Jon Bannan, Director of User Support Services at The College of New Jersey was vital in installing new audio systems at the school.

Feb 22 2024

Integrated Audio Solutions Enable Hybrid Learning in Higher Education

Colleges and universities are investing in microphone systems to deliver better remote instruction.

It’s good now that things have finally settled down, says Jon Bannan, director of user support services at The College of New Jersey.

Looking back to the start of the pandemic, Bannan remembers how the evolving emergency led to “constantly changing” needs for classroom modifications that would allow the institution to keep its doors open.

At first, he says, the solution was simple: His team installed microphones at the front of every room so teachers could speak while socially distanced and students in attendance could still hear them clearly. That worked well for a while, but then TCNJ — like colleges everywhere — abandoned its classrooms and sent students home.

“At that point, we wanted to make sure that everyone could hear each other on the remote end,” Bannan says. “And we also wanted faculty to be able to walk around” and not be limited to the space near the microphone.

Fast forward to today, and audio technologies are still important to the educational experience at TCNJ. The difference now is they’re being used for hybrid learning, and once in place, they’re there to stay.

“We landed on several solutions that give us everything we need,” Bannan says.

The technologies, he explains, are all from ClearOne. Relatively small and medium-sized classrooms were equipped with the company’s Collaborate Versa Lite CT systems, while larger spaces were upgraded with BMA 360 ceiling microphones and Converge Pro 2 DSP mixers.

Click the banner below to learn more about the technology powering today’s college classrooms.

The Versa Lite system uses ClearOne’s BMA CT beamforming microphones, technology that integrates easily into typical drop-ceiling tiles. The microphones optimize audio pickup by switching automatically between directional sound beams as the person who is talking moves around the room. It works in conjunction with auto-tracking cameras, and the entire system connects through a USB hub to in-room laptops and PCs.

The ceiling mics-and-mixer strategy used for lecture halls and other large rooms also incorporates tracking cameras to make video part of the hybrid learning experience. It connects seamlessly with up to a dozen lapel or lavalier microphones to enable panel discussions and multispeaker presentations.

“What this has done is allow faculty to be more flexible in their teaching modes,” Bannan says. “Now, they can bring a participant in remotely very easily, whereas pre-pandemic, if you didn’t use a specific room, that would have been impossible.”

Today, he notes, approximately 70 classrooms have all the tech required for hybrid learning. His team’s plan is to complete ClearOne deployments in 15 more rooms over the coming months and, from there, to continue upgrading campus spaces as the technology budget allows.

TCNJ will need those additional installations, he says, because it’s increasing its blended learning offerings, which mix online and face-to-face instruction. Students enrolled in such courses use Zoom to join class remotely, and the ClearOne technology allows them to interact with the instructor and their onsite classmates.

“It’s almost like they’re there in the room,” Bannan says. “They can see and hear everything like anyone else.”

Integrated Audio Solutions Can Be Customized for Any Space

With hybrid learning here to stay in higher ed, many colleges are seeking to bridge the gap between students’ remote and on-campus experiences.

One recent survey from Tyton Partners found that 69 percent of students prefer online or hybrid learning over full-time, face-to-face instruction.

“Hybrid is definitely growing and evolving,” says Richard Garrett, chief research officer with Eduventures, a division of the research and advisory firm Encoura. “The challenge at the moment is, there’s no real agreement around how to do it.”

For some institutions, at least, the answer is similar to the approach Bannan and his colleagues are taking at TCNJ. Schools are turning to integrated audio solutions they can customize to fit each room’s unique needs.

“For us, the pandemic really pushed things forward and set us up for where we are today,” says Brian Hermann, tech support specialist supervisor at Mesa Community College in Arizona. Like MCC’s counterpart in New Jersey, its technology services team used ClearOne systems to boost campus audio capabilities.


Percentage of higher ed IT leaders who say their institutions are adding online and hybrid learning programs to meet student demand

Source: Eduventures Research, “CHLOE 8: Student Demand Moves Higher Ed Toward a Multi-Modal Future,” August 2023

For most of the college’s classrooms, the IT team went with the ClearOne’s Huddle DSP mixer. The solution works with third-party peripheral devices, reducing the need for major changes in rooms previously outfitted with other audio devices. It’s also easy to install, Hermann says, and it works well with videoconferencing tools such as Cisco Webex and Google Meet.

“It’s like a kit or a package,” he says. “With our existing equipment, we have lines in and lines out, so we were able to just wire it up and connect it to what we already had.”

The system includes audio processing technology for echo and noise cancellation, and it comes with a single ceiling microphone that’s designed to work in smaller spaces.

“The sound is really natural and clear,” Hermann says. “And the best part is, it gives you the ability to speak from pretty much anywhere in the room.”

Audio Technologies Help Institutions Prepare for the Future

The University of New Hampshire’s Marshall White, director of learning space technologies, is also impressed by what he’s seen in the latest crop of higher ed audio offerings.

Like MCC and TCNJ, hybrid learning has been part of the student experience at UNH since the early days of the pandemic. Online courses “aren’t the university’s bread and butter,” White says, but they can be good for certain students in certain situations.

“Usually, hybrid learning comes into play if a student has an accessibility issue or if someone is injured or sick and it’s easier for them to participate from their residence hall or their home,” he says. When that’s the case, faculty rely on technology installed in university classrooms during the summer of 2020.

Led by the technical services team, that deployment encompassed nearly 200 classrooms across six UNH campuses. Rooms were equipped with ceiling array microphones and audioconferencing processors from Shure.

To deal with acoustic and reflectivity challenges, the team used Shure Designer, a free software program, to customize product placements for each space. Today, to use the technology in class, instructors connect their computers via USB and launch the collaboration platform of their choice.

A year or so ago, it was still an open question whether UNH would need hybrid capabilities moving forward. “Well, now we know that we will,” White says. “We’ve seen how well it can work when everything’s up and running. Hybrid learning isn’t going away.”

Photography by Colin Lenton

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT