Aug 212013
 

I recently took delivery of a new piece of technology from the IT department here at DMU. It’s a telephone… or is it?

Last year DMU started the roll-out of Microsoft Lync to all of its staff members; the vision is that staff will make use of the software to video conference with each other, we will make use of Voice Over IP and we can also manage our time and meetings more effectively due to the integration with Outlook.

From a business justification perspective, all of the points above stand up by way of helping us to be more efficient and save costs but it is the other benefit that this project has ‘accidentally’ delivered that I want to talk about here.

The Centre for Enhancing Learning through Technology (CELT) works independently from the IT support department as part of the Library and Learning Services Directorate at DMU. However projects that the IT team delivers will often have a knock-on effect on CELT’s work and can sometimes deliver unexpected teaching, learning and assessment related benefits.

In order to take full advantage of MS Lync, the IT team has equipped each staff member with a new telephone – I was quite excited to take delivery of mine as my previous device would have been more at home in a museum than on my desk but aside the obvious benefits of clearer sound, being notified when I had missed a call and being able to see when my next meeting is scheduled on the telephone’s screen I also noticed that there are now some new cables on my desk.

The cable I’m really excited about (if I can get excited about a piece of black wire) is the USB cable that now plugs into my PC and the new ‘phone.

This cable not only facilitates the communication between the MS Lync desktop application and the telephone but my PC also now ‘sees’ the new telephone and its discreet devices as devices that the PC can access, control and interface with.

And here’s the point – by providing each staff member with a new telephone and the USB interface, the IT department has given everyone a good quality microphone and speaker that their computer can see and use.

Over the last couple of years, as one of the Enhancing Learning through Technology Project Officers at DMU, I have worked with a number of staff in areas such as creating screencast based resources, providing audio or audio/visual feedback and using screencast technology to provide resources and feedback using a variety of media for Distance Learners and attending students.

One area that has always been a sticking point is the provision of an appropriate microphone and speaker(s) to enable a teaching team to adopt such practice en masse.

Traditionally, I have always advised staff members to look for a mid-range wireless USB headset with microphone as this can double up as a device to be used in the office for recording audio feedback or if staff wish to record their session then the wireless USB headset can also be worn whilst teaching in order to capture audio as part of a lecture capture solution without having to loan or purchase a separate lapel mic’. However, such headsets can cost around £50 each and this cost can be prohibitive.

I have also come across instances whereby teaching staff will be in possession of a microphone but it will be an older 3.5mm jack plug style microphone. This would be ok when maybe using the Windows sound recorder to produce audio files but when interfacing with software such as Expression for the production of screencast type content, a USB microphone is required as in my experience Expression does not interface with more traditional equipment plugged into a jack plug and other applications struggle to pick up the older style microphones at a decent volume (even with a bit of tweaking of the levels).

So this brings me back to my nice new shiny telephone and the fact that when it was first plugged into my work PC it installed a few drivers, talked to MS Lync and did everything that the IT team expected it to; but now, when I open the ‘recording devices’ menu on my PC I see I have a new USB microphone available to use that Expression can also see (or is that hear) as well as other software such as Panopto and the Windows sound recorder.

The ‘phone actually has two microphones, the one in the handset and the one that is built into the body for use in loud-speaker mode, it doesn’t matter which I use when using the ‘phone to record audio on my PC, both deliver very good quality audio and the PC doesn’t need to switch between the handset and loud-speaker microphone which makes using the telephone as a USB microphone really easy – it’s just the same as plugging a USB microphone into a computer and talking to it.

The provision of these telephones at DMU has opened up a lot of potential for staff wanting to experiment with audio and audio/visual resources and feedback as everyone now has a good quality microphone on their desk that will talk to software that is free to use or other centrally supported software and they also have a speaker through which recorded content can be played for checking prior to uploading to the VLE, a real bonus for a project that was focused solely on providing a more corporate style communication tool for staff.

One member of academic staff at DMU is ahead of the game in this respect as his location was equipped early in the MS Lync project. Cormac Norton, School of Nursing, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences has already adopted the use of his new telephone as a USB microphone to add voice to PowerPoint slides – a case study that looks at Cormac’s technique in detail can be accessed on the CELT Hub here.

This experience also highlights the need for people such as myself, who support the use of technology from a teaching, learning and assessment perspective to be aware of the technology that is centrally provided and how technology that might not have been designed or implemented with teaching, learning and assessment in mind can be exploited in order to make a difference.

I’m sure if we all looked hard enough we’d be able to squeeze just a bit more out of the kit that we are supplied to work with every day.


Ian Pettit.