JMU X-Labs Connects Education and Technology as Integrators Should

If integrators can understand new education concepts, such as those at JMU X-Labs, they know what K-12 and Higher Ed institutions actually need.

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At a time when higher education is trying to keep pace with rapidly changing needs in the industry, it is increasingly important to provide students with skills that go beyond traditional expectations. With its transdisciplinary courses, JMU X-Labs at James Madison University challenges students to investigate all aspects of a problem and collaborate with industry professionals and peers from different majors to solve real problems. AV technology is a large part of facilitating this experience.

“The JMU X-Labs is a place where we wanted to share courses between universities,” says Nick Swayne, Executive Director of 4-VA, the government organization that created JMU X-Labs.

“As we started growing it we found out there were a lot more opportunities. Now we bring in trans-disciplinary courses focused on a problem, then bring in faculty, outside experts, and stakeholders into the space (virtually or in person) to work on these complex, compelling problems that students latch on to and take to places we don’t expect.”

How It Works

At JMU X-Labs, courses are shared across departments and in collaboration with experts in various fields across the country. Students use collaboration technology to work together in the room, connecting to projection systems from laptops and mobile devices.

They use conferencing technology to get face time with mentors and instructors around the country. 3D printers, VR headsets, drones, robotics, and more are regularly utilized in the space.

The program has won two Governor’s Technology Awards for innovative use of technology in education. It boasts industry partners such as the US Department of State, the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Air Force, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park Conservation Biology Institute, NATO, AT&T, and more.

In many ways, JMU X-Labs is helping to realize the future of education.

“We find problems for them to solve,” says Swayne. “We come up with a list of six or eight problems that sound interesting to us. We don’t know what the solution is. We don’t know for sure if it will work. We describe the problems to the students, they form multidisciplinary teams, assign them to problems, and turn them loose.”

Environments such as JMU X-Labs are beginning to surface in higher education facilities across the country. It makes sense – students want to learn similarly to how they work, and there is no accounting for practical experience.

JMU X-Labs are Hands-On

Lectures are great, but getting hands-on with work similar to what your career will bring is a huge benefit for students. At JMU X-Labs, for example, students from multiple disciplines work together – one project saw nursing students, engineering students, and communications students working on the same problem.

If the future of education is combined with technology, then it offers a clear opportunity for integrators. More classrooms will begin to incorporate more varied technology in order to accomplish specific goals.

As it stands we expect a projector in classrooms, maybe a document camera as well. There might be some lecture capture equipment – cameras and microphones.

For larger lecture halls, you’ll need speaker systems for the students in the back. That’s about where the innovation ends in a typical classroom.

JMU X-Labs is proof positive that the typical classroom will change. Integrators should change the way they sell products to Higher Ed clients along with it. That starts with educating your own sales force.

In order to understand the technology needed for the future classroom, you first must understand the future of education. In many ways it looks similar to how corporate environments have been evolving.

More collaboration, specifically utilizing technology to collaborate. The opportunity for remote work through online learning and connecting with peers.

Hands-on experience with what the discipline is – especially in STEM courses like engineering.

There’s also the equipment that students will need to work in these environments – equipment that might serve as new revenue streams for integrators. Desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices, of course. 3D printers.

Virtual reality headsets. CAD software connected to collaboration units. All of these avenues offer value adds to implement into an overall AV system, and would be valuable in spaces like JMU X-Labs.

“We spent two years testing different applications – hardware, software, integration of devices, where it might work,” says Swayne.

“We made really profound use of the loaner systems. I lot of vendors will loan you a device for two months so you can test it out. We went through four or five iterations to find something that really worked well and went from there.”

There are two options when selling to a Higher Ed client. You can ask them about their needs, evaluate them, and provide technology based on it.

You can also explain to them how other Higher Ed institutions are evolving, and explain the kind of technology that goes into that evolution.

An integrator that can evaluate a client’s needs and deliver is valuable for an installation.

An Integrator that can provide education to the customer and help explain how the customer can further their education goals is valuable as a partner for years moving forward.

Not all Higher Ed institutions are ahead of the curve. Integrators have a unique opportunity to learn about innovations in the education space and disseminate that information throughout their client base – earning new jobs in the process as organizations are convinced to drive educations forward into the future. It’s a win-win