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Whether it's getting a projector to work or teaching faculty how to use the latest gizmo, the AV tech squad is on the job. Handling problems on the fly is their specialty.
University Business, Jun 2006

Picture this: A fully loaded smart classroom featuring projectors, PDAs, and every type of technology in between. At the helm is a new professor, fiddling with controls and pressing every button on every gizmo, desperately trying to get the PC to "talk" to the whiteboard. Some students fidget, others go online to surf the web or IM friends.

After several minutes of guesswork on the professor's part, the multimedia equipment is up and running. The video clip is playing, the annotated lecture notes are in full view on a screen. Still, the students drift. It's hard to win back the crowd once their thoughts have hyperlinked to topics outside the classroom.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Multimedia pros-call them AV tech squads or the campus geeks, if you will-are taking on the assignment of teaching instructors about multimedia.

They are also on hand to soothe frayed nerves and troubleshoot. Having trouble turning on the projector? Getting the amplifiers to work? Call the AV tech squad. Handling problems on the fly is their specialty.

These AV support teams are sometimes housed in the IT department under the charge of academic computing. On other campuses they're part of a TV or multimedia department and are overseen by the library staff. Many of these service teams have been newly formed to help instructors and students realize the full potential of the new multimedia technology on campus.


Bill Anderson, CIO at Saint Michael's College (Vt.), helped form an AV team in January 2003 after an IT departmental reorganization.

"One of the mandates was to do a better job of support," he says. At the same time, Anderson was tapped to help develop a multiyear classroom renovation plan with the end goal of installing new technology on a systematic basis. The college, which enrolls 1,900 students, currently has 50 percent of its 90 classrooms outfitted with at least overhead projectors, PCs, DVD/VCRs, visualizers, and an AV control panel built into a podium. A subset of classrooms also has interactive whiteboards.

The final plan: A three-year, $3.5 million project that called for upgrading as many classrooms as possible, explains Anderson.

It was important that the AV upgrades coincide with improved support; otherwise the changes would frustrate teachers and staff rather then help them do their jobs better.

The college's helpdesk, previously located in the library, was brought under IT, which is now providing AV support as well. As Anderson puts it, "Threads got merged together into a new IT department." People from this newly reorganized department were chosen to become an academic support group.

People are sometimes extremely anxious when they are starting out. It is my job to take away the fear. -Nancy Whitehouse, University of Southern Maine, Lewiston-Auburn

About 18 months ago at Oklahoma State University, meanwhile, Marshall Allen's multimedia support team received a boost when the vice president for Academic Affairs at the institution made a major commitment to its Institute for Teaching and Learning Excellence. The university is investing more in the institute, which currently employs 32 professionals who do everything from solving problems to training to producing AV lectures and presentations.

The institute's goal is multifold, says Allen. In addition to assisting new faculty members who are learning such basics as how to write a course outline, it also helps the more seasoned educators, as well as improves what OSU's provost calls "technology facilitated instruction."

To that end, OSU will spend $400,000 this summer upgrading designated classrooms with AV equipment. Those classrooms will join the dozens of other smart classrooms and lecture halls on campus. That's a big investment and not one that the university would want going to waste, so faculty will get training prior to the start of the next semester.

A large part of the AV tech team's job is to provide training geared to all types of users-the person new to teaching who needs basic information, and also the experienced professional who needs to keep up with software changes.

Saint Michael's modeled its program after the University of Arizona's Laptop Workshop, says Anderson.

"For one week every summer we have a Teaching with Technology Workshop. The program focuses on a different aspect of AV each day. One day might be about building a web page, another might focus on Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation software. At the end of the week, each participating faculty member makes a presentation that demonstrates how multimedia technology will be used to enhance upcoming course material.

"We give them lots of goodies," says Anderson, who explains that perks to the faculty are an incentive for them to come to campus a week early to participate. (A recent reward was a digital camera and image-processing software.) Each workshop can accommodate 12 participants, and, to date, 50 of the college's 150 faculty members have gone through this training.

The team at Phoenix College (Ariz.) focuses more on one-to-one training in its own demo studio. With technical equipment on loan from vendors, Mike Poplin, director of Media Services, has filled a training area with the same equipment used in most of the classrooms at the community college. The studio has a Hitachi projector, an Elmo document camera and visualizer, various computers, and a DVD/VCR player. All are connected to an Extron control panel so that faculty and staff in training can turn equipment on and off as well as program media broadcasts from the touch panel.

Poplin has found the demo studio to be the best way to teach faculty because there's no need to schedule training time in classrooms being used at various times throughout the day. The demo studio is open 70 hours per week and a staffer is always there to greet faculty members, train them, and troubleshoot problems.

"Part of the problem with the training in the past was with adjunct faculty. They are on the road and don't have time to learn how to use the equipment. They may be willing to come in early, but often others are using their classrooms," Poplin says.

New faculty members receive information about the demo lab at department meetings held at the launch of the academic year. "Someone on the staff might be asked to come and give a quick description of the lab," he adds.

The team at Drew University (N.J.) provides three types of training-one for faculty, another for staff, and a third for its 2,500 students. Structured workshops and forums comprise the cornerstone of the effort, says Richard Ranker, director of Instructional Technology Services since 2004.

Ranker brought to Drew elements of a training and support program he helped create at East Tennessee State University. While there, he taught and motivated faculty to use AV technology and recorded his best practices in a whitepaper for EDUCAUSE. (The organization's website includes "360-degree support services for multimedia classrooms" under its resources section.) The key components to Ranker's program at Drew are:

Building faculty "ownership" through forums, open houses, and surveys.

Constructing smart classrooms with users in mind.

Training all users and following up with expanded lessons.

Providing support.

Capturing feedback-in person and online.

Keeping users informed.

Ranker constantly monitors the program's success, even doing periodic data mining of the software program used by Drew's helpdesk. He reviews the types of calls received. This way he keeps track of what is routinely tripping up multimedia users. "We also use this process to help determine the equipment that needs replacing and to decide which classrooms to work on next," he says.

Nancy Whitehouse, the curriculum technology coordinator at the University of Southern Maine, Lewiston-Auburn, began helping faculty and administrators to learn tech skills about 10 years ago. "Then the big thing was using e-mail and making distribution lists," she recalls. "I spent 90 percent of my time teaching about making attachments." Everyone has come a long way. One of Whitehouse's more recent assignments was teaching nursing students how to use PDAs.

Hers is a small campus, and one of the newer ones in the Maine system, with 24 full-time faculty and 40 adjuncts. The size allows Whitehouse to be somewhat informal about training. It also forces her to be knowledgeable about a wide variety of programs and systems. She handles everything from instructing the novice Microsoft PowerPoint user on how to create a slide show, to classroom AV setups, to website design on Macromedia's Dreamweaver software. She also teaches faculty how to use Blackboard's learning management system, which includes modules for posting lectures, grades, and multimedia presentations.

"People are sometimes extremely anxious when they are starting out. It is my job to take away the fear," she says.

Given her years of experience, she is unfazed by technophobic faculty. Rare is the faculty member totally resistant to change, she says. She handles the tentative users by not only working slowly, introducing users to new technology in simple steps, but by showing them what their colleagues are doing. "I'll say, 'So-and-so in your department is using Blackboard, maybe you want to do something like post a syllabus,' " she explains. Once that is mastered, she will move them to another step, such as using a discussion board instead of fielding individual e-mail messages from students. After awhile it doesn't take much urging for faculty to see the benefits of using various technologies.

Her duties include training students, too. She does this by occasionally coming to class at an instructor's request. Other technology training is done one-on-one for those who come by with specific questions.

One of our mandates was to do a better job in providing support. -Bill Anderson, Saint Michael's College

Ranker's on-the-job observations and higher ed research have led him to several conclusions about what it takes to run a successful support program. The proper funding to do the job is one necessity. The other is having a clear line of authority and responsibility. Regardless of whether the program is housed in IT, an academic computing department, or a separate AV area, it is imperative that those responsible know what they are supposed to do and to whom they report.

Those they are serving must also know who is responsible for what so they can turn to the right people when they need help. At Drew, professors and students can contact Ranker's department from the telephone installed in every classroom. The helper on call responds immediately.

AV tech teams need to have clear priorities in order to be efficient, echoes Anderson. At Saint Michael's, the calls that involve faculty and students using classrooms, labs, and the IT network are addressed within minutes, if possible. Almost all other calls are handled on a same-day service basis. The latter type of call might include requests to help prepare a multimedia presentation for a future lecture, he explains.


Drew's classrooms are equipped with a Room View monitoring system from Crestron. The system can show an AV technician the machines and peripherals being used in various classrooms. It can also show the helpdesk whether a machine is turned on, or if a bulb in a projector needs replacing. Technicians even can turn machines on and off remotely, thus saving time and labor.

Ranker acknowledges that this connection only helps so much. The remote helpscreens can basically just show what machinery is in use. There may come a day when a webcam trained on a projector screen will also show helpers the content being used in the classroom. Such a view would be useful in helping determine whether a problem is with, say, the projector or the PC-or with the quality of the slide show the professor prepared.

Ranker adds, however, that faculty are concerned about such access. There would have to be controls that allow AV tech teams to peek in only when there is a problem, he says.

AV tech teams are usually comprised of several full-time dedicated professionals. Some handle the additional duties of classroom design and equipment upgrades. Student workers are part of many teams, but not all.

Of all the skills needed to provide AV support, Anderson believes the most important is having a customer service attitude. In the past, staffers in the IT department had a reputation for "doling out" services. They behaved as if they were protecting the IT department rather than working for the benefit of the end user.

Some knowledge of technology is helpful, but not necessary. Saint Michael's team includes several professionals and student workers. While some students are IT majors, some have come from French literature and other majors far removed from technology.

Poplin says he hires those with the best interpersonal skills. His community college, which enrolls 25,000 students, is part of the even larger system of Maricopa Community Colleges (Ariz.). Poplin's team deals with many different people during a given week-many who are new to AV and technology. "IT has gone beyond pushing a TV into a classroom," he adds. So he needs staff members who can reduce a professor's frustrations while not reacting or taking things personally.

"One time I answered an emergency call only to discover that the equipment wasn't plugged in," recalls Poplin. The professor could have been humble about the situation. "Instead he said, 'You are lucky that is the only thing that was wrong,' " says Poplin. For these reasons he shies away from hiring student workers. "They may know how to use computers, but they don't always know how to interface with the faculty."