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Audio Visual Systems in Colleges and Universities

Factors That Contribute to High Satisfaction and Solid Return on Investment
University Business, Mar 2008

Universities and colleges of all sizes are continually investing in audio/visual technology as a means of delivering information to students more cost effectively and by means that instill greater interest and retention. An unfortunate reality, however, is that many schools make AV system purchase decisions only to discover they have paid too much, the selected systems prove more costly to implement than planned, and these systems fail to meet the needs of faculty, students, administration and other users. Such problems can be avoided if decision-makers approach the situation more systematically, following a few recommendations that have proven successful in numerous AV implementations in the university setting. These recommendations are outlined below.

The first caveat is to establish and work from a comprehensive plan. Too often this step is overlooked. As a result, requests for proposals (RFPs) get issued, equipment evaluations begin, and time and money are spent on solutions that all-too-soon prove unworkable. In our experience, we have found the best approach is to go through a discovery phase and develop a scope of work well before an RFP is ever written. In these two steps, the school will come to understand the full range of needs of all potential AV system users and will reach a consensus on the specific goals for the system as well as what all the deliverables are going to be. The process will encourage buy-in since it will solicit individual users' needs and interests, and will take into account how these users see their needs changing over time. Plus, it will facilitate optimal capital decision-making because it will anticipate changes in available technology as well. This final point speaks volumes about the importance of involving, early on, an AV contractor with proven technology credentials and experience in designing and deploying complex systems in the university setting.

A key factor the plan must address is usability. Stated differently, a plan is likely to fail if it does not acknowledge and accommodate usage by everyone from professors to students, administrators, school staff, and guests, whether they be visiting faculty, invited speakers or lecturers, even dignitaries.

Today, and more so going forward, it's a given that a school's AV system will have to offer almost unlimited device-type connectivity. On one hand, that means supporting everything from fixed and portable projectors; to laptops, notebooks, tablets and all manner of portable media storage devices; to media players and game consoles; to portable, networked wireless and satellite television and audio/video conferencing feeds. On the other, it means integrating with a school's information technology infrastructure, and accommodating any new systems deployed in the data center and added to the campus-wide network at any point in time. Here, we're talking about hardware, software and applications based on Windows, Apple and Unix--products and platforms we know of today. Clearly, however, there are innovations headed toward wide market acceptance soon, an eventuality that Clearly, however, there are innovations headed toward wide market acceptance soon, an eventuality that demands in an AV system design, maximum flexibility and adaptability.

With these requirements in mind, one of the most crucial elements of an AV solution is the control system. Taking into account all that is controllable today (which makes for both a better teaching and learning experience) - from projectors to lighting to content sources; plus the ability to control in one room or many, simultaneously - schools are wise to ensure their desired (or specified) control system is truly up to snuff.

Indicators of a top notch system include the following. Input/output capability should be broad-based. Assuming an AV integrator is involved, the rep and/or technician will make a point of this in the specification or proposal process. So at the very least, you should expect to see terminology (such as Computer VGA/HD 15, digital document cameras, Composite video and or Component video inputs) for a system that will be used in the typical classroom. The technology exists today to control many rooms, with different uses, in multiple buildings on campus, all from a single controller. If such a solution is proposed for your school, then the spectrum of I/O capabilities must include routing for sending multiple signals to different projection screens, or inputting computer sources to all display devices in a configurable space Second, since in all likelihood, many different people will the using the AV system, the controller must offer user interface flexibility. Thus, in the specified solution, your integrator will highlight such attributes as one-touch buttons (like "all off", "shutdown" and or "all on" based user icons) to get the system ready to start or shutdown easily. Also important is how effectively the control system migrates to the most used pages (such as lighting and/or volume), notably, its ability to land on top of all pages so the user isn't required to drill down on numerous pages to get to most used features of the control system.

Lastly, with a well-designed system, any specified controller will be accessible from the school's existing network to allow for monitoring for a variety of purposes. This centralized access acknowledges that on many campuses today, resources for the physical checking of widely dispersed equipment are tightly constrained or perhaps nonexistent. Thus, a network-based approach enables a school's AV or IT staff to see everything a controller is responsible for, to know if and how any device is functioning, what its usage is and what problems it may be experiencing, what software updates it is due for and when (thereby allowing such service to be optimally scheduled), what its consumables usage is (e.g., bulbs), and what its maintenance requirements are (according to its network-resident service contract). A related capability of remote monitoring is usage by type-e.g., understanding who uses a piece of equipment, at what times of day or night, and for what purpose. This is informing with respect to the type of application software most heavily used on a device, and the extent and efficiency to which it utilizes network content or shareware. Without a centralized monitoring capability, it's a given that any AV system will be more costly to maintain and support, for it will be reactive rather than anticipatory, and it will not be sufficiently flexible and responsive enough to changing needs.

Our second overall recommendation is to ensure that the AV system design anticipates future needs. Here, a critical point we make with our university customers is to ensure that the AV system provider has built in not only the system infrastructure that adequately meets current needs, but also will be able to support growth and change that will undoubtedly take place.

One thing is certain and that is that upgrades will need to be made-both to equipment that becomes outdated, as well as to capitalize on new technology that comes on the market. Obvious examples include projectors and content source devices. Also, advances that are available or made to the IT network. But perhaps most important is to plan on changes to the physical plant; such as the re-configuration of existing classrooms or other rooms with AV needs, as well as the addition of new classrooms or entirely new campus structures.

Looking ahead also means having the infrastructure to accommodate new AV system usability features as well as accommodating any special needs. For example, most larger rooms will require ADA accessibility to lecterns and assisted listening devices to accommodate people with hearing difficulties.

Considering the depth and breadth of AV system usage in the college or university setting, it is essential that strategies and plans be in place to address reliability and maintenance considerations. Key among these is system back-up. And this needs to be addressed on several levels. For example, physical backup - or what to do to ensure AV system availability in the event of a situation such as a power or network loss. Further, how to ensure that the system isn't compromised or rendered unusable by the loss or failure of operating system or application system software. The most basic example of this scenario is what type of capabilities are usable when the control system has a bug or fails.

Here, the key question is, does the system have the capability of any manual control of displays and or the audio system? With many analog systems and switchers there are front panel controls that can be configured to override the control system and still provide limited functionality for basic presentation needs.

And no AV system specification is complete without provision for a robust service contract. In any business, for example, service generally means keeping one or a few pieces of equipment running via a fee-based preventive maintenance schedule, or via an on-demand service call. In a college or university setting, the system scale dictates a much more expansive service strategy and plan. For instance, a school may have what it considers tiers of criticality; that is, classes of equipment that are "mission-critical" and therefore need guaranteed service response within a given period of time, and other less-critical equipment that receives service on a non-guaranteed, non-demand basis.

In the tier #1 category might be all AV and lighting equipment in a school's largest lecture halls or in key rooms or facilities serving administration or athletic departments, or AV resources dedicated to campus-wide emergency information dissemination.

Whatever the situation or perceived need, the service plan must be devised to accommodate the various ranges of needs.

Not to be forgotten in any contract is consumable item availability. Even modest-sized schools may have hundreds of devices such as projectors. These devices utilize bulbs or lamps that burn out, usually at the most inopportune times. A good service plan will acknowledge this fact and have built into it, a process for status checking consumables and for ensuring that replacements are always on hand and that users know where to find them.

Most service contracts cover labor. However, we know that manufacturer warranties always lapse, so it may be prudent to look at warranty extensions and or other measures to ensure long term reliability.

No set of recommendations would be complete were it to exclude comments on the importance of credentials of the AV system integrator partner. So at the very least, a school's short list of AV system providers must include firms that have higher education experience, and experience in deployments on campuses of similar size and with similar types of system needs.

An important measure of a firm's capability and suitability is the certifications it and its employees hold. Top notch firms today maintain and keep current, their certifications with standards bodies such as the International Communications Industries Association (ICIA) and the Custom Electronic Design and installation Association (CEDIA). Further, most local jurisdictions are moving towards using licensed contractors to do all work, and limited energy electricians where stringent continuing education, insurance and bonding endorsements are required. Lastly, given the technology convergence we're in the midst of today, IT knowledge is paramount. Today's AV integrator has to understand and have a working "data center" knowledge-- that is, experience with everything interoperable, from hardware and software to communications and networking.

<em>Doug O'Brien is founder and president of Projectus, Inc. The Lake Oswego, Oregon-based company specializes in the design, installation and integration of audio-visual systems for businesses, institutions and government. For information contact Doug O'Brien at, or visit</em&gt;

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