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AV and IT converge on campus

Managing the union of these two key technology roles
University Business, December 2016
IT Community Unity—At Cal Poly Pomona, AV harmoniously operates under the greater information technology department umbrella—which may well be because the CIO still allows AV to have autonomy. (Photo: Cal Poly Pomona/Tom Zasadzinski)
IT Community Unity—At Cal Poly Pomona, AV harmoniously operates under the greater information technology department umbrella—which may well be because the CIO still allows AV to have autonomy. (Photo: Cal Poly Pomona/Tom Zasadzinski)

AV has been absorbed by the IT department on many college campuses. But is the situation more like a friendly merger or hostile takeover?

The trend started in the mid-2000s, when AV equipment joined the network and control moved to remote software suites. The transition put AV departments in constant communication with the IT teams that manage those networks—making the adoption of AV by IT a natural progression.

When the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis was a single building and AV was simply overhead projectors and projectors on carts, the facilities department handled the technology. But as new buildings were constructed and equipment advanced, AV technicians were hired under the IT department.

Overseeing this merger has been a challenge for Director of Information Services Tony Balsamo, due to the different ways the two groups traditionally manage processes. At his institution, IT tends to have a more thorough understanding of following a set of directions and providing consistent service to end users, while AV is less strict about following standards, Balsamo explains.

“IT has a track record of plan to work and work to plan,” he says. “Servers run, software runs. AV has a track record of custom this, hand-hold this. Everything is special and unique.”

Though navigating the differences between IT and AV operations may be tricky, stakeholders must learn to do so quickly. The AV-IT convergence is here to stay—and brings with it benefits to both groups.

How to make the convergence work

At California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, MediaVision (the AV department) falls under the division of information technology. Still, CIO John McGuthry allows the AV team to run
autonomously.

“There is no reason for me to get involved in the day-to-day,” he says. “My involvement is for their budget, including replacing AV equipment and costs associated with servers, storage, training and infrastructure.”

McGuthry sets budgets for the production of academic and public relations videos, the two types of content the media team produces. But he does not not dictate exactly how funds are spent.

When AV was its own department, its leadership fought for funding directly with the finance office, he says. But now, AV appreciates no longer having to argue over budgets with a group that does not understand how its technology works.

“IT organizations are set up to manage, deploy and then eventually retire and replace equipment,” says McGuthry. “So AV knows that if their cameras last X number of years, IT will be understanding and willing to replace those cameras.”

At Grinnell College in southeast Iowa, the user services group is composed of AV services and technology services teams. These groups report to a user services director, who reports to Chief Information Technology Officer Dave Robinson. Approximately 50 to 70 students work at the help desk as IT and AV support specialists, splitting their time resolving IT and AV issues.

“Of our permanent staff, the AV support have more advanced AV skills but also have basic IT skills for supporting computers in our classrooms,” says Robinson. “And IT staff can troubleshoot basic AV issues, but know when they need to transfer a problem to an AV specialist.”

By having IT and AV under the same umbrella, large-scale projects tend to get completed faster and more efficiently. The two groups can easily coordinate a total-classroom upgrade by refreshing projectors and updating classroom computers at the same time, says Robinson.

With this departmental closeness comes the opportunity for professional growth for both groups.

“Historically, AV tended to be user-focused and willing to make any adjustments,” he says. “On the IT side, we’ve been able to show them an understanding of putting the end user first without going over the top with customized requests.”

Students and faculty benefit

The end users are the ones who profit the most from a fully converged AV and IT organization, Robinson says. When a faculty member calls user services with a serious issue, the team can quickly determine who has the right skills to fix it.

“We can provide a seamless support environment for almost any technology, and offer effective resolution options when it is unclear what might be causing the problem,” he says. “It might, for example, be the network, a projector, computer, cabling, programming or peripherals—or a combination of several of these.”

Media services and telecommunications at Central Washington University were merged under IT when the institution transitioned to VoIP-enabled technology in 2013. While it can be challenging and uncomfortable for staff to share their responsibilities with a larger group, customer service has more people to respond to issues.

“Students are more connected than ever and expect all of their devices to be seamlessly connected across campus,” says Gene Shoda, vice president of operations.

Central Washington students can expect 10 gigabits of bandwidth as they move from building to building. That level was necessary to support the media network, says Shoda. “We are fortunate to have many faculty who believe technology empowers learning.”

Evolving roles of AV technicians

Central Washington still employs a few media and telecommunications specialists, and these employees work closely with network systems engineers. While there will always be a need for high-level AV and IT specialists, senior employees need a working knowledge of both fields, says Shoda.

“A senior network engineer has to know about data and the media that travels over a path and has to understand what the end user is expecting to experience.”

Low-level employees just entering the IT or AV world must also have that basic understanding, says Andrew Page, manager of integrated audio and video engineering for Cornell University Information Technologies. “

For a generalist, having media, comm and AV skill sets, and an IT and tech background, is going to be required, he says. “It’s what we’re looking for today and it’s not so easy to find.”

For example, as the use of Skype grows at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, AV technicians must develop a good eye for the way image and audio quality travel over a network.

“The echo-canceling and room acoustics considerations are totally different for a one-on-one Skype call than for two large groups of people interacting,” says Craig Underwood, director of media serves for Moravian. “There is a need for people with AV-traditional skill sets who also understand how audio and visuals interact and perform over networks.”

Sharing knowledge

AV can learn about scalability, monitoring and reporting at the enterprise level from IT. But IT can reap knowledge from AV technicians’ expertise on video and image quality, says Page.

The standardization of IT equipment has provided a model for AV as classrooms on Cornell’s campus are renovated. “There are gaps with some older systems, but the goal is to keep uniformity for the things end users touch,” says John Pfleiderer, AV designer and project coordinator for integrated audio and video engineering.

And AV can share strategies for working with customers face-to-face, says Greg Bronson, project leader and service owner for integrated audio and video engineering at Cornell. “AV has the experience of being out in the field supporting technology in front of a full classroom.”

A mutual respect of each other’s skills is important for a harmonious AV-IT convergence. At Moravian, AV is considered a critical component of IT. When projectors or Apple TVs go down in classrooms, that is considered a complete loss of a class period—just as a loss in Wi-Fi connectivity would be considered a complete loss of a class period.

Within two to three years, AV will no longer be its own specialty, predicts CIO Scott Hughes.

“There will just be IT and all the assets of IT,” he says. “And AV will be one of the most critical assets.”

Kylie Lacey is associate editor of UB and program coordinator for the annual UBTech conference.

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