You are here


Taking Control

Room control systems save time and money, and increase technology use in the classroom.
University Business, Jan 2008

TURN BACK THE CLOCK TO JUST FIVE years ago. Forward thinking faculty members at Temple University (Pa.) wanted to incorporate technology into their teaching. Students, having grown up with personal computers and video games, had come to expect it. The university was eager to help by providing what A/V technology it could to be shared among the faculty.

"We did a lot of stuff with carts," says Tim O'Rourke, vice president of computer information services. "If a faculty member wanted technology in the classroom, we would roll a cart into the class, set up a projector, set up a screen, help the faculty member log in to the system, and so on. It might take 15 minutes or more before the class was set up and ready to go, and our classes only last an hour, so it took up a big chunk of time."


Howard Laurence, facilities manager in the Media Services Department at the University of California, San Diego, knows that same story all too well. According to Laurence, equipment would be brought into the classroom, set up for the class, and retrieved when the class ended. Over the years, this model of media services became cumbersome and very labor intensive, as more and more professors began requesting projection, DVD, and other services for classes. The Media Services Department was handling as many as 150 deliveries a day-along with another 150 equipment pickups.

Clearly there had to be a better way. Enter the "smart classroom," a multimedia room design that features a fixed overhead projector and screen, a computer, and built-in VCR or DVD players. What makes them smart is a room control system that enables instructors to easily operate A/V equipment.

Vendors such as AMX, Crestron, Extron, and SP Controls have come to market with room control systems that integrate classroom A/V technology so it can be operated from a single point. Think of these systems as the equivalent of a universal remote control.

Rather than having individual remotes to operate a television, a DVD player, a projector, and a VCR, all can be controlled from one device or, as Tolkien might say, "one thing to rule them all."

"Teaching from a cart is not something anyone wants to do," notes O'Rourke. "When you go from having to roll a cart into a room to having a fixed podium that controls all the technology, it's like going from a beat-up Ford to a shiny new Cadillac. No one is going to complain."


The underlying mechanism for these room control systems is technology standardization-that is, having a predetermined array of A/V devices that are compatible with each other and that can easily be added to the system. Standardization has many benefits that make it attractive to IT departments. For example, institutions can often negotiate discounted purchase prices when working with a single vendor. Maintenance costs are also lower, because the IT staff isn't required to be schooled in five or six different brands of projectors or DVD players when just one or two have been designated as standard equipment.

In the classroom, standardization removes the last barrier to faculty use of technology. Instructors don't need to know how a particular projector or DVD player operates because the controls have been centralized and simplified.

'We've gone from fewer than 30 smart classrooms to more than five times that number without increasing staff. I can monitor all the classrooms on all our campuses from one location. I can access a projector in a room 25 miles away.' -Carl Schweibinz, Hillsborough Community College

The University of Texas-Pan American Classroom Technology Initiative, launched in 2004, was in response to instructor feedback calling for more classrooms that are fully equipped and, more importantly, easy to operate. Director of Video Services Omar Cantu explains that standardization was a critical component of the program.

"When we began our Classroom Technology Initiative, only about 40 of our nearly 160 classrooms were fully equipped with end-to-end A/V solutions. However, none of those classrooms were standardized on a single solution, so you had dozens of operating instructions floating around for the various systems on campus. A few were outfi tted with AMX, Extron, and Crestron, but mostly they were just legacy component remotes. It was difficult for some faculty who spent all their time teaching in one classroom to go to another classroom-they would fi nd an entirely different setup."

The school settled on the QuickMedia touch panel connection from Crestron to tie the components together and let faculty concentrate on teaching rather than technology. All the newly equipped classrooms are connected to the Video Services Department's Support Services Shop via Crestron's RoomView Room Management and Scheduling Software. RoomView allows the technical support staff to troubleshoot, control, and maintain the systems remotely.

At Temple, nearly 85 percent of classrooms will soon be controlled by a solution from AMX. "We've tried very hard to standardize our classrooms, because I don't want to have a faculty member walk into a classroom and then need our help to use any of the equipment," says O'Rourke. "We have different panel configurations for three different classroom setups. Most of our classrooms are what we call Level 3, which is a fixed podium at the front of the room with the touch panel, a monitor, a computer port, and a fi xed overhead projector and screen. If an instructor needs a document camera for one class, we can bring it in and easily plug it into the panel. In other classrooms you can dim the lights and bring screens down automatically. Every touch panel has a standard confi guration, so instructors can walk into any classroom and do their work without any assistance from us," O'Rourke says.

Technology setups are usually determined by the size of the classroom and what it is used for. "What we do is sit down and 'value engineer' what the panels in each room can do," says Carl Schweibinz, academic technology manager at Hillsborough Community College (Fla.). "We look at what makes up 95 percent of what a faculty member does in that particular teaching environment, and then we simplify it."

'Teaching from a cart is not something anyone wants to do. When you go from having to roll a cart into a room to having a fi xed podium that controls all the technolgoy, it's like going from a beat-up Ford to a shiny new Cadillac.' -Tim O'Rourke, Temple University

For example, a small, standard classroom seating 25 to 30 students might have a basic overhead projector/screen combination and a podium from which the instructor can operate a DVD player and a laptop. "In our humanities classrooms, where sound is more important, we've installed better speakers and lighting controls, closed caption devices, and CD and tape players," he says.

At the other end of the spectrum, a large lecture hall might have multiple projectors and automated screens, as well as document cameras, VCR and DVD players, student computer stations, videoconferencing capabilities, and more.

Another benefit of room control systems is their ability to be monitored remotely by IT staff. This enables the instructor to concentrate on teaching.

Schweibinz says this capability has saved the school money. Hillsborough began with 30 smart classrooms a few years ago but has expanded to 170 classrooms on a network that encompasses five campuses. The school uses a control system from Extron to keep things running smoothly.

"It has been a big help with preventative maintenance," Schweibinz says. "The system monitors such things as lamp life and filter life and notifies us when these are reaching a certain percentage of their life cycle. Then we can replace it before it is likely to burn out in a class. Before we had this system, the situation was haphazard. If a lamp blew, it blew. Someone had to come and tell us that there was a problem."

The Extron system, like others, includes a help button that enables communication from the classroom to the IT department if a problem arises. This is often in the form of a text message or an e-mail, but some vendors are developing voice-over-IP links, so instructors can speak directly to a technician.

From their end, the IT staff can access the room control system remotely and try to fix the problem without ever entering the classroom. They can also take control of the room's DVD players and projectors if need be. The IT staff is also instantly notified when a device has been disconnected from the system.

One might think that adding another level of technology to an already complex IT infrastructure might require additional staff . On the contrary, says O'Rourke. "There's actually a value added to control systems. Rather than having people constantly running back and forth with media carts, they can now concentrate on a higher value of work."

And Schweibinz says proudly, "We've gone from fewer than 30 smart classrooms to more than fi ve times that number without increasing staff . We can monitor all the classrooms on all our campuses from one location. I can access a projector in a room 25 miles away. Plus, we can pull statistics from each location to see how many times a projector was turned on and off ."

In an ideal world, every institution would be able to build new multimedia smart rooms, wired with the latest room control systems. But in the real world, old construction and budget constraints prevent some institutions from taking advantage of room control technology. That may change with new, simplified devices that accomplish much of what the larger installations can do.

Extron's new PoleVault System is a turnkey solution that can turn any classroom into a "smart classroom" without the need for destructive installation-just add a projector and a screen. The PoleVault System places the key products at the projector, so no equipment rack or tabletop space is required and cables are hidden away. Installation is simplified with twisted pair cables, wall-mounted signal transmitters, and projector mounting hardware.


When the Media Services Department at the University of California, San Diego, was searching for a room control system, simplicity was a key consideration. The school finally settled on the SmartBox and SmartPanel control interface made by SP Controls of San Francisco. These easy-to-install control products provide power, volume, and input control to various A/V devices with a combination of RS-232 and infrared connectivity. Smart-Panel can be set up in minutes by automatically downloading the appropriate confi guration code for a particular A/V device. Each classroom's control system is identical, meaning that a professor only needs to learn the control system once to feel comfortable in its operation throughout the campus. Color-coded buttons, a quick-start instruction sheet, and a telephone for emergencies have given professors a "comfort zone" that they like. Laurence says the change has made a huge impact on his staffing needs. "We analyzed the types of jobs we were doing over and over-150 times a day-and set that up in the classrooms. We can accommodate 80 to 85 percent of the daily media requirements now with the systems that we've installed. In other words, we've gone from over 150 jobs per day to fewer than 20."

His staff is now free to concentrate on areas where they can put their expertise to better use.


Harvard Medical School CIO John Halamka made headlines a couple of years ago when he had a passive RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) device, about the size of a grain of rice, implanted in his arm. Halamka's chip transmits a 16-digit numeric unique identifier that can be read by a special device that essentially unlocks his medical history. In the event of an emergency, it can alert a medical team to special conditions or allergic reactions.

What if that technology were applied to room control systems? Instructors could carry chips that would identify them as they entered a smart classroom then would dim the lights, power up the projector, lower the screen, and start a presentation. Sound crazy? AMX has been pursuing that very idea-minus the need for surgery-with its key ring-sized Anterus RFID tag.

Triggering system events or notifying administrators occurs by simply walking in or out of a room, or by pressing the key chain transmitter. Anterus allows users to locate, track, and secure any device, or trigger automated events.

As the use of technology and software matures and develops, smart classrooms and room control devices are poised to meet the demand.

"This is a long-term project," says Temple's O'Rourke. "It's a journey. Not so long ago we had no smart classrooms. More and more faculty are using technology each year, and the easier we make it for them to use, the more they will use it."