Sep 06 2023

How One University Resolved Audio Issues in Its Classrooms

Middle Tennessee State University installed 250 ceiling microphones to simplify recording and streaming courses throughout campus.

The story James Copeland tells is a familiar one among college technology professionals.

He arrived at Middle Tennessee State University, a public university outside of Nashville with an enrollment of more than 20,000, six years ago and found a campus in need of a refresh. About 70 percent of the campus was still analog, he estimates, and fewer than 20 classrooms had any type of audio or video recording capabilities. There were “at least 100 different room types” that he would need to retrofit for modern learning, but when he created a plan to put much-needed technology upgrades in place, his budget was cut. Then it was cut again.

Copeland, now the university’s director of classroom technology, says that his team put a single battery-powered lavalier microphone, a pan-tilt-zoom camera and basic recording equipment in every classroom on campus. That solution was not a long-term fix, however, and users encountered problems — sometimes at a very basic level.

“I had over 100 different tickets from people not understanding that you had to wear a microphone or have a microphone to be heard in the recording,” he says.

When instructors did remember to use microphones, the batteries often weren’t charged. When the mics were charged, teachers would sometimes wear them back to their offices. The microphones wouldn’t pair with the cameras or the collaboration software.

“There were a lot of things that added up to really slow us down,” Copeland says.

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An Elegant Solution for Recording and Streaming College Courses

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Copeland believed there was value in recording courses for posterity. He’d experienced it himself.

“I was a student myself,” he says. “When I was taking courses, I was fortunate enough to be in some of those rooms that had recordings, and after class I’d go back and watch. It enhanced my learning experience, and so I wanted to provide the same thing here at MTSU.”

When he went looking for an upgrade from the sometimes uncharged, sometimes missing lavalier mics instructors were using, Copeland conferred with colleagues at other universities and explored the newly expanded classroom audio market.

That led to this year’s installation of 250 Sennheiser TeamConnect Ceiling 2 microphones, square mics that attach to classroom ceilings. Along with picking up clear audio from everyone in the room, they offer a host of additional features that take human error almost completely out of the equation.

The microphones, equipped with Sennheiser’s Control Cockpit firmware and integrated with the university’s collaboration software (Zoom), lecture capture platform (Panopto) and learning management system (D2L), now automatically turn on and off based on the class schedule, then share the recording via the LMS.

“I was very adamant about making a lot of automation happen,” Copeland says. “Faculty don’t have to do anything. It just works.”

A classroom at Middle Tennessee State University

This classroom at Middle Tennessee State University is outfitted with a ceiling-mounted microphone to capture audio from instructors and students. Photo provided by James Copeland. 

Sennheiser Ceiling Microphones Provide an Audio Solution at MTSU

More than 200 classrooms now have at least one TeamConnect Ceiling 2 microphone installed. Larger classrooms have two mics, and auditorium-style lecture spaces have three.

The installation was simple, Copeland says, with basic cabling connecting the microphones to a digital signal processor that connects to a computer USB port, making the mics appear as an audio capture option in Zoom. They also fit neatly into the ceilings of MTSU’s classrooms.

Copeland adds that the Sennheiser Control Cockpit firmware lets instructors mute their microphones and recognizes “priority zones” to amplify sound in certain areas. Copeland sets these zones at the front of classrooms, where professors are typically speaking.

“We’ve had a handful of situations where we have a classroom right next to a mechanical room where there’s a large air conditioner unit or something and Sennheiser’s mics have worked out very well in those situations too,” Copeland says. “Five years ago, if I wanted to put a ceiling mic in, I would have been really nervous about how much noise it would be picking up, but it’s done really well in all situations.”

An added benefit of the ceiling-mounted microphones, Copeland says, is that they are practically invisible to students and instructors. There are no more checklists of things to remember so that audio is adequately recorded; class flows naturally, and the result is a better online learning experience.

“There are a lot of students who are nervous to speak into a mic, or I’ll have presenters who keep dropping, dropping, dropping the mic lower,” Copeland says. “I don’t have to worry about that. The ceiling mic automatically adjusts for anybody’s volume level, and the audio comes out nice and consistent and clear.”

There are still more classrooms to be outfitted with the ceiling microphones, Copeland says, including in new buildings still under construction. However, there is no debate on campus about the efficacy of the mics or their importance: Copeland says that the administration fully supports these and other tools that power remote learning.

“I’ve had conversations with my superiors about how maybe we could have rooms that are for recording and some that are not to cut costs, but everybody’s full steam ahead that 100 percent of classrooms should have recording capabilities,” he says. “So, that’s what we’re sticking with.”

Courtesy James Copeland

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