21st Century Classroom
- By Rama Ramaswami
Double-booking-of space, media, or any other equipment-may soon vanish as new software automates asset management and scheduling.
THANKS TO RHODES COLLEGE'S new automated scheduling system, campus constituents can book multiple locations and A/V equipment for each room, all in one session.
VISIBILITY, SIMPLICITY, EASE OF USE-educators chant these mantras whenever they evaluate any type of software, and classroom scheduling and asset management applications are no exception. Increasingly, vendors are responding to these demands by releasing highly sophisticated tools that manage every aspect of these processes, from automating classroom reservations, to enabling equipment tracking with little or no human intervention.
Integrated Access to Rooms and Services
Meeting Room Manager (MRM), a room scheduling product from NetSimplicity, is in use at more than 250 higher education institutions, but the product's latest version, MRM 7.6 (announced in January), offers an interesting twist: the capability to integrate room scheduling data with the academic course schedules contained in SunGard Banner Student. The new version allows faculty and staff to view a room's availability-via any standard web browser, Microsoft Outlook, or even an LCD panel at the classroom door-and book the same room for another event, confident that the timing doesn't conflict with courses scheduled in Banner.
According to spokespeople for Asure Software, NetSimplicity's parent company, the Banner-MRM integration was one of the most frequently requested features from the company's higher ed customers. Fittingly, the module that makes such integration possible was developed by a university technologist: Richie Trenthem, IT director at Rhodes College (TN), a private institution with about 1,700 students, wrote the software to help utilize the college's facilities more efficiently.
"About a year ago, we began an in-depth program to overhaul event planning and scheduling at Rhodes," Trenthem says. "We were doing things in a fragmented manner and not making the best use of our campus resources." He points out that in higher ed, academic courses and other kinds of campus events frequently compete for space. "We wanted to import each semester's class schedule from Banner into MRM so that end users would always know what rooms were available, and when they could book them. The systems don't offer application programming interfaces," he explains, "but their database architecture is open." Early on, the IT director recognized that MRM's open architecture would allow his team to customize the system to meet their needs.
The result was so successful that NetSimplicity incorporated Trenthem's program as a standard offering within MRM, allowing other Banner users access to this capability. By integrating curricular and extracurricular scheduling systems, colleges can view scheduled events and courses across the entire campus and set up a managed room booking process. MRM allows administrators to control student, faculty, and staff levels of access to booking or requesting rooms. In addition, the application integrates and automates requests for other room services, including A/V, room setup, and catering.
This feature-the ability to reserve rooms and other services at the same time-was an essential component Rhodes College was looking for. "With our previous home-grown software, the focus was just on room reservations, not related services," says Trenthem. "You could book a room online, but for other services, you had to make a series of other kinds of contacts to various departments, by phone, e-mail, or fax, and there were no obvious guidelines for doing that. If you had a good network of relationships, you could get the job done. If you didn't, or if you were new, the process was less consistent."
Now, the MRM system serves as a single point of contact for different types of reservations, making the process much easier for faculty, staff, and student users- Trenthem's objective from the get-go. "We wanted to reduce the obstacles to the customer," he says. "We never even set out to quantify ROI. We're trying to measure it now, in terms of improved services for the user, and the system is unquestionably a success in that respect." Since its debut in August 2007, the MRM system "has made an enormous difference on campus," agrees Kim Bennett, associate director of scheduling and college events. "Departments that transact large bookings, like the Admissions office, can reserve multiple locations-and the A/V equipment for each room-all in one session."
What's more, Threnthem says, the bottlenecks inherent in the old scheduling system have been streamlined. For example, when a student schedules an event, approval is required from the college's Event Planning department. But with MRM, those sign-offs are handled online via the system's approval cues. Now, says Trenthem, "It's unusual to have requests denied." He explains that while his team spent a good deal of time establishing levels of access to the system, the process has been working so well that most of the initial restrictions have been relaxed. "The system does have a permission structure, and we have categorized our resources-some groups of rooms are special, and restricted to certain groups; others are not. But customers have been very reasonable and we have been able to accommodate more requests."
Trenthem expects his next project to be the integration of MRM with the college's website. He wants to publicize upcoming campus events online, a process that's currently labor-intensive. "We're working to streamline and automate the process so that an individual can go into MRM, request catering and A/V services, and at the same time publish the event on our website."
Time to Work Out
Not every scheduling software package has to be enterprise-wide, or even complex. Kristen Miller, director of the fitness center at Northeastern University (MA), uses a scheduling tool from TimeTrade Systems to enable online signup for fitness classes. The center schedules up to 1,000 appointments a week. Before the TimeTrade software, "We basically had a telephone and paper," recalls Miller. "A user would call in to our facility and request a class.We had sheets of paper, wrote down the request in pencil, and a half-hour before, the user would call and cancel. There was somebody always on the phone at the office."
With the installation of TimeTrade, that changed completely. Students now use web-enabled terminals on campus to reserve courts and equipment or enroll in fitness activities at any time of day or night. The system tracks capacities and automatically closes classes that become full. Administrators can add instructors or classes, set limits on the number of appointments a student can have in the system, and con- figure the application to enforce rules. Administrators also have access to a full suite of resource utilization and activity reports. All this, Miller says, was available for a very reasonable cost. "The investment is fine with us-it's a couple of thousand dollars a year," she says. "And we're saving a ton of money because we no longer have to staff the phone all day long."
Streamlined Equipment Management
The concept of integrated scheduling applies to equipment as well. The four-year private Wheaton College (IL) uses an application from WebCheckout (a provider of portable equipment and facility scheduling) to manage 3,000 items of IT and A/V equipment that are regularly circulated on campus. WebCheckout inventories the equipment, processes reservations, tracks items that are out, and flags administrators if they are overdue.
Michael Rhoadarmer, Wheaton's media systems manager, reports that the WebCheckout application enables complete inventory management of the college's assets, with visibility into an item's status at any given point. The system also monitors installed technology; for instance, if a user reports problems with classroom equipment such as a projector or media player, an operator generates an online ticket for the item, enabling repair and maintenance to be tracked electronically.
Wheaton's equipment circulation process relies heavily on student labor. "About 20 student operators manage the circulation desk," explains Rhoadarmer. "People call, e-mail, send a form, or come in person to reserve equipment, and the student operators enter the reservation into WebCheckout." According to Rhoadarmer, it was essential to invest in a highly sophisticated system that students could use with minimal training. "Ninety percent of the work in WebCheckout is done by students," he says. "They make reservations, create serial numbers for new items that come in, perform a physical inventory, check things in and out, and make deliveries. They handle a couple hundred checkouts a week. Of course, they are supervised by full-time staff members who also manage the initial WebCheckout setup."
Perhaps the most useful feature of the system is its ability to generate detailed reports on the equipment, notes Rhoadarmer: "You can get usage reports on a specific piece or type of equipment, or reports on who has holds on what equipment. Everything you type in is logged. You can list assets for insurance purposes; you can search assets by lowest value, highest value, location, manufacturer, etcetera. The system eliminates a lot of paper-and-pencil, and note tracking."
J.R. Smith, the college's director of media resources, calls WebCheckout a vast improvement over what the school was using previously to track its assets: a software package designed for heavy-duty industrial equipment rentals. "It was a big tool that didn't fit our needs," explains Smith. "It was awkward and not intuitive at all." By contrast, he says, the new system is so user-friendly that the college community was using it before formal training was scheduled.
While he calls the price of the software "extremely attractive," Smith is less concerned about cost savings than about streamlining asset management. Although inventory loss has been negligible so far, he wants to be able to track items precisely, he says, and the previous equipment rental system did not have the capability to keep tabs on items at short intervals. "A piece of equipment might come in and go out several times a day, and we needed to track that."
What's even more exciting, says Smith, is that Wheaton is partnering with WebCheckout to develop new software, called the PlanQ Production Module, which will enable the media department to manage A/V productions (such as theatrical performances and student-directed movies). "It will allow us to develop a timeline for a production, track and schedule resources, and allocate equipment," enthuses Smith, explaining that "A production might be shown at a single event but it may involve six months of shooting videos, producing DVDs, and posting content online. PlanQ will help us coordinate all of these events and manage the entire schedule for a production at the same time. It also allows us to place students in the right production, develop cost estimates, and so on. We're looking forward to it."