Given today's constantly evolving technologies-and our seemingly insatiable appetite for immediate information access-planning and designing a new technology-oriented facility can be a daunting task. The digital world has expanded into virtually every aspect of teaching and learning, and it now plays a key role in accelerating economic development.
The cost of this evolution goes far beyond mere dollars, impacting changes in administrative hierarchy, lesson plans, teaching personnel, and more-and leaving behind those who refuse to adapt to the constant change. FLA/Florida Architect's experience in recently completing the Kight Center for Emerging Technologies at Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, Fla., shows that planning for and incorporating audiovisual equipment within the teaching and learning environment is just as important as making purchasing decisions.
Conducting good, thorough research is the best beginning, but the learning process certainly will not end until sometime after a new facility is occupied.
For the IRCC project, our firm prepared a white paper in the beginning planning stages that focused on what other institutions had on the drawing boards or had just recently completed, and what technologies would enter the marketplace about the time the facility would be completed. Since we projected a three-year process to design, build, and occupy this facility, we did not want it to be outdated by the time the doors opened.
The research process included a list of potential sites to visit so that our designers and IRCC administrators could see firsthand what others were doing and to engage in constructive dialogues regarding everything from teaching and learning concepts to engineering jargon. Those facilities we chose to visit were very accommodating and candid regarding what to do, what to avoid, and why.
The following are some key elements to consider regarding the audiovisual component of any facility:
Connectivity. Enormous amounts of information are available and utilized in today's classroom. Incorporating the right types of connections from the outside world to the desktop is the first consideration. We recommend including simultaneous real-time interactive video components to accentuate involvement. This element serves to engage the participant and reduces separations from around the globe. For example, students studying the habits of polar bears could interact with scientists at the North Pole who are documenting these creatures and view real-time video of what they are experiencing.
Capacity. The digital storage and retrieval system must be able to properly manage the amounts and types of information and media being planned. Several storage solutions are available to house, maintain, and catalog tremendous amounts of digital media in compact and affordable equipment. The trick is to match this capacity with the selected conveyance and display systems so that multiple sources and types of media can be accessed simultaneously.
Conveyance. Infrastructure might be the most controversial topic when considering audiovisual systems. The days of Category 5 cable are long gone. Newer conveyance media is available and improved, but be careful, as not all new media have been perfected. The safest choice, we believe, is still fiber to the desktop. Although wireless is undergoing almost daily improvement, it still does not have the capability of providing seamless, nonjagged, high-resolution, real-time video transmissions. Many institutions today include both fiber and wireless systems, but for different uses.
Just remember this: Once all the walls are up, it becomes difficult and costly to change the conveyance system. Plan to incorporate access floors in computer rooms and accessible cable trays to the desktop to help offset the cost of evolving technologies.
Display and Environment. Display devices have come a long way in the past five years. The older, three-gun front projectors can be found on the curb of many college and university campuses and have given way to more advanced technologies. Although newer, advanced front- and rear-projection systems are still widely utilized, the day is near when better quality visual equipment such as single-LED displays will be available in the image size necessary for large audiences.
Selecting the right type of display has become more of a science in that the equipment must be matched with the display environment. Even simple front- and rear-projection screens now have different finish surfaces that are matched with the specific capability of a projector and take into account the maximum viewing angles, lumens, ambient lighting, etc. The challenges of sound systems, lighting, acoustics, and other architectural elements, of course, remain very important when designing the audiovisual environment.
Ease of Operations. There is nothing worse for an administrator than spending a lot of time and money incorporating wonderful technology in a facility only to have it go unused. This frequently happens when designers do not consider integrated control systems that are easy to operate. It's an issue that parallels the rise and fall of home VHS recorders; nobody could figure out how to program the equipment, let alone find the correct remote when they had so many to choose from!
Today's controls make it simple for any visitor to walk into a facility and start using the equipment. They are available in combined, fixed, and remote configurations, but more importantly, feature programmable visual displays with touch-screen capability. It sounds complicated, but in fact they easily walk a user through a setup sequence that will match the environment with the type of media the user wishes to use.
These low-voltage integrated systems automatically activate the selected audiovisual equipment combinations, change the room lighting to preset configurations and illumination levels, modify the room air conditioning, and close the window coverings; they can even activate other equipment (such as a coffee maker) if programmed to do so. Having a custom integrated control system is worth the initial investment, especially now that so many lighting and HVAC controls can be digitally interfaced.
One of the most frustrating circumstances that administrators and designers will encounter when planning a new technology-oriented facility is the resistance factor on the part of the Informational Technology staff to commit to specific equipment and systems during the planning process.
This consistently re-occurring phenomenon happens with good reason. IT staffers know it will take up to several years to actually occupy a new facility and that there will be many new technologies available within that time span.
Your best defense to offset this situation? Get the most current facility for the money by implementing a design process that plans around the early selection of specific technology, but not specific models. With those elements-which can be based on compatibility with facility design-in place ahead of time, the newest equipment can be acquired just prior to occupancy.
Happy planning, and good luck!
Joseph J. Sorci is president of Orlando-based FLA/Florida Architects, which has provided campus master planning, programming, architecture, interior design, and technology integration for higher education environments since 1995. The firm serves clients throughout Florida and the Southeast. Sorci can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.