Cranfield University’s hybrid learning earns top marks with NewTek and NDI®
Cranfield University educates leaders in technology and management, specializing in postgraduate education. The University is the largest UK provider of master’s-level graduates in engineering. Cranfield also offers a flagship MBA, world-class executive education, and professional development programs. Its campus is located on a fully functioning airfield near Bedford, from where it has built a global reputation in aerospace and engineering. It also has another campus near Swindon, specializing in defence and security.
THE SHIFT TO HYBRID LEARNING
Long before the pandemic, Cranfield was keen to deliver high quality online live lessons to its students – making its expertise in technology and leadership available to its students and customers, wherever they wanted to tune in from. The University’s goal was to reduce the learning miles, time, and cost of accessing its world-leading research and knowledge, and to cater towards both large and small groups of participants.
Initially, Cranfield relied on standard live video streaming products and laptop cameras to deliver its live online lessons. But the video quality was often poor, says Toby Thompson, Studio Director of Cranfield Broadcast and Record.
Another problem was that the academics’ live online output rarely made use of Cranfield’s state-of-the art facilities and labs, which were generally relegated to pictures on PowerPoint slides in most lectures.
The University was keen to bring these facilities to life for online audiences, opening a whole new set of teaching opportunities for academics. As an institution focused on academic excellence in technology and business, it wanted to offer the best online learning environment for its students. Cranfield also wanted to open potential new revenue streams for online students.
A FRESH APPROACH WITH NEXT-GENERATION TECH
So, in 2018, the University opened a purpose facility to enable bespoke and real-time online tutorials. The Grenville Turner Studio, made possible by a generous donation from an alumnus, hosts a green screen studio, a webinar studio, and a hi-tech control gallery to allow academics to deliver teaching programs from the studio and on-campus locations entirely online.
Toby wanted the studio to connect the many separate broadcast sites from across the University’s two separate locations made up of dozens of buildings and laboratories. He realized that an NDI system would be the answer. “NDI technology was the obvious contender due to its cost-effectiveness from multiple campus locations, as well as its ease of use.” adds Toby.
For the studio, Cranfield adopted NewTek’s video production system TriCaster, connected to a range of PTZ and Panasonic cameras, to allow it to produce professional-looking live online broadcasts, far beyond what is expected of video in traditional Zoom or Teams online events. Toby says that Cranfield was initially drawn to NewTek’s studio-in-a-box approach. “We liked the ease of the pick and go, and our productions have grown in confidence ever since.”
Cranfield started out with a TriCaster Mini alongside a TalkShow VS 4000; progressed to a TriCaster 410 and then to a TriCaster 410 Plus.
“Our principal broadcast platform is now a TriCaster 2 Elite, since this is going to give us most of the functionality we need for a while yet,” explains Toby, who says “the University will soon install a second TriCaster 2 Elite and upgrade its eight studio cameras to 4K. When scoping the studio-build we ran with the vision to live-stream the whole campus, and looked around for technology to enable this,” says Toby.
RAISING THE BAR
Online classes are now delivered from locations such as Cranfield’s aerospace laboratories or from its green screen studio equipped with custom lighting. The video lessons look more akin to professional BBC or CNN multicamera newscasts than a traditional Zoom. Soon after it was installed, the University was getting positive feedback about the professional quality of its live online productions - from students, academics, and administrators. “Our customers say our Zoom meetings look like TV!” says Toby. “The problem then became getting enough of it,” he adds.
The University’s marketing team soon spotted the opportunities offered by the studio, which now runs as many promotions and communications events as it does teaching. Toby has since recruited two video production technicians to operate the TriCaster 2 Elite and TriCaster 410 Plus. His team also comprises one senior production manager and an executive producer, all operating out of the Grenville Turner Studio. Training comes via accessible online NewTek University courses.
Toby notes that the number of staff required to manage professional looking content using NewTek technology is much less than traditional mainstream AV productions.
The NewTek technology is neatly integrated with Cranfield’s existing infrastructure, which has a modern university grade network divided into sub-nets over building clusters. NewTek’s Access Manager helped to navigate these sub-nets without any issue.
Looking ahead, NDI Bridge – which securely shares NDI sources between local or remote sites anywhere in the world – will help Cranfield to connect to non-University customers and contributors. We are now able to pull off technically complex events daily: for instance, multi-camera inputs of a live laboratory experiment, mixed with TV-like live screen graphics and professional chromakey
Now that Cranfield has embraced a professional video solution, there is no going back. “Our ongoing NDI experimentation has shown how our students love live video, and how their expectations for this are driven by the mainstream media productions they’ve grown up with,” says Toby.
“Just switching your camera ‘on’ is no longer sufficient: what’s shown must look professional if students are to take your online efforts seriously.” In particular, the professional quality of Cranfield’s video output has helped it to tackle the post-pandemic fatigue around online events, and to retain a loyal digital audience. Above all, there’s a real sense of mission accomplished.
“By embracing the NDI and TriCaster approach we’ve delivered technical innovations in line with Cranfield University’s technology mission; we’ve launched a new professional standard for live-online video production; and we’ve built the foundation of a new revenue stream for live online education at Cranfield,” says Toby.
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