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Stretching AV Budgets

How to help clients make the most of tight funding. 5/11/2011 4:35 AM Eastern

Stretching AV Budgets

May 11, 2011 8:35 AM, by Bennett Liles

How to help clients make the most of tight funding.




The University of Colorado recently
invested in its communications with students
with a nearly 200-square-foot video banner
mounted 15ft. above the floor.

The University of Colorado recently invested in its communications with students with a nearly 200-square-foot video banner mounted 15ft. above the floor.

For several years, higher education budgets have seen a relentless downhill slide; whether the AV operation has been organized under library, IT, or facilities management, the impact has been profound.

Recent AV upgrades have come about largely as a result of new construction that was planned and funded some time ago. With most of these big construction projects complete, campus technology planners are at a critical juncture and now face even steeper cuts to university system infrastructure funding.

Of even more concern is a new development: a prime source of revenue for higher education is under increased scrutiny by state legislative budget analysts. Enrollment has always driven revenue, and an offsetting effect of the recession has been the influx of unemployed nontraditional students seeking to upgrade their job qualifications. To a significant degree, that wave was funded through popular state sponsored scholarship programs, but as state budgets continue to tighten, those scholarship programs and the enrollment they support will flatten.

As a result of these forces, university budgets—including those for classroom technology—are entering a new phase of compression, requiring every aspect of AV planning and expenditure to be reevaluated. Here are some suggestions for efficiency and effectiveness.

Protocol converters can be the first wave of remote control and monitoring
technology. When local controllers are installed, the converters can be moved
on for the first upgrade of basic classrooms.

Protocol converters can be the first wave of remote control and monitoring technology. When local controllers are installed, the converters can be moved on for the first upgrade of basic classrooms.

Communication

Across most campuses, individual classrooms or buildings have varying levels of technology available. It is necessary to have a good account of who is using the rooms, and when, and what specific resources are actually needed. Without coordination between classroom scheduling and AV resource providers, it’s difficult to know which AV assets are being used and which should be upgraded. The technology needs of core full-time faculty are generally known but the growing ranks of part-time instructors make it more challenging to efficiently match AV gear to classes and teaching styles. Plan to get a complete classroom schedule with instructor and course names, class periods, and days—the sooner the better. Close interaction between deans, department heads, and the AV team can best target the gear deployment and upgrades.

Repurposing hardware

As in the corporate world, universities are more willing to invest in depreciable assets than additions to staff. To keep minimize obsolescence, it pays to develop a modular hardware strategy; with rapidly evolving media technology, this can be a primary challenge. IP networks have become an enormously effective tool in control and monitoring with minimum staff, and manufacturers have made it very easy to get started with IP-connected projectors and free basic asset management software. For institutions with a large fleet of same-make classroom projectors, this is a very low-cost solution with little or no hardware to phase out other than the projectors themselves. While they typically offer remote control and monitoring of display devices, IP-to-serial/IR converters offer a more generic and versatile solution and free or very low-cost software for them is widely available. These can be the first wave of networked control devices in previously bare classrooms. When the rooms are upgraded with local AV controllers, the protocol converters can be moved into other basic rooms to begin the upgrade process there.

Use Data and Warranties

Another very useful tool for extending maintenance cycles of AV gear (including document cameras and visualizers) is button statistics. By showing which source selections are being made in the classrooms, devices producing lesser-quality pictures toward the end of their maintenance cycle can be allocated to classrooms where they are needed less frequently and get less wear and tear. Under the current fiscal climate on campus, accurate warranty records are more important than ever, so any gear that needs periodic repair or replacement can get serviced while the cost is minimal. Warranty expiration dates can be entered in Outlook and other applications to provide pop-up reminders to check the condition of specific hardware items.




Stretching AV Budgets

May 11, 2011 8:35 AM, by Bennett Liles

How to help clients make the most of tight funding.




Software can provide a quick summary of equipment use in each classroom for maintenance and upgrade planning.

Software can provide a quick summary of equipment use in each classroom for maintenance and upgrade planning.

Scheduled Lamp Replacement

The academic environment is uniquely hard on projector lamps. They are burning six days a week, turned on and off a dozen or more times a day, and a school with 100 projector-equipped classrooms will have at least $50,000 invested in lamps at any one time. Various projector models can be expected to have differing lamp time expectancy, often less than what is published by the lamp manufacturer. Experience with the individual projectors provides the most accurate lamp life expectancy and an effective lamp replacement strategy can provide substantial savings. Do you replace them at an hour-count threshold, wait for a dim lamp call from instructors, or just risk letting it break as was frequently the case in the days before AV networking? This is a progressive balance between AV expense and the expense of lost classroom instruction time. Changing lamps on an hour count usually allows replacements to be done during room down time and on a scheduled basis for minimal staff. If a primary goal of the AV support team is to minimize lost class time due to hardware malfunctions, scheduled lamp replacement should be one of the very last things sacrificed to budget cuts.

700Mhz Wireless

One of the more recent seismic events in the area of sound equipment for performance venues, churches, and universities was the official FCC closure of the 700Mhz band to RF wireless microphone use last June. While RF microphones are not the ideal sound reinforcement solution for a campus with high classroom density, those mics are widely used and the required upgrades are hitting higher education at a particularly bad budget time. AV people saw the 700Mhz shutoff coming, but RF upgrades have tended to be put on the back burner compared to more immediate issues.

The RF versus IR question itself is certainly not new. Do you upgrade the present RF system and stay with the problem of having multiple instructor access to one specific microphone per classroom, or do you pay to switch multiple classrooms over to infrared (which includes the installation of IR sensors and coax cabling)? The advantage of having any mic work in any room allows a stretched AV staff the convenience of assigning a specific mic to any instructor to use wherever they teach. The RF advantage is that an external classroom antenna system is rarely needed. Again we have a cost vs. flexibility situation. Not every instructor will need a microphone, and those who do will be assigned different rooms from time to time. One solution that combines the advantages of both wireless technologies is the use of ENG RF microphone systems. The instructor takes both the transmitter and receiver with them and connects the receiver's audio output to a classroom sound system cable. So both the RF transmitter and receiver are assigned to the instructor. The fiscal advantage is that only those instructors needing mics have to be accommodated rather than equipping every classroom. The only technical challenge this arrangement normally presents is volume and feedback control. It works best if all the rooms used with wireless mics have the same sound system configuration.

Classroom Capture

A primary effect of shrinking budgets is increased class size. One of the best new tech solutions to offset this effect has been classroom capture systems. The systems currently available range from complex, high-dollar gear down to some very simple hardware items. Does the class require video camera capture sound from multiple sources or will it suffice to have only the instructor's voice and whiteboard marking captured? This basic question can help begin the selection process. The end result is that students in large classes can download and replay the lecture, preferably from time-stamped points, and conveniently review the material. This unique capability makes classroom capture one of the best bargains in instructional technology.

These are a few specific tips for campus AV planners in dealing with present and future budget challenges. Overall, it is important to have a good understanding of the needs of students and faculty along with a solid ongoing picture of what is happening in the classrooms. Plotting trends on this information will provide the best road map for the budget ride ahead.




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