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The Picture's Coming into View

No single approach to A/V procurement is perfect, but these guiding principles will help administrators bring the most suitable A/V technologies to their institutions.
University Business, Feb 2007

As vice president for Information Technology and CIO of Ball State University (Ind.), H. O'Neal Smitherman has a knack for seeing the big picture before anyone else does. Smitherman keeps a close eye on smart classroom and distance learning technology.

And for good reason. All of Ball State's 425 classrooms have wired and wireless broadband connectivity, and roughly 200 of the rooms have permanent fixed widescreen displays. But Ball State isn't stopping there. "Our goal is to get permanent displays in all 425 rooms," says Smitherman.

It's a lofty goal. Even a basic deployment featuring a digital projector and web applications can cost about $6,000 to $8,000 per classroom, according to Michael "Jim" Smith Jr., director of strategic initiatives at HB Communications, a Connecticut-based A/V consulting firm. Follow Smith's basic math and you'll discover that a rudimentary 200-classroom A/V build-out can start at $1.2 million.

Despite such high costs, "the trend is to equip every classroom in some way or another with A/V," asserts Smith. "Some of this is driven by technical needs. More and more content now lives on the web or on university servers. You need some way-a digital projector, LCD, or plasma display-to communicate all of that content in a grand way in the classroom."

Competition between colleges and universities also fuels aggressive A/V build-outs. Smith notes that more and more institutions advertise their digital classroom capabilities in recruitment materials and brochures. "If you don't keep pushing forward with your smart classrooms, recruitment and retention can suffer," he says.

Yet, it's vital to push forward in a strategic way by making smart technology purchases. A/V procurement can be a tricky, expensive process that requires careful planning. Done right, universities can gain state-of-the-art classrooms that allow professors to more easily engage and educate students. Done wrong, a failed A/V project can easily cost a university millions of dollars in wasted time and money. Here's how to get it right.

Consider the typical new building groundbreaking. Much like with bricks and mortar, it's not unusual for an A/V build-out to require three to four years from inception to deployment. "Many A/V systems coming online today were designed and contracted a year or more ago," says Timothy Cape, principal consultant at Technitect, a Georgia-based A/V consulting company. "Generally speaking, the higher education sector has a slower delivery and deployment cycle than the consumer sector. In some cases, you run the risk of building a digital classroom that's antiquated the day it's completed."

With these high stakes in mind, advice on A/V procurement strategies varies greatly. Mike Dunn, president and CEO of PolyVision, suggests that administrators observe how faculty members currently use A/V equipment to get a feel for what features are most important for future purchases. Breaking with conventional wisdom, Dunn says administrators should avoid the temptation to simply survey staff members about their future A/V needs. The reason: Many faculty members simply don't know what they want.

Such is the case at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Getting feedback and direction from faculty is like herding cats," says John Gilliam, a classroom support specialist. "A lot of times we'll test an A/V technology in a classroom and look to get a bit of feedback. But lately we've done a pretty good job watching industry trends and using our own A/V expertise to decide what needs to be deployed-rather than polling the faculty."

That's the right approach, according to Cape. "The faculty and the actual end users shouldn't necessarily be driving equipment selection," he says. "But they should be involved in needs analysis." The needs analysis should include an independent integrator or consultant who isn't tied to any single vendor's IT equipment, he adds.

Failing to solicit faculty feedback may sound like heresy, but numerous technology trends back up Gilliam's and Dunn's reasoning. Take, for instance, the digital music market. In 2001, digital music devices and MP3 players were gaining popularity but the market for such devices was highly fragmented. Dozens of aspiring hardware companies jumped into the market, and there was no standardized way to gather and listen to music on portable devices.

Most early users craved an intuitive music player with internet connectivity, but they couldn't fully describe how the device would look, feel, and function. Polling early adopters for direction would likely have been a pointless exercise.

Enter Apple Computer and its penchant for developing hardware and software in near secrecy. "If you had surveyed Apple's Macintosh customers five years ago, few would have envisioned the iPod and its scrolling wheel interface," says Ed Golod, president of Revenue Accelerators, a New York-based technology consulting firm. "Apple never asked users what they wanted. Instead, they watched the market trends, developed the iPod in secret, and launched a digital music revolution that will ultimately become a mobile video revolution."

Much in the way that Apple studied digital music adoption rates, federal and state education agencies are starting to look at rates of A/V adoption and general technology adoption, notes Dunn. They want to determine which technologies, and integration methods and standards, are actually used by the greatest number of schools. Then, universities should begin to react with new A/V technology procurement strategies and standards.

This growing commitment to IT standards is undeniable. Consider the situation at Emory College in Atlanta, which spent $3.7 million over a five-year period equipping 90 classrooms and teaching spaces with A/V equipment.

In a published report about the successful project, Carole Meyers, director of academic computing, wrote: "We have moved from individual specialized projects to a systematic understanding of our teaching spaces and the roles that aesthetics, acoustics, furniture, technology, and support for technology play."

Meyers mentioned several key lessons learned when describing Emory's successful A/V projects. First, the college strives to stick with standardized hardware and software, even for nonregistrar locations. By using the same touch panels and graphical user interfaces (GUIs) in each classroom, Emory has developed a "train once, teach anywhere" culture that allows professors to easily move from classroom to classroom.

Other institutions are taking a similar approach to standardization. "Over the last few years, we went from a model of putting out fires to really planning and looking at user interfaces," says University of Nebraska's Gilliam. "We've standardized on touch-panel interfaces. Simpler is better. We use nice, big icons. The less buttons to push, the better."

The second key lesson involves tiered support. Not all classrooms require the same support levels. Tier 1 support, performed by classroom technologies experts, involves systems training, attention to security, and very basic troubleshooting. Tier 2 support, also performed by classroom technologies experts, includes more advanced troubleshooting and preventive maintenance. And Tier 3 support is handled by external vendors, who perform maintenance activities outside of the support staff's realm of expertise.

The final Emory lesson involves the importance of teamwork. From 1997 to 2001, Emory's A/V projects were handled individually on a case-by-case basis. As a result, many projects didn't live up to expectations because they didn't leverage the school's combined A/V brainpower.

Emory leaders changed course in 2001, assigning A/V projects to the Academic Infrastructure Team, featuring experts on capital projects, classroom design, and academic computing. The experts on capital projects focus on nontechnical priorities like lighting, acoustics, aesthetics, and cable TV connections. The classroom design experts are masters in A/V equipment installation. And the academic computing team members understand key A/V applications from Blackboard and other independent software vendors (ISVs).

This commitment to teamwork is often a missing ingredient at many universities. "You have a rare situation at Emory where multiple experts are sharing their A/V knowledge and providing informed, long-term guidance," says Clayton Banks, president of Ember Media, a digital consulting firm that serves numerous universities and historically black colleges. "But Emory is often the exception to the rule. Some colleges don't know where to get started with their A/V procurement."

Other colleges and universities, meanwhile, continue to solicit ideas from staff and faculty-essentially rejecting Dunn's guidance to monitor deployment trends rather than seek guidance from users.

Just check in with Ball State. "We believe that everyone has to be engaged in the [A/V procurement] discussion," says Smitherman. "We have multiple advisory committees on campus. We continually engage them in discussions about our A/V needs."

Still, Smitherman is careful not to let A/V chatter get bogged down in endless committee debates. "Our job is to introduce the committees to new technologies, [find] problems and enhancements, and get feedback."

Smitherman concedes that committees can "overwhelm you with opinions." In order to avoid that fate, he makes sure A/V procurement discussions are focused on three key points:

1) Does the technology meet a basic criteria?

2) Does the technology provide enhancements over what the university currently uses?

3) Would the technology have broad appeal to a large number of users?

A/V equipment that meets those three criteria earns the right for further evaluation.

During long-term planning, higher ed leaders should remember that A/V equipment is pushing outside of the classroom. It's increasingly popular for applications like campus security.

Loyola University Chicago, for instance, recently standardized on IQeye IP cameras from IQinVision. Officials chose the IQeye cameras after hosting a "bake-off" (referred to as shoot-outs by some) between 15 leading IP camera models. Gompers, an IT consulting firm, helped organize and set up parameters for the bake-off. The university also leveraged a selection committee to evaluate image quality and cost of performance, notes Frank Dale, Loyola's manager of electronic security.

The new cameras replace analog closed-circuit TV cameras that lacked high-resolution capabilities. They're deployed both inside and outside Loyola's Lake Shore campus buildings, covering exits/entrances, lobbies, parking areas, and other key areas. The installations create a perimeter of the campus, so security has views up and down the public throughways, according to a university spokesman. All camera views are routed to a central server, via NVR software from Milestone Systems. Camera views can also be sent to satellite monitoring stations, based on staffing levels during particular days and times.

Ultimately, many institutions expect more and more A/V equipment to come bundled with laptops and mobile computers. Already, Apple Computer and other notebook makers design systems with built-in cameras.

"We hope to reach a point where the entire country is covered with WiFi broadband access," says Ball State's Smitherman. "When that day comes, all of those A/V-enabled laptops will make procurement that much easier."

Joseph C. Panettieri, VP of editorial content at Microcast Communications, can be reached at He has covered Silicon Valley and higher education since 1992.

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