Cranfield University explores innovative new content formats with Zoom

Cranfield University engages its educational community with high-quality Zoom broadcasts showcasing conferences, events, and visual content.

Cranfield University

Founded: 1946

Location: Bedfordshire, England

Industry: Higher education

Challenge: Experimenting with new formats for virtual events and conferences, as well as visually impactful teaching, in line with the university’s innovative spirit.

Solutions: Zoom Meetings

Business benefits: Showcasing Cranfield’s programs and industrial-scale facilities to prospective students; engaging the university’s educational community through conferences, guest speakers, and other virtual events.

Combining a professional streaming-studio output with the Zoom platform we’re all familiar with ushers in a new set of opportunities for universities, where online is here to stay.

Dr. Toby Thompson

Studio Director, Cranfield Broadcast & Record

Cranfield University

Founded: 1946

Location: Bedfordshire, England

Industry: Higher education

Challenge: Experimenting with new formats for virtual events and conferences, as well as visually impactful teaching, in line with the university’s innovative spirit.

Solutions: Zoom Meetings

Business benefits: Showcasing Cranfield’s programs and industrial-scale facilities to prospective students; engaging the university’s educational community through conferences, guest speakers, and other virtual events.

Combining a professional streaming-studio output with the Zoom platform we’re all familiar with ushers in a new set of opportunities for universities, where online is here to stay.

Dr. Toby Thompson

Studio Director, Cranfield Broadcast & Record

Cranfield University is a postgraduate-only institution in Bedford, England, known across the globe for its innovative research, state-of-the-art facilities, and leading science, technology, and management programs. 

Cranfield’s online learning studio, which opened at the start of 2018, is an audio-visual space that allows the university’s staff to create engaging educational, marketing, and conference events for a range of audiences. According to studio director Toby Thompson, Ph.D., it was built as a facility for faculty experts to deliver quality content with a high production level.

After Cranfield moved to emergency remote instruction with Zoom during the pandemic, the next step involved pushing the boundaries of Zoom to new levels of creativity and innovation. Naturally, this intersected with Thompson’s work in the studio, creating opportunities for highly interactive custom virtual experiences.  

New opportunities for universities 

Thompson believes that Cranfield University is currently transitioning between two modes of Zoom usage. “The first is teaching and learning — replicating the classroom experience and building competence in Zoom’s existing features,” he explained. “The second is leveraging how our audiences appreciate and even prefer the use of video, and then adopting a TV-news style format to use the platform for marketing and showcasing events, as well as visually impactful teaching.” The feedback from students and faculty is enthusiastic, said Thompson.

The studio currently hosts virtual events of all types with a crew of three video technicians and an executive producer handling the design and logistics of each live online event. The format of the session can differ depending on the type of event — a host can be in-studio, sitting on a couch and speaking via Zoom with experts in a laboratory on a virtual screen, or several guests can have a discussion in person while cutting between different remote speakers or audience members on a screen. 

“Combining a professional streaming-studio output with the Zoom platform we’re all familiar with ushers in a new set of opportunities for universities, where online is here to stay,” Thompson said.

Any faculty member at Cranfield can use the space to host guest speakers and conduct special lectures. “Our lecturers say we’ve made their event look different — it stands out. They feel proud and happy to be in front of their students in this way,” Thompson said.

“What we do is not just teaching and learning; it’s bringing our university’s industrial-scale facilities live to our audience. The audience can be students, but it can also be corporate clients, researchers in other institutions, or prospective students,” he added.

Here is a snapshot of some events Thompson and his team have helped put together:

Live conferences, including multi-day events

Recently, Cranfield partnered with three business schools across Europe on a Women in Leadership conference that drew more than 600 virtual attendees, using Zoom to bring together speakers from around the world. “The audience was anyone interested in the topic of women in leadership — students, professors, the general public, it was open to anybody,” Thompson said. 

For such a high-profile event, Cranfield wanted the output to look TV-like, whilst making it as accessible as possible, hence the Zoom-studio combo.

Toby Thompson

Studio Director, Cranfield Broadcast & Record

Live online teaching

Cranfield’s new Sustainability MSc course delivers high-quality live online instruction to students using Zoom’s Spotlight feature and Group HD Video, ideal for large-format broadcast events. All controlled by the recommended “digital teaching assistant,” this course sets a new standard for professional-looking live online delivery with switchable video windows, customisable announcements, logos and time codes, and the ability to keep the course’s marketing identity. 

Prospective student events

Cranfield’s marketing and admissions departments host live, interactive sessions over Zoom for prospective students to hear about the university’s programs from lecturers and current students. “We want to put the best of Cranfield out to new students,” Thompson explained.

The crew can also showcase facilities on campus by creating a portable studio. “When you have facilities like we do here at Cranfield — industrial-scale facilities — you want to show them,” Thompson said. “Let’s say we’re going to come live from an industrial welding laboratory to showcase an experiment to some prospects, we’ll take cameras and set them up at the facility.” 

Live community events

Thompson described his most memorable event, for an audience of primary school students. “The event was from our wave tank,” Thompson said. “Students from a local school worked on a project to build boats over a few weeks, and they brought them to float at the wave tank.”

Thompson’s team set up the studio space in the building with the wave tank. “We had a live feed back to the assembly hall in the school, where there were kids watching,” he said. “Some of the kids joined me here on the sofa and we talked about whether or not their boat would sink. Then we showed footage of the boats, and that was all broadcast live to the school. The kids were so excited, even if their boat didn’t float!”

Hosting more polished events with Zoom

“People have developed a bigger appetite for better-looking content, especially during COVID,” Thompson said. “Our vision was not to do the usual speaker view with slides — it was to allow things like scrolling text for important information, to have a conversation with people in person and on the back screen, it was to do things differently.”

He plans to grow the studio’s capabilities and move beyond “replication and competence” with Zoom — focusing instead on the affordances that Zoom provides in terms of improving virtual engagement and enhancing audience experiences. “In terms of marketing and conferences, I see this taking off massively,” he said. “Anyone at the university with a prestigious event they want to run will do it this way.”

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