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What Happens in Vegas...

Higher ed AV pros learn winning strategies at EduComm '05.
University Business, Aug 2005

There's an old saying that "luck comes and goes, but knowledge stays forever." So it was fitting that roulette wheels and slot machines provided a backdrop to the second annual EduComm Conference in Las Vegas in June. More than 1,000 audiovisual and IT professionals from higher education and K-12 came to the Las Vegas Hilton to learn about the growing roles AV and IT play in classroom presentation, distance education and related trends, such as multimedia production, course management software and wireless networks. EduComm (colocated with InfoComm '05, the largest exhibition of presentation technology in the country) gave attendees the chance to participate in more than 30 higher education seminars and 25 K-12-focused sessions.

Throughout the three-day event, convergence was clearly the buzzword. AV/IT directors in higher education remain focused on convergence, as their staffs and duties merge. The trend introduces new challenges in budgeting, training, and network configuration.

Anthony Bichel, former director of the learning technology group at Central Michigan University, spoke at EduComm about the one thing all top higher ed executives worry about: the bottom line. "You need data to speak with the president and provost. You have to speak in terms of ROI and models and methods," he advises.

Now that more projectors, visualizers, white boards, and other AV technologies are all over campus, it is a given that those allocating the dollars want to know if the new technologies are making a difference. They want to measure effectiveness, insists Bichel. "We have an ongoing problem. We know what has to be done, yet we still have problems on delivering on the promise of IT and ROI," he told attendees. The AV/IT director has to prove value and find ways to make technology investments pay off across the board.

Those asked to install AV/IT technology have to analyze the long-term usage from the start.

"We have no shortage of good ideas [about how to use AV/IT]," he notes. Faculty members constantly offer creative suggestions. But before a network administrator runs off to get quotes on an AV installation, it is best to ask whether the multimedia use is for a one-time pet project, or something that will be used only every three years. "Not all cool ideas can become a reality."

ROI should be viewed both institutionally and academically. Institutional concerns are quantitative. How much was spent on Blackboard or WebCT course management systems? How many faculty members are really using these products?

The academic analysis is qualitative. "If I am going to use SMART Technologies, what am I going to get out of it? How is the learning experience being enhanced?" Bichel posits. Time savings and productivity would also be part of this analysis. The findings may be surprising. Some faculty members attending EduComm noted that using laptops in the classroom increased their class preparation time four-fold, said Bichel. These realities have to be considered when looking at qualitative findings.

"There hasn't been an institution I have worked with that doesn't say, 'We want to do all these things, but we don't have the money or materials,'" he observes. Ironically, the institution usually does have the financial resources, but needs to reallocate them. He notes that only 28 percent of a company's resources are typically needed to accomplish goals and objectives; the other 72 percent of resources--including finances--are either wasted, misused or under-utilized.

Working more efficiently will help free up funds.

"The easiest way to grow a thing is to attach it to something that already exists," he advised. A new AV initiative needs to be aligned to existing academic or IT strategic plans. "That will give it legitimacy." AV/IT directors need to show they are in step with institutions goals and missions.

Doing this, though, requires clarity of vision and the ability to correct outsiders' misunderstanding about the work that AV technicians do. Other campus leaders minimize the work that goes into AV and multimedia. AV/IT directors need to justify that their efforts are "work worth paying for," or WWPF, as Bichel calls it.

"In one higher ed AV department I worked in, one staffer was asked to do work for the library, the provost, and others. They pass people around because they don't know what to do with them." There is less of a chance of this happening if the AV/IT director has a grasp of project management and process management, says Bichel. "I know these are dirty words because they sound business-like." Yet, being clear about what should be done and who should do it are the best ways to ensure efficiency.

In the best scenario, faculty members should be able to meet with the AV/IT department and outline what they are trying to do to further the academic mission. The AV pros, in turn, should help them achieve those goals. In the end, proving the value of AV, and showing that things can be done efficiently, will win over the naysayers.

At Central Michigan University, Bichel helped develop an implementation plan. The AV installation was seven years in the making, he says. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were allocated per year to outfit a certain number of classrooms. In the early stages, only 23 percent of the faculty used the Blackboard course management technology. Currently, more than half use Blackboard regularly, he adds.

Several EduComm conference speakers shared the how-tos of building a high-tech classroom.

Chris Datu, network administrator for California State University Fresno, outlined the planning and installation process for the university's newly-constructed Elmo Giampaoli Business Lab of Excellence. The building is a multi-use facility, allowing instructors to provide traditional classroom set-ups, or more collaborative learning environments. This is done via the use of modular, and portable, furniture.

Various areas throughout the academic environment are equipped with PolyVision interactive whiteboards, projectors, and Dell laptops. In all, Cal State Fresno spent $200,000 to outfit the new lab with multimedia equipment. This was taken from a $5 million endowment given to build the Business Lab. Money from the endowment will be used in the future to update the lab and the technology.

Datu and staff surveyed faculty and students before equipment was purchased to find out what they wanted from a high-tech environment. Faculty had four priorities: flexibility, ease of use, dynamic communication, and high interaction. Students wanted a wireless environment, ease of use, flexibility, and enriched learning. AV equipment was chosen to meet these needs, especially the overlapping desires for technology that is flexible and easy to use.

Gardner Long, director of instructional technology, Central Georgia Technical College, has spent the last nine years helping to outfit the classrooms and lecture halls with AV equipment. In 1996, there was no AV equipment to speak of, he says. Today there are 125 "technology labs." By fall 2005, that number will jump to 189.

Installation started years ago with 700 projectors. There are now thousands on campus. Lower projector prices have helped speed the increase. "I am installing 4,000 new projectors for half of the price paid for the initial 700," he says.

At the heart of each AV lab or classroom is a projector, an interactive whiteboard from SMART Technologies, and visualizers and document cameras. All of these classrooms and lecture halls include Dell laptops and room control equipment that allow instructors to push information to the whiteboard, projector, or student laptops. Room control equipment also helps Long and staff monitor each room from remote locations. Via browser-based software, he can see if a professor has accidentally left a projector on during the weekend and can then shut it off with online commands. There once was a time he would have to drive to campus to check on the equipment, he says.

Obviously, such installations and upkeep require help. Long has trained a number of students to be AV technicians. Students want this hands-on experience and the college benefits from eager learners. Long estimates that the college has saved $1.5 million since 2000 by using student labor for installation, training, and support.

There is nothing more impressive to an AV/IT director than a high-tech classroom. Yet, to a faculty member, there can be nothing more intimidating. At Central Georgia, there is still a segment of faculty and guest lecturers who are wary about AV. "They say they will use the technology, but right before I leave the room they will say something like, 'Can you bring me a flip chart?" notes Long.

The best way to address the fear is to make faculty part of the process, advises Bichel. This goes beyond holding the routine day-long workshop, though. "Some staffers were coming again and again and not applying what they were learning. People saw this as a day away from the office," he says. Bichel began tracking how these people were spending their time. He also tried to make the AV/IT department a place "people would want to be." This should be a creative environment open to faculty ideas and helpful in implementing what is practical. "Faculty will respond but you have to generate the activity and passion."

As more colleges and universities ride the wave of leading-edge teaching technology, many find themselves behind the curve on support personnel to make the enterprise run smoothly. Suzanna Smith, cyberservice administrator of Media Services at Sinclair Community College (Ohio), explained how advances in technology have given way to a new kind of AV technician, yet institutions need to recognize the integral role these people play in the educational process. Not long ago, Smith said, "multimedia" involved little more than overhead projectors and videotape players. The media support staff's responsibilities centered around delivering and setting up AV equipment and responding to breakdowns.

But today, the multimedia support team must understand PC interface configurations, component integration, mixers, controls (such as from Crestron and Extron), and component-specific control programs.

Today's support staff is made up of sophisticated decision makers, and the job demands a strong customer service component, as well. Smith described the help desk at Sinclair that gets some 3,000 calls a month. With advances in network technology, some 65 percent of those calls can now be diagnosed and addressed remotely, enabling support staff to devote their time on more pressing matters. In the past, she said, that 65 percent would have represented technicians physically going from room to room to solve problems, however minor.

When administrators see new technology, they often also see a reduction in staff--reasoning that these "smart" devices eliminate the need for support. But, "even though multimedia support and the use of it in our institution has changed dramatically over the past few years, we really didn't get rid of the former responsibilities. We just added more expensive, technically challenging ones," Smith noted.

More than ever, multimedia support is a team effort, according to Mary Aniuk, classroom support analyst of Arizona State University. Aniuk, along with colleagues Sean Snitzer and Louis Kelly gave a behind-the-scenes look at how ASU's technology-enabled classrooms are kept up and running.

ASU's Office of Classroom Management (OCM) works to enhance teaching and learning by improving the quality of services and facilities through design operation and maintenance of classrooms and sites, classroom scheduling and resource analysis, and development and support of computer networks and multimedia technology.

One key to OCM's success is the standardization of technologies for cost-effectiveness, as well as ease-of-use. ASU makes it easy for instructors to incorporate technology in their teaching by providing animated online tutorials (with audio guidance) that clearly explain how each system operates.

Operating behind the scenes, the OCM can monitor numerous networked systems for preventative maintenance. The concept was illustrated for the attendees when Kelly logged on to ASU's secure web-based monitoring system from the speaker's podium, and then displayed the real-time status of bulb life for projectors and toner levels for printers, as well as a live camera view of an in-session class, some 300 miles away.

View video archives of EduComm sessions and get advance information on EduComm '06 at

EduComm '05 was colocated with InfoComm '05. Here's a sampling of some of the higher-education products featured at InfoComm that stood out:

SMART Technologies has added to its interactive lectern Sympodium products. Professors and instructors can interweave media from DVDs, CDs, laptops, and the internet with the new DT770 interactive pen display, "dual-touch" system. Users can drive their presentations with the interactive pen provided or with the simple touch of the fingertip. Retail price is $3,999. See

Sonic Foundry has upgraded its Mediasite 440 series of rich media recorders. The new VL440 model features a videoconferencing recorder for online streaming of real-time or archived audio and video. For more, see

Hitachi has added 10 new projectors to its product lineup, including the portable CP-X440. At 4.8-pounds, it delivers 2500 ANSI lumens of brightness and XGA resolution. Also new is a series of compact LCD projectors. See

Monitors continue to get thinner, as the flat-screen design becomes state of the art. LG Electronics has added more flat screen plasma and LCD monitors. The 42-inch and 55-inch LCD models deliver high-definition viewing. New plasma displays range from 42 inches to 60 inches. A new 15-inch LCD tablet is designed for classroom and boardroom work, allowing users to control all multimedia input from the tablet's screen. For more see

Mitsubishi claims that its new PocketProjector is the smallest model available. Weighing 14 ounces, it's smaller than a tablet PC and only slightly bigger than a PDA. It throws a 40-inch image and is intended for presentations to small groups, or for personal office and home use. Retail price is $799. See

Sony Electronics has expanded its IPELA line of internet-based videoconferencing products. The two new portable models deliver images and audio via the web. Both are desktop models designed for the boardroom or the classroom. For details see

Extron unveiled its System Integrator speaker series, which is a new product line for the AV systems company. Speaker models are available in three sizes and are designed for music and voice reproduction. They can be ceiling- or wall-mounted. Several "all-weather" models are made for indoor or outdoor use. For more, see

NEC Solutions has introduced six projectors and five plasma displays. The VT37 projector is priced at $795 and features 1500 ANSI lumens brightness and 4,000 hours of lamp life. The five commercial plasma displays range in size from 42 to 61 inches. Prices start at $1,995. See

Panasonic's new projector line features several micro-portable units, including the PT-LB30U series. Several models weigh less than 6 pounds and feature wireless options. All are designed to deliver improved image quality in classrooms and in other brightly lit areas. For more see

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