Marcus Saunders, head of digital learning resources, London College of Fashion, UAL

The path to AV often includes random chapters. Before working in Higher Education, Marcus Saunders was a drummer and percussionist, taught music at a primary school, worked at the National Theatre and became a record producer and engineer, recording in some of London’s iconic studios.

Saunders describes himself as an academic technologist, working in Higher Education for 23 years, beginning at an American University in London, now merged with Regents University. Heading the technical team for the School of Media Production, Marcus developed a series of film and post-production facilities at the Marylebone campus and lectured for seven years on an undergraduate course in Film and Audio production. From there, he moved to the University of Oxford’s Computing Service (OUCS), working as a sysadmin in a consultancy group across the 38 colleges, co-developed Oxford’s managed desktop for Macs (Orchard) and was seconded to the Blavatnik School of Government as technical advisor for a new campus building. Currently Saunders works for University of the Arts London, a federation of six prestigious art and design colleges with 18,000 students across 14 campus locations.

What are you current responsibilities?

I have the great honour of leading an amazing team of 36 specialist technicians under the banner of Learning Technology Support. This encompasses AV/IT, Open Access and Content Production. I would describe my daily work as a balance of strategic development, internal consultancy, operational management and technical decision-making. This might sound really dry, but UAL has such an astounding array of creative Art and Design practice that it often requires a sensitive, unusual and complementary response, making it a fascinating and dynamic environment to work in. Our content team has the most fun – it was in San Francisco filming at Industrial Light and Magic a few weeks ago.

How has your role changed over the last few years?

UAL is developing two substantial new campus sites for the London College of Fashion and London College of Communication. I am the client lead for the AV/IT and acoustics design for a new campus building on the Olympic Park, forming a cultural district with our partners LLDC, the V&A, UCL, Loughborough Uni and Saddlers Wells. My focus has shifted towards future learning environment design, tracking emergent infrastructure, systems and technologies that we may co-opt for our new buildings. I have been travelling to exemplar sites all over the place to learn from recent AV / IT commissions and have generally been having a ball trying to figure out what we should be thinking about and considering. Placing UAL students and staff at the heart of the design process is crucial if we are to provide a compelling user experience for the huge number of new learning spaces we are planning. The AV industry is at a really interesting moment in its history with a palpable shift towards fully converged, whole building AV infrastructure. The role of AV people and the skillset needed to work within these future environments is rapidly evolving.

What are the most memorable AV challenges faced/solved?

The incredible four years as technical advisor to the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, working as the client lead on the AV design for an architecturally striking new campus by Herzog & de Meuron (architects of the Tate Modern). Developing a clean and simple approach to the integration of flexible AV across BSG’s learning spaces was probably my largest AV challenge to date, certainly the most rewarding. I am very proud of the end result and was thrilled for everyone involved that the project won the 2016 AV Award for Education Project of the Year.

Current challenges

Universities in general can be a little bit passive in their relationship with the AV industry. Oddly, HE institutes continue to commission room by room, with self-contained systems instead of applying enterprise scale architecture and thinking. Perhaps we need to be stronger at owning the room product and user experience design? There is a clear skills deficit in multidisciplinary AV/IT. AV technicians need to feel totally comfortable working across these longstanding territorial boundaries. HE institutes should perhaps consider increased investment in R&D for technology enhanced learning environments. We could also apply some of the agility of software engineering and development processes to AV design.

What’s the most impressive tech you’ve used and why?

The emergent software defined AV systems are very interesting. At the moment there seems to be a lack of maturity, interoperability and a reluctance to engage in open standards that I find puzzling from an enterprise IT perspective. I guess the most impressive technology to impact AV architecture at scale will ultimately turn out to be the most boring and ubiquitous of devices – the edge switch.

What makes you tick/motivates you?

I have had the massive honour of learning from the quirky, brilliant and creative people in each of the very different chapters of my career; singers, musicians, scientists, artists, students, academics, engineers, researchers, technologist, AV, pro audio and broadcast people all share a singular and sometimes quite bonkers passion for their chosen specialism. The common thread has been creativity – I take huge pleasure in facilitating the exchange of ideas between creative people through the shared language of technology. Personally, I am drawn to surprisingly simple and elegant solutions that push at the fabric of what is possible to achieve, while at the same time masking the technical complexity underneath.

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