projector in here and here’s some money for it.” At what point do we, as an AV community, as an installer community and as an educator community, step in and either provide recommendations for something else or just sit there and take orders? I get it, it varies by seniority level, but where do we step in, Jamie?
Paying attention to how instruction happens
Jamie: There are two things with this one. All of us come from universities that, obviously, employ us. And we don’t just live in the specification world. We don’t live in the sales world. We live in the, “let’s enable teaching and learning world,” right? And so we speak on behalf of that. But we also have to live in the world of pedagogy, teaching styles and faculty. And we support it. But some places don’t have that luxury. Somebody else, somewhere else, has decided to build a building and they’ve hired an architect who has a consultant who comes in... I think what we’re getting at is this strange thing where consultants and integrators saying “just put in displays and stuff” is no longer good enough. They’re losing track of how instruction is happening. They aren’t asking those extra questions about what your instructors are trying to do. Let’s go back to what Marc was saying. Be very intentional about what we do. When we put things in, we make sure that we talk to the teaching support liaisons so we can match our technology with their teaching styles – with the person, with the LMSs. We can match all this up and have as much success as possible. Sometimes when it comes from the outside world, they’re losing track of that. I’m seeing it more and more. They’re like, “well, here are some cameras – there’s 15 of them. And here’s some microphones. And here’s this and that.” In the experience overall, yes, you checked your boxes, but did you meet the needs of the client? And I think we’re starting to see that disconnect.
Marc: I don’t want to pile on here, but it’s okay to say no, right? It’s okay. And I think it’s a burden that we all have to shoulder in that we are responsible for curating that student and faculty experience. If we are part of a conversation we come into and it’s not going to work correctly, we have to live with that, right? We have to support it. We have to continue on. That integrator is going to get their check. Then they’re going to leave. So it’s in our best interest and the students’ best interest and the university’s best interest to ensure that premium experience. And I’m not saying premium like bells, whistles and all this stuff – but being mindful that that teaching and learning experience needs to be the best that we can do with the resources that we have. Students are transient. They can go wherever they want to go. Why should they come? Why should they go anywhere?
Jamie: And so why should they stay here?
An experience that matches a school’s brand
Marc: They will vote with their feet and their dollars and go somewhere else. And at the end of the day, if something’s presented to us and we’re saying that it’s not going to be the experience that’s acceptable for my university’s brand, it is on us to voice that to the integrators. I think there was a time where integrators just assumed we were all nerds saying, “just give me a pile of technology and I’ll just go out and put it in there and it will be great – I have stuff and money.” That’s not the case anymore. We’re very data driven. We understand what the outcome should be. Why are we doing this? What is the actual goal for the university in this teaching and learning experience? And our group tries to champion that, right? We want to make sure that we’re being responsible with resources and creating a premium environment that is beneficial to the students, the faculty and the university at large.
Justin: To Marc’s point, we just had a project come up just recently that kind of fits what he was saying. We had a student senate room, a faculty senate room and a staff senate room. The faculty senate room was a log cabin, everything was wood inside. The student senate room had really nice acoustics. It already had microphones, it just needed a couple of cameras and some upgrades. So we all got together and talked about what the needs were and everybody was in agreement to just upgrade one of the rooms, to save money. Now we don’t have three of the exact same rooms sitting empty – we have one that’s being used all the time.
That’s what we’re all talking about as far as being intentional and saving money. And integrators aren’t going to look at those things. They’re just going to say, “Yeah, sure, we’ll just throw in whatever. Whatever you want, we’ll throw it in.”
When to bring in the AV designer
Ben: To continue that conversation, where, in your opinions, is the ideal point for you to be included in that conversation? Is it conceptualizing? Is it purchasing decisions? Is it installation? Where would you say is the ideal place to jump in?
All: At the very beginning.
Ben: Okay, we’ll go around the room. Chris, go ahead.
Chris: Before an architect gets there, absolutely. When there’s an initial conversation. That’s my favorite project – when a department says, “Hey, we want to do something in this space, and we’re kind of thinking about this and that,” and I can back them off. So the conversation goes from saying, “I want to buy widget A, B, C,” to saying we need to figure out a solution for this by talking it through from an initial high level. Oftentimes – and I think we all have this frustration – we get in on a project 50% done and it’s too late to actually fix this stuff. I’m still retrofitting a brand new $60 million building with stuff that was never conceived of. It’s a challenge because then we have to backfill those conversations. And it’s far more expensive to do that late in a project. So the earlier the better.
Justin: And you make everybody mad because now you’re delaying everything.
Chris: Yeah. Or saving time?
Justin: Well, they don’t see it that way. They just see short term.
Marc: Right. I want to be involved at the layer where the definition of success is being created. “We will be successful in making this space if we do what?” I want to be right there. Because it’s the idea. It’s the idea set. And if you bring me in when you’re saying, “Here’s what we’re gonna do, and here’s the things we’re buying,” that’s way too late. That’s not going to work.
Defining a successful project
Ben: So let’s talk about success on the AV and technical side. Typically, whether it’s good or not, we shoulder the burden of success because maybe people don’t end up using classroom technology because it’s hard to use. They don’t feel trained on it, they don’t feel equipped. What are the typical metrics, or even the long-term metrics, for what you guys typically call a quote/unquote “successful project?”
Marc: You want numbers?
Ben: What are some of the principles?
Marc: To me, looking at success, it’s low friction communication. Bidirectional. Easy to use. Not breaking down a lot. So now we’re going to start talking about ticketing support, things like that. You want it to be intuitive, right? And then when you’re working with faculty, do they understand what intuitive means? Do you have an agreement that one button, two buttons … how many button presses does it take for the user to have presentation success in a room? Simplification, right? We own these.
We talk a lot about standards. Our standards are the culmination of our cultures around what we think has historically been a successful solution, right? I think we would all agree that would include easy to use, appropriate for the space, not overbuilt or underbuilt. But what are they trying to do? They want to have quality visualization in a space. They want to have uniform audio coverage in a space. They want to have access to a high-bandwidth network. And notice I didn’t say you have to be able to do Zoom or Teams in every single environment. What’s the core mission of that class?
And somewhere down the road we’re also going to talk about the attributes of a space. And I’m like, I want my attributes to not be a list of the stuff. I want my attributes of a space to be “What are the things this space is good at?” I will know I’m successful if you can do these things well. Let’s define that experience. Can I do it, yes or no? Binary, right?
Ben: Jamie, it looks like you’re cooking on something. What you got?
We want our teachers to teach, not troubleshoot
Jamie: Well, I’m cooking on many things. I’m usually hot to trot. I agree with Marc, and a lot of us do. We are spoiled. The people you have on this call are spoiled. Our universities have us. We also have to think about those that are not us. We are there helping make these decisions. We are there to say no. We are there to make sure that when we talk to an instructor and they say, “Oh, well this works just like the one over there in the other building.” Yes – because we strive to make sure that they all are similar enough that anybody that can use one can use them all. Now there’s varying levels of “all right,” but we strive to do that.
For those of you that are listening to this and don’t have an AV designer on your staff and don’t have a whole design AV staff, and maybe you do get the low bid integrator of the week, you know that you have something to say about that. You say “no.” I don’t care if it’s integrator A or B or Z. You’re all going to fit these things. We want a push-button panel that has six buttons and a volume control. I don’t care what company it comes from, when I hit “on,” it turns on, all of it turns on. And have that repeated expectation. Have a document drawn up so that you have a repeatable expectation. Now, you’ve at least taken that barrier out of it. So that’s where some of that success comes in. We want our instructors to teach. We don’t want them to troubleshoot a projector.
Justin: If you can standardize on the experience and standardize on the way you set expectations, the communication channels will greatly improve.
The students are the true customers
Marc: To add on to that, Jamie, while we want instructors to teach, we want students to learn, right? And so we can’t create barriers, we can’t do academic harm with what we’re providing. We want to make sure that we are serving the students. They’re the true customers and clients of our universities. And so anything we do that slows down that process is not in our best interest.
Ben: Gentlemen, that’s a great place to land the plane. Before we wrap up though, I want to give you a chance to speak directly and give a piece of advice to either universities that don’t quite have the teams that are as supportive as you guys or to that person who’s relatively new in the role – who doesn’t yet feel empowered. What would that one piece of advice be?
Jamie: That’s a loaded question.
Chris: Uh, pin two is hot.
Justin: The main thing is to figure out what the end goal is first. What is it that you’re setting out to do? And then kind of backtrack from there. Everybody’s got their own process, and I’m sure people disagree with me, but that’s how I think. Think about what the end result is, and then pave the road to get there. That’s step one.
Jamie: Whether you’ve been in the role for a year or 10 years, work with your faculty support, work with student groups, go meet with them, meet with the administration, and set that baseline. Right now, set it. You might have to go back to all the things that have happened over the last 40 years – but at least set the baseline now. And say that from this day forward, our decisions will be based around enabling proper teaching and learning. Whatever that means for your location – whether you’re IT, the network guy that just got hammered with AV, or you’re the desktop support person that got hammered with AV, or you don’t even have AV and you’re just the guy that has to call the integrator when it breaks. Work with all of those people and create that baseline.
Support is crucial to the design process
Marc: I would say focus on things you have control over. A lot of our organizations have us because we’re here to support – make that very intentional in your deliverable. It must work within my support culture. Know your team. Know what they can and cannot do. Understand what you’re taking delivery of and whether your people can support it. Because at the end of the day, you don’t want to take delivery of something that your team cannot support. You want to reduce downtime by making support a crucial part of your design process.
Chris: One thing I would add, especially when speaking of the people who are new to the role or don’t have the support structure with support staff – my advice would be: you’re not alone. There are a lot of resources out there. Heck, start with AV SuperFriends.com. We’ll get you started. There are all these sorts of organizations out there. Start building that network. There’s a lot of people who have the same questions. I was commenting to someone the other day that I saw people on a listserv making the exact same mistake that I made 10 years ago. I’m like, this is going to bite them. But sometimes they have to do it to learn that lesson. But I’m happy to share my experiences. This is not to say that we now have all the answers and we know exactly what we’re doing. You know, I’m going to go screw up something tomorrow. It’s going to happen. But we’ll learn from that and build upon it. But there is a large community – a very active and vocal higher ed college and university-specific group of IT and AV technologists and eLearning experts. There’s a lot of resources out there. So definitely start looking around. We can certainly help you get started, but there’s a lot of places you can go for help and advice on things.
Jamie: What’s nice about our community is that we’re not selling things and we’re not competing with each other. So there is zero reason that we don’t share.
Chris: Yeah. We share a lot of info. Sometimes too much.
Marc: Yeah, too much information. The market industry is acknowledging that our vertical is real.
Marc: And I think there’s a voice. We’re here for you. Everybody is.
Ben: Look, Marc, Chris, Jamie and Justin, and definitely not Larry – we’re gonna have to find a way to get him back on another show one of these days.
Jamie: Poor guy’s actually doing his support role and we’re going to hammer him for it.
Ben: Exactly. One hundred percent. We just make podcasts. But look, I’m very appreciative of the time that you guys gave today. We kind of teased about it at the end, but the education and technology markets are very serious, very intentional. And now we’re seeing entire departments, entire organizations, dedicated to the success of education technology, rollouts. I can’t think of a better organization right now than AV SuperFriends, doing the work that you guys are doing to help out the community, help out newcomers. And I appreciate you guys coming on the show today.
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Posted on Feb 22, 2023 6:00:00 AM