Meeting the University challenges at Brookes
Education providers need to deliver top-class teaching in modern facilities if they are to attract fee-paying students. Steve Montgomery reports on the refurbishment of the Clerici building on the Oxford Brookes site.
Founded as the Oxford School of Art in a single room in the centre of the city over 150 years ago, Oxford Brookes University, as it is now known, has merged with other learning institutions and grown extensively over the years. It has progressed from scattered rooms across Oxford to one, larger college in Headington, recognised today as one of the UK’s leading modern universities; with around 18,000 students, 2,800 staff and an excellent reputation built on strong links to local industrial and commercial organisations.
The university delivers the highest level of education, resulting in an employment level of students completing their courses at a respectable 95 per cent. The university embarked on a £220 million, 10-year investment plan in 2015 in order to maintain the quality of its teaching and research facilities.
£22 million of that investment budget was committed to an extensive redevelopment of the Clerici building which had been partially empty after the library moved to the John Henry Brookes building over five years ago whilst the remaining space was used for staff offices.
Teaching facilities and digital signage
The redevelopment plan included the creation of 68 teaching and meeting rooms and rebuilding of the main hall; the Sir Kenneth Wheare Hall for use in teaching and to host some of the most significant events in the university calendar, including the annual graduation ceremonies.
The AV team had already developed teaching rooms for other buildings across campus and had a good idea of what they required: “We wanted the new teaching spaces to align with those in other university teaching spaces to provide consistency to users and simplify their operation,” explained Olly Pickett, AV manager. “Three types of system configuration were defined to meet the different sized teaching spaces in Clerici. In addition, we needed to furnish the main hall so that it can serve multiple uses.”
The university already had a site-wide, centrally managed digital signage system from Onelan that provides information on student activities and special messaging around the university. This was to be extended into the new building with the addition of 13 new displays.
Specification and tender process
The AV team developed a requirement specification based on their standard room designs and generated an outline list of preferred components. Like many other institutions, the university has a focus on collaborative learning and BYOD philosophy. Pickett: “Students are expected to use their own personal devices to prepare work prior to presentation in the central screen in each room. Provision for quick and secure connection into the university AV setups is very important. The ability to enter into video communication with external parties is also a key requirement.”
In common with other large-scale projects, the specification was put out to tender to preferred suppliers. The responses were then reviewed on price-performance expectations and the ability for bidders to comply with the original list of requirements and offer further design ideas.
Shortlisted integrators were then invited to offer their solutions and make proposals to improve and enhance the solutions they offered. Andy Read, sales and marketing director of winning bidder Reflex, reflects on the process: “We responded to the outline specification and provided picture schematics to help the AV team at Oxford Brookes visualise our proposals. The main hall was where we could really apply our creative skill. The university had deeply considered how it wanted to use the space in the future and the type of events that would be held there. The architects devised a way of splitting it into two rooms with a partition that folds up into the ceiling with moveable raked seating that fits flat against a wall when not in use. We created an AV solution that was equally as flexible; to support the wide range of events envisaged and to be sufficiently flexible to adapt to any new role in the future.”
Scope of technology
The digital signage system was extended by the additional display screens that are connected to the pre-existing Onelan content management system (CMS). Fresh content is regularly created and uploaded by the central communication team and proves to be popular and useful to staff, students and visitors. Facilities managers within the Clerici building can access specific zones to provide pertinent local information. “It is an effective solution that is managed as a single channel,” says Pickett. “This enables the screens to show mixed content from central comms and local content managers in an attractive layout.”
To make the most efficient use of space in the meeting rooms, control and BYOD interface equipment is located in Teammate Wallzone wall mounted lecterns. An Extron MLC 100 Plus control panel provides intuitive switching of sources on to the large format display screen.
The focus in the teaching rooms was on collaborative learning, based around 70in CTouch interactive displays. “This enabled us to minimise costs as the display itself is used to switch inputs, removing the need for a traditional external switcher,” explained Pickett. “The minimal form factor of the TeamMate hub lectern we use helps us to maximise room capacity. It has interior space for a local PC, Lumens PC193 document camera and facilities for BYOD and provides a neat and efficient solution that is easy to use by both lecturers and students alike.”
To achieve the required flexibility and dual-room layout in the Sir Kenneth Wheare Hall, the AV system was split into two separate systems, one for each individual area, with the ability to be combined into one system whenever the hall is opened into a single space, such as for the prestigious degree award ceremonies.
Two lecterns have been installed in the separate halves of the hall. Local switching in each lectern is provided by an Extron DXP 84. Each lectern has a Sharp interactive touch screen, Extron Pro 720 control panel, and Kramer Via Connect for BYOD device connection. The theatre was also wired with floor boxes and wall plates so that film crews can bring in equipment for broadcasting graduation day and other events without trailing cables.
All source inputs, including camera feeds for lecture capture are also fed into an Extron XTP CrossPoint 1600 in the control room. The selected outputs are then fed to a 20,000 lumen Epson EB-L1750U laser projector in one space and dual Epson EB-G7400U projectors with motorised screens in the other. In addition, each area has four radio mics, dual lectern mics and a number of floor boxes. These are processed by an Extron DMP 128 AT DSP and Yamaha TF1 Digital Mixer. An Ampetronic Low Spill induction loop was also installed.
Lectures are regularly captured and made available to students for later review. The hall has a fixed lecture capture PTZ camera, combined with Sonic Foundry MediaSite system. Lectures can then be shared using Moddle or streamed live via the internet.
Engineers in the control room overlooking the hall control the setup and operation of the whole system using an Extron Pro 720 touch panel and Yamaha TF1 Digital Mixer. This is pre-configured with typical and commonly-used system configuration setups to make it a quick and easy task to change the operation of the audio visual equipment to match the space’s AV requirement.
The Social Learning lecture theatre uses a double-width Teammate Educator lectern, with a Sharp interactive touch screen. Again, an Extron Pro 720 control panel provides operator control and Kramer Via connects students’ BYOD devices wirelessly. Switching and audio distribution are dealt with using an Extron DXP 84 Matrix Switcher and Extron DMP 128 DSP. The room also has a PTZ camera for lecture capture.
Centralised AV user support
One of the most beneficial advantages of equipment standardisation is in providing user support. “The use of the same technology throughout campus enables us to centrally support and manage everything. We use Extron equipment for control and switching, the AV team is Extron Pro trained so can easily make changes as and when required and manage everything through the Global Viewer software,” says Pickett. “We use this along with our Service Management toolset, Service-Now. An incident record is created when a data projector or filter reaches 10 per cent life, so we can provide maintenance and replacement when the space isn’t in use. We also watch for devices that go offline, an incident record is created and our Service Desk team can then investigate and fix. Global viewer gives the Service Desk the ability to remotely support teaching rooms, increasing our ability to solve incidents at point of contact.”
Smooth installation process
The contractor for the building interior fit-out, McLaughlin and Harvey, worked in close harmony with Reflex during the refurbishment programme. “The building work ran six months late which required flexible working by Reflex and at times was rather stressful. The Reflex team was outstanding throughout the process and ensured its equipment was installed and commissioned in a timely manner, often in quite difficult circumstances,” said Pickett.
“Other than minor equipment changes as new models were released by manufacturers, there were minimal changes throughout the project from an AV point of view, which indicates that the original specification and design work was sufficiently detailed and thorough to meet the original objectives.”
An outstanding success
The primary objective of the refurbishment was to expand the number of teaching spaces, in line with the campus development strategy. The additional teaching rooms and addition of larger lecture theatres, enables more dynamic timetabling. Of particular note is the Sir Kenneth Wheare Hall which is a showcase for the university and regularly used for a mixed variety of large prestigious university events.
The transformed spaces on Oxford Brookes’ Campus have been recognised by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), receiving a Highly Commended award in the Design through Innovation category of the RICS Awards 2018. The accolade honours the use of outstanding innovation in designing a successful project. The judging panel found that the redevelopment: “demonstrates clear evidence of creativity and innovative design.”
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