Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sound & Communications: Getting Ahead in Higher Ed

I wrote an article that was published in the May 2015 issue of Sound & Communications magazine sharing some tips on how integrators and consultants can keep higher ed AV support staff happy.  Based on my experience working on the end-user side of higher ed AV support, there are too many classroom AV systems designed and installed without any thought for the group of AV technicians that will need to repair and maintain these systems.

May 18, 2015: 
Working in the higher education market can be lucrative for integrators and consultants, but there's often one overlooked component that can be the key to getting recurring business.  In addition to the obvious end-users (professors) that you need to satisfy, there's often one overlooked group:  the institution's audio visual support staff.  Before I started my business as a design and management consultant, I worked for ten years in various AV design and support roles at Harvard University and Ithaca College.  Every school's staffing structure is different, so you will run into any combination of in-house repair/maintenance technicians, system designers, programmers, project managers, bench techs, daily support field technicians and student employees.  There are widely varying levels of experience, education and certifications within these positions from school to school.  Paying attention to the needs of these individuals may just be the key to becoming that campus' preferred integrator or consultant.  
As important as it is to design and install AV systems that fit the end-user's needs, it's equally important to remember that there's a staff of individuals that will have to support these systems long after the consultants and integrators have left campus.  Include this support staff early in the project, during the needs analysis phase, and you'll be sure to make them happy.  Acknowledging the fact that an in-house AV repair technician told you they won't be able to easily access the projector to replace a lamp during the 7-minutes between classes is just as important as listening to the professor that tells you how they want the touch panel to look.  Many times the AV support staff isn't brought into a project until well after many system design and infrastructure decisions have been made, and then it's too late.  This may be the fault of the construction project manager, but that doesn't mean the AV consultant and integrator can't ask to have the in-house AV support staff brought into the discussion early.  There are a handful of needs that you need to address to make the institution's AV support staff happy.  Many of these needs may seem very obvious, but I've been on the losing end of all of this, and I've seen it happen with many different consultants and integrators.

You can present the most innovative, forward thinking AV design to a higher education client, and the in-house support staff will just be thinking of the future when they have to troubleshoot the system in front of 50 students and an annoyed professor.  Taking the time to focus on serviceability during the needs analysis and system design phase is very important.  Find out what lamps, spare parts, etc. they keep in stock, so the systems you install can be serviced using the same methods as the 200 other systems on campus.  Ask about their staffing structure and how they handle trouble calls and tickets when they come in.  Get to know the technical ability of the staff that will be supporting these systems.
If you're an integrator and you're working with a system design that was created by an in-house AV designer working for the school, realize that many of the design decisions were probably made with serviceability in mind.  Most AV designers in higher ed also get involved with the repair and maintenance of AV systems.  They're making design decisions based on the fact that at some point, they'll be up on a ladder working on the projector that you installed.  
Remote access is also a very important consideration on campus.  Connecting control systems and other networkable devices to the campus network and monitoring them through centralized remote management software is very key to AV support staff.  I don't think I've ever met someone working in an AV support role in higher ed that feels their department is over-staffed and flush with plenty of technicians sitting around just looking for something to do.   A properly designed remote management solution for the campus' AV systems will be music to their overworked ears.
Many higher ed support departments have a control system programmer on staff.  They may look to integrators to complete the initial programming, then use their in-house programmer for small changes, like switching to a new projector model or minor touch panel layout changes.  Integrators revisiting clients to make programming changes can be a source of income, but it's just not something that many higher ed clients need.  Integrators that write organized and well documented code, and don't give the client trouble about ownership of that code, is what the AV support staff is looking for.
Appearance can go a long way, and this really applies to rack wiring.  Nothing is worse than trying to troubleshoot a rack that's a rat's nest of disorganized, unlabeled cables.  It's important to stress to installation technicians that they should install everything with the thought that someone else will be trying to service it.  Cable service loops, proper connector labeling and flush-cut zip ties are small touches that will make the in-house support techs happy later.

One of the most important goals for higher ed AV departments is standardization.  They want their professors walking into any classroom on campus and seeing the same touch panel they've used in ten other rooms.  This is easier said than done when dealing with 200 classrooms on a rolling lifecycle replacement program, but nevertheless, it's still very important to AV support staff.  Many schools have taken the time to create audio visual system design and technical standards documentation, in an effort to get everyone involved with AV installations on the same page.  Outside consultants and integrators need to get on-board with these established standards at the beginning of the project. 
Presenting a system design that deviates from the established standard can cause anxiety for the AV support staff.  Many hours of effort have gone into campus technology surveys, end-user focus groups, testing demo equipment and writing of these standards documents.  Disregarding all of these efforts and taking a "this is what you really need" approach does not sit well with the in-house staff.  You may be excited about the latest and greatest projector, but the support staff sees that projector change as a deviation from their standard projector that they stock replacement bulbs for, have a couple spares on the shelf ready to go, have a proven track record of reliability, and are very familiar to their student support staff that handle preventative maintenance.  Introducing higher ed clients to new technology is fine, but just don't do it on that system everyone is rushing to get installed during the next break.  Let the AV departments evaluate new equipment through their usual testing process, and let them get buy-in from the campus community.  Most higher ed clients don't see being on the bleeding edge of new AV technology as important as properly researching, establishing and sticking to their standards.

Project timeline:
Like most job sites, audio visual integrators are usually the last crew on higher ed construction projects.  This means that all of the delays caused by other contractors have compounded and pushed the classroom AV installation project timeline to sometimes unrealistic milestone goals.  Nobody understands this more than the college's AV support staff.  Time after time, I experienced down-to-the-wire classroom AV installations.  Regardless of where the blame lies, a "first day of classes" deadline is a very important milestone.  These classroom installations aren't like a corporate conference room, where a meeting can just be moved to another room if the AV installers need more time to finish.  Finding a new classroom at the last minute because the AV integrator missed their deadline can be a big headache for multiple departments across campus.  Classroom scheduling is like a giant chess game for the registrar.
Cutting the end of the project timeline too close to the start of classes inevitably results in little to no system commissioning before classes start.  Nothing is worse than having the professors commissioning the systems "on the fly" in front of students.  Once the semester starts, there's never a time when you can reserve the room for a day or two for system commissioning.  Good luck even getting a two hour chunk of time in many rooms.  I've even had integrators suggest that we have a staff person sit in the classroom for a few days and operate the equipment for the professors, since the control system programming isn't done.  That takes up the time of one employee during the first week of the semester, which is a very busy time, so that's not a viable option.  Moral of the story:  either properly manage your project timeline so you hit the final milestones on time, or be honest with the AV support staff so they have time to make other arrangements for incomplete classrooms.

You would think this goes without saying, but experience shows that it needs to be said.  Professionalism is of utmost importance to higher education institutions.  Their image is everything, and countless hours have been spent by many people to develop it.  Sexual harassment on college campuses is a pressing issue these days.  Colleges are constantly walking prospective students around campus for tours and some schools have a revolving door of VIPs on campus from the business, political and entertainment communities.  AV installation technicians need to be well trained on acceptable job site behavior and appearance.  One disrespectful comment made toward a student, or a dirty/unsafe job site, can quickly get an integrator thrown off campus.  Image and student safety is extremely important to schools, and the in-house AV department will enforce that above and beyond anything else with contractors on campus.

Client interaction:
With so many different parties involved in AV installation projects, it's easy for lines to get crossed and information to get muddied.  Looking to the institution's AV support department as a central point of communication can prevent many issues.  Always involving them in end-user communication is very important.  A thorough needs analysis with the professor that will be using the system the majority of the time is great, but make sure that the AV support staff is involved, to keep everything in-line with their established standards and budget.  Make sure your field technicians know that they should never agree to anything when end-users approach them, without going through in-house AV staff.  This seems obvious and applicable to any job, but some college professors can be intimidating, pushy and demanding.  Your install techs may be agreeing to a change that goes against a decision made by the in-house support staff.  Majority usually rules during the needs analysis stage of a classroom installation, but the squeaky wheel sometimes gets the oil, and they tend to show up during the construction phase as a pushy professor talking to your install technicians.  Courteous but non-committal is the best road.

Closeout documentation:
If an integrator has an exclusive service contract with a client, then the client may never really need or read the as-built drawings, system verification results, equipment inventory info, IP address tables and control system programming code.  This isn't the case with higher ed institutions that have their own AV support staff.  Comprehensive closeout documentation is key to making their life easy when it comes to maintaining and repairing the systems you're designing and installing.  Nothing will make a college's AV staff say "we should hire these guys again" than when they're reading some stellar closeout documentation left by you after a project.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

K-12 Tech Decisions: 7 Tips for Using Interactive Displays In the Classroom

I was interviewed for this article about the pros and cons of installing interactive displays in K-12 classrooms.  They aren't widely used in the higher ed world, but they're all over K-12 classrooms.  Administrators need to focus on some key issues during the system design phase so that they get the most bang for their buck with interactive display installations.

May 13, 2015
written by:  Aine Cryts 
“Kids today are coming out of the womb with a cell phone and an iPad in hand,” says Lindsey Baker, a training specialist at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based CCS Presentation Systems. While that may be more hyperbolic than true, students today are indeed surrounded by touch technologies. And if kids have iPads at home, it’s a lot more difficult to engage them with a paper and pencil in the classroom.
“You see a lot of kids zoning out really fast in the typical classroom,” says Baker, who used to be an educator. “They’re losing interest and don’t take away as much as they could. When you throw in iPads and interactive displays, you see the excitement in their faces.”
Michael Tomei, owner of Ithaca, N.Y.-based Tomei AV Consulting, LLC, is also a proponent of using interactive displays in the classroom. Still, he recommends taking a mindful approach to installing this new technology and training teachers to use it. “If you have teachers who aren’t comfortable using interactive displays or with changing their teaching style, you’re going to spend a lot of money using this technology as a whiteboard,” he says.
Tony Inglese, chief information officer for the Batavia School District in Batavia, Ill., says there are subject areas that are a more natural fit for display technology. He’s particularly excited about the ability of students to use interactive displays to diagram sentences in English classes and to illustrate how organs interact within the human body in Health Science classes. In his experience, what works best is combining the interactive display at the front of the classroom with tablets in the hands of students at their desks. “There’s greater effectiveness when students can have full ownership over a screen,” Inglese says.

The Technology
Tomei highlights the interactive whiteboard as the technology that first comes to mind when thinking about classroom displays. Teachers and students can write on the interactive whiteboard with a finger or a pen that’s detected through a pressure-sensitive membrane or sensors embedded within the board. Capable of detecting the pen or finger’s location, the interactive whiteboard is connected to a computer that runs software. Users can choose their preferred projector solution that works best in their particular classroom setting.
Another technology is the flat-panel display that provides touch capability/overlay. This can be a good fit for school administrators who are willing to make a higher initial investment in return for savings on maintenance and projector lamps, according to Tomei, who notes that flat-panel display prices are dropping. Because of the lower prices, more schools should be able to afford a large display in the classroom. Tomei also points to interactive projectors, which require no whiteboard with built-in electronics; a good option for schools that want to convert any flat surface into a projection screen, interactive projectors can detect the location of the user’s pen or finger on the projected image.
Interactive display technology holds a great deal of promise in the classroom, but a successful implementation is no easy task. Two key things to keep in mind: your installation and training strategies.

The Install
Interactive displays aren’t inexpensive, especially when you compare them to conventional whiteboards,Tomei says. “You’re spending a lot more money, especially when you consider the cost of getting interactive displays installed. You could outfit three rooms with whiteboards for the same price of one room with interactive displays,” he says. What you’re getting with interactive displays, though, is “quality over quantity.”
Tomei has several pieces of advice for administrators interested in purchasing interactive displays in the classroom.
First, get a lot of teacher feedback on the technology. A successful implementation really depends on how instructors want to use interactive displays. Are they more interested in a conventional pressure-sensitive board or a flat-panel display? Do they want to use a pen or their finger to write on the interactive display? If you don’t choose a solution that is comfortable for your teachers, they aren’t likely to use them.
Pay attention to the expertise you’ll need for maintenance and repair. “People in the audiovisual department have long been regarded as ‘slide projector people,’” says Tomei, who notes that administrators need to focus on sourcing highly talented professionals who can help with more advanced presentation technologies.
Work with someone who’s qualified in audiovisual design. Administrators who want to create a genuinely user-friendly system won’t just put interactive displays on the wall, connect the computer, and walk away. “This leaves teachers fumbling with remotes and cables everywhere. You need to look at the audiovisual system as a whole,” says Tomei. A good solution can be a simple touch screen to turn on the projector, adjust volume, and switch the display between computers in the room.
Give teachers, students and parents a sneak peek. If you want to get buy-in for the technology, considering hosting a time for key stakeholders to come in and see the displays in action. One idea is to create a sample lesson and show them how it will work. “When they can visualize how this all comes together, teachers, students, and parents can really see the value,” Tomei says.

It’s a mistake to just throw an interactive display into a classroom. In order to get the most out of your investment, teachers have to have a solid understanding of how to effectively integrate the technology into their lessons.
“The most expensive piece of technology is the one collecting dust. You don’t want that,” says Dee Turner, also a former educator and today a training specialist at CCS Presentation Systems.The user interface for an interactive display feels a lot more like our smartphones and our tablets, which means that training isn’t as scary as it once was. “It used to be that teachers were afraid to get in front of their peers with this technology; they were afraid they’d break it,” she says. “Today, everything is a lot more intuitive, and that’s largely due to the fact that many teachers have smartphones and tablets themselves.”
Advice from Turner and Baker on training teachers to fully utilize interactive displays in the classroom follows:
Each classroom has its own “personality.” It’s critical to realize that each classroom has different technology tools and different skillsets, on top of teaching different subjects. The whole thought of having technology in the classroom is it’s supposed to be in the background – technology shouldn’t be driving the learning.
Keep it brief and keep it about teaching. Training can consist of just spending time with the classroom teacher and giving them maybe three helpful hints. If it takes teachers longer than two minutes to figure out the technology, they won’t use it in the classroom.
Consider a “train the trainer” approach. In this scenario, administrators can cherry pick a few tech-savvy teachers who are eager to incorporate interactive displays into classroom instruction. Baker points to a few pilot projects in Arizona where she’s been involved as a trainer. In these projects, teachers applied to be a part of the pilot, and then she works one-on-one with them on including interactive displays as instructional tools. These “technology champions” can then train their teacher colleagues.
“These teachers are awesome,” says Baker. “They’ve dedicated so much of their time – on top of what they do teaching. These teacher-trainers are going from classroom to classroom, and helping teachers on a one-on-one basis, rather than one big training session,” she says.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Higher Ed Tech Decisions: AV Experts Predict 4 Hot Higher Education Trends to Hit the Market by December 2015

I was interviewed for this Higher Ed Tech Decisions article about popular higher ed AV technology trends.  It was hard to pick only a couple, so I talked about lampless projectors and the importance of designing 4K compatible infrastructure and systems even if you aren't installing 4K projectors/displays yet.

May 04, 2015 
written by:  Jessica Kennedy 
AV experts predict the higher education market will see a rise in lampless projectors, 4K compatible systems, recording studios and wireless collaboration by the end of the year.  AV experts and integrators forecast four major trends will surface in higher education by the end of 2015.
Mike Tomei, former AV specialist at Ithaca College and owner of Tomei AV Consulting says lampless projectors will gain popularity by the end of the year.  He says that lampless projectors used to have a track record of high prices and poor color quality.
However, he says more manufacturers are getting into lampless projectors, and that the prices are coming down.
“They will be more reliable, and higher ed support staff won’t have as many service request tickets [to fulfill],” Tomei says. “The support staff will also like the idea of not having to stock extra lamps on campus.”
Tomei also says that 4K compatible systems will make more frequent appearances in higher education classrooms this year.  He says 4K compatible systems have always been hot in medical settings, but have not been specified in higher education until recently.
He also says these systems will become more compatible with higher education infrastructures, switchers and cabling, and will be a popular item to see at InfoComm 2015.
“4K compatible systems will also help [higher ed] support staff,” he says. “They won’t have to pull out all the equipment when 4K gets big in higher education.”
Bill McIntosh, CEO of the integration company Synergy Media Group says that more recording studios will be built into college campuses this year.  He says recording studios will become a necessity for colleges to create high-impact online learning programs; the traditional route of a professor speaking into a webcam with a PowerPoint is stale and uninteresting to students.
“Online learning courses need to be dynamic, fluid, and entertaining,” McIntosh says. “Since online learning has no geographical constraints when recruiting students, the way the content is packaged and delivered is a major differentiator for students choosing between similar online programs.”
McIntosh also says that wireless collaboration will be a high-demand trend in higher education by the end of 2015.  He says students will utilize wireless collaboration to share content from numerous devices onto a single display during group work. This will enable students to “reach in” and have an equal hand in a project they are working on together.
“Being able to simultaneously display a Word document of the assignment, an Excel file with financial data, a PDF of research, and a website with additional information allow everyone in the group to see the same digital information on a single display and create more efficient decision making,” McIntosh says.
Fostering these trends to support online learning will be crucial towards determining a college’s overall success or failure, McIntosh says.  “Online learning is the way of the future,” he says. “In 2020, I feel that at least 25 percent of students will be attending university though partial online learning programs and that number will only continue to rise. Schools that don’t implement online learning as part of their short-term strategy will have no need to create a long term plan.”

AVNation EdTech podcast: Episode 35 (April 2015)

In the latest episode of the AV Nation EdTech podcast, Tim, Ernie, Greg and I discuss the InfoComm classes Ernie will be teaching, InfoComm's ability to market to higher ed tech folks, life safety standards for schools, audio reinforcement in classrooms (yes, we talk about ceiling mics), higher-ed classroom tech trends, and campus network speeds.  We'll be recording an episode of the podcast live from the InfoComm Show floor in June, so make sure to stop by the AV Nation booth on 6/18 at 10am if you want to say hello.