Technology-Enabled Teaching >> If You Build It, We Should Come

When technology experts are involved from the get-go, ‘smart classroom’ construction projects are dramatically improved—and less costly.

When a campus is engaged in an architecture-and-technology integration project, learning from mistakes can be a costly educational process indeed. Yet, simply knowing more about how such an integration process should work, who the players should be (and what they can bring to the table), and how all project participants should, ideally, work together to create effective technology-enabled teaching environments will result in better project results, and fewer gray hairs for anyone tasked with the technology planning for construction projects.

Back to the Beginning

Campus construction projects often begin as a gleam in the eye of a campus administrator. Then, as the project progresses from concept to detailed architectural program, the administration and facilities staff work with the project architects to determine and meet the needs of the interior of the proposed building, while working on the exterior of the building, to create an appropriate aesthetic statement for the campus. The selection of building materials, the flow of interior spaces, even the human emotions the designed environment evokes, are all carefully considered.

"Lighting and acoustics have a great impact on the way students can learn, but they tend to be value-engineered right out of projects."

-Steve Fitzgerald, University of Minnesota

Yet, curiously, as the architectural program is getting off the ground, the technology that will live within the edifice is often discussed only in broad, general terms. Buzzwords such as “smart classrooms” and “wireless technologies” appear in nearly every program document for new college and university instructional buildings. On average, between 1 to 3 percent of the overall project budget for new campus construction is for built-in technology, an amount that varies widely depending on the needs and goals of each individual project—and depending upon how early in the process technologists come into the picture.

Dollars aside, the question of when technology staff should be involved in the planning, programming, and design phase of designing instruction and learning spaces is one of great interest to those who are responsible for putting technology-enabled teaching tools in the hands of educators and students. While there is a lot to be said for terrazzo floors and three-story atriums, there are few systems costing only 1 to 3 percent of overall construction budgets that have as great an effect on the education process as d'es technology.

Without effective technology integration, campus buildings are decorative, but not functional. On the flip side, without good design, campus buildings are functional but lifeless. It’s the melding of architectural design and technology planning that allows both to happen in a way that is complementary, not conflicting.

Building the Right Project Team
The cast of characters in the drama that is building construction or renovation is never the same twice, and can often change during a several-year project, both in structure and in composition. Here are the main players in a “typical” project:

Campus representatives. Building projects are usually headed up by members of the administration and/or facilities groups. While technology is often recognized as an important project component, the campus planning and construction staff focuses most of its attention on the other 97 to 99 percent of the budget that d'es not include technology (go figure!). Technology representatives are brought in at some point, sometimes during the initial programming phase. But amazingly, at other times they’re involved after construction plans are complete and the network drop locations, data closets, and server rooms have already been placed on the drawings.

Exactly who the campus technology representatives are, and which technologies and whose interests they represent, depends on the organization of the campus technology departments. At the University of Minnesota, for instance, Steve Fitzgerald is the director of Classroom Management (www.classroom.umn.edu), which is an organization created to meet the needs of educators and learners by coordinating construction of new classroom spaces and maintaining, upgrading, and supporting existing classrooms on campus. “We’re in contact with students, faculty, custodians, campus planners, hotline support operators, and room schedulers,” says Fitzgerald, but adds, “We’re unusual in that the Office of Classroom Management provides the one voice that represents all sides.”

Other institutions provide a range of technology representatives to project teams, which can include structured cabling and networking specialists, telephony/telecommunications staff, AV designers, distance learning specialists, and security video and alarm specialists.

Besides the campus technology specialists, there are often faculty or departmental experts who have specific requests with respect to technology implementation in new building projects. Their expertise can be very useful in the early phases of design (especially in the planning of science buildings), and can prevent costly redesign or rework in making spaces appropriate for equipment or systems.

Design professionals. The design team is usually led by an architect, and typically, the architect leads the campus administration and facilities representatives in the programming phase, which is where the needs of the campus are identified and presented in a written and graphical program. The program covers the needs of space (square footage), number and capacities of classrooms and offices, and spatial affinities both within the building and between the new building and the rest of campus.

Once a program has been established and the architect is ready to start setting pen to paper, a project team is assembled. Structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers are brought in to begin fleshing out the details of the design. Landscape and interior architects are tasked with their respective design responsibilities. Consultants are hired to provide specific services, which vary according to need but can include technological disciplines, food service, and wayfinding.

As these pre-design and design development phases move toward developing construction documents for bidding and building, the campus technology representatives are consulted for their input. But importantly, whether this happens toward the beginning of the process or the week before the bid g'es out is a determining factor in the success of any building project from a technology standpoint. Kari Campbell, director of Technical Services at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, (MN) remembers a recent project: “Technology was the last thing considered. We were left to review the plans to try and find the things that were missing. Electrical outlets, lighting, and switching of lights are often not part of the planning. But when [technology is] left to the very end instead of being integral to the planning at the very beginning, it becomes a conflict.”

"The owner's representative monitors design and construction, manages budgets and deadlines, and solves problems -- all with the owner's interests represented first."

The importance of coordination with the electrical engineer especially, is hard to overstate in technology planning and design. As for what information the electrical engineer needs, Gayland Bender of St. Paul, MN-based consulting engineers LKPB (www.lkpb.com) explains: “Each design team member needs to know enough about technology to determine how it may affect his respective responsibilities for design of the facility; therefore, the electrical engineer should be asking for the input early on. He should schedule meetings specifically for technology input to the building space program, to capture interface requirements such as computer-grade quality power for electronically sensitive equipment, proper light controls for rooms with multimedia presentations, and isolated ground boards in technology rooms, to bleed off static electricity and establish a uniform ground plane for the operation of all equipment.” As the member of the design team who specifies electrical outlets, lighting and light switching, electrical screen connections, power protection, ceiling projector outlets, conduit inside of walls for security/multimedia/structured cabling systems, and sleeving for low-voltage pathways throughout a building, the electrical engineer needs to understand, early on, what the owner’s present and future needs will be.

With respect to technology, one of the main functions of the electrical engineer is to ask questions. Clients often question such an inquisitive approach, says Brian Rice, with Minneapolis institutional architects Horty Elving (www.hortyelving.com). “Some ask, ‘If you’re the expert, why are you asking this?’ But asking questions might open up options that they weren’t aware of, and if we can avoid putting something in that d'esn’t belong, why not avoid changes in advance by listening to the end users?”

Consultants play an important role in most new construction or renovation projects. Most architecture and engineering firms cannot afford to maintain full-time specialists in technology design areas such as multimedia, cabling, networking, telephony, and wireless. So, wherever there is a gap in expertise on the architect’s design team, a consultant can provide specialized expertise. Consultants are frequently retained on the college or university side as well; IT staffing levels are often barely sufficient to maintain and support current systems, much less provide hundreds of hours to support a years-long design and construction process. Retaining a consultant can allow a campus technology group to have early and continuous involvement in the design process without adding FTEs (full-time employees or equivalents) or having to manage the construction document-and-meeting bureaucracy.

Technology consultants can also bridge the gaps that often exist between the campus technology groups, the architects, and the engineers. Campus technology representatives usually know what they and their end users need, but they are not intimately familiar with the construction process, construction documentation, bid specifications, and drawing formats, or with the labyrinthine steps required to get a change made once the construction documents are finished. Architects and engineers often have a generalist-level understanding of the relevant technologies, but not the specialist-level expertise necessary for high-level integration of technology with building systems. The role of the technology consultant is to bring these two groups together, to bring knowledge of what other campuses are doing and how similar technology/design integration problems have been solved elsewhere, and to provide each group with the assurance that its needs are being met. Ken Anderson, a project manager with the national construction management firm CPMI (www.cpmi.com), sums up the consultant’s role: “A good technology consultant ties everything together.”

Also in the picture in many projects is the owner’s representative. This could be a member of the campus administration or facilities department, an architect (usually not from the firm or firms designing the building), or a construction management firm. The role of the owner’s representative is to monitor the design and construction processes, manage budgets and deadlines, and solve problems that arise during the course of the project, doing all of this with the owner’s interests represented first and foremost.

Because technology is often installed toward the end of a construction project (with some systems literally the last to hold up building completion), there is potential for conflict, both in terms of schedules and budgets. Built-in technology may be only 1 to 3 percent of the overall project budget, but if cost overruns in other parts of the building eat into contingency funds, there may be little flexibility available on the part of the owner’s representative to accommodate change requests late in the project. A key to successfully working with an owner’s representative is to let that individual know about technology and related needs early, in terms of time, probable costs, and coordination with other groups.

"In some of our higher ed projects, each department wants servers under its control; a mini server room in its area."

-Jeffrey Lee, HGA

The Building

Large campus construction projects are often split into multiple design packages for different types of contractors, depending on the phase of the project. Each package has implications for technology.

The excavation and preliminary sitework package should be planned to allow for copper and/or fiber connectivity between the new building and the rest of campus. The extent to which the campus network is used for telephony/voice systems, or by security for monitoring cameras and alarms, and by facilities for monitoring building systems, will help determine the appropriate sizes, quantities, and channeling of in-ground pathways.

The building construction package, while often not containing much actual technology equipment, is the key to successful technology integration. What follows is a partial list of questions that should be asked in order to flush out the elements of the building construction design package that are essential to successful technology-enabled teaching:

Is there enough room for everything? Jeffrey Lee, telecom designer for the nationwide architecture firm HGA (www.hga.com), notes that “in some of our higher education projects, there’s an IT group to handle data servers, but each department wants its own servers under its control; they want a mini server room in their areas. Especially in the performing arts, each of that area’s studios needs space for equipment racks, or needs to have a control room nearby.” Clearly, space issues for technology equipment need to be dealt with in the program or early pre-design phases, not when the walls are going up.

Are things in the right place? Due to distance limitations of current copper-based LAN cabling, the relative positions of the technology rooms (TR) and main equipment room (MER) on the horizontal and vertical axis through the building need to be within the specifications of the initial cabling technologies. When an architect moves a technology room early in the design phase (in order to give the department chair a larger office, for example), the technology cost and functional implications are not considered, unless someone is at the table to explain the permissible parameters.

Can everybody see? Today, most technology-enabled teaching rooms are being designed as projection-centric or projection-capable, meaning that the main electronic visual aide to teaching is one or more front-projected images at or near the front of the classroom. To facilitate this use of projection technology, a sightline study is necessary to determine two things: First, d'es each student seat have a comfortable visual pathway to one or more of the projected images? Second, d'es the projector have a line-of-sight to the screen? Since construction plans for lighting frequently do not state the fixture type on the drawing, but refer to a separate appendix or table, it can be time-consuming to make sure that (for instance) no pendant lights are hanging in-between the projector and the screen. Also, the use of varying ceiling heights and soffits, while useful in some respects, can, without careful coordination, make the projector-screen relationship problematic. Another important part of help-ing to create a projector-capable classroom is the “switching” of lights (addition of on/off or dim capability). Says Campbell at MCTC: “Instructors really want the ability to turn off lights above the screen, for instance.” Switching only the lights directly in front of the screen d'es two things: It prevents direct spill of light onto the screen, effectively raising the screen-image contrast ratio and apparent image quality by improving black levels, and it allows the instructor to keep the rest of the lights in the room on for notetaking and so that the instructor can continue to see and be seen.

Amazingly, technologists are often brought in after construction plans are complete and network drop locations, data closets, and server rooms are planned.

Can everybody hear? Classroom acoustics get a lot of attention, but are often subject to concerns beyond that of what is best for learning and teaching. “Lighting and acoustics have a great impact on the way students can learn, but they tend to be value-engineered out of projects,” notes Fitzgerald at Minnesota. “The classroom is a sophisticated teaching and learning system; basic design elements need to be considered from the outset.” This is especially important when class sessions involve distance education interactivity or are recorded for video-ondemand playback; the room needs to be quiet with respect to the noise generated by the HVAC system, and nearby plumbing and electrical transformer systems. Noise criteria specifications can be used to convey to the architectural team what the acceptable amount of noise would be from the building systems. The other main source of intruding noise is from environments outside the classroom: adjoining classrooms, hallways, other floors above and below the classrooms, and the outdoors. Windows, doors, walls, and floors need to be carefully considered in terms of how they contribute to the learning environment by shutting out distractions. Finally, reverberation is a factor that needs to be controlled in large classrooms: The RT60 (or reverberation) rating needs to be appropriate for the type and size of the instructional space.

Successful Approaches

Get technologists involved early. Campus technologists and building designers agree that the most important approach to integrating campus architecture with technology-enabled teaching is to get the campus technology people involved early in the process. There are at least three main benefits in early involvement by the campus technology team(s):

1) Being in sync with the program. This means that the design team explains the intended use of the various spaces so that the technology groups can identify the possible technologies that will be needed in the space. Often, technologists are merely handed a set of blueprints and told to add their “stuff. ” Yet, involving the campus technologists in the programmatic detail of how the end users envision the spaces will be used allows technologists to assess potential needs more accurately, with fewer expensive changes late in the process or after project completion. Bender at LKPB agrees with this approach: “Facilities that are prepped for present and future cables and devices mean less cost of future installation, without tearing up walls, floors, ceilings, or finishes.” What’s more, discussion of the architectural program with technology staff at an early phase can bring to light additional program requirements that may have been overlooked with respect to technology issues.

2) Looking good. Involving the campus technology staff early in the process will help to develop the necessary user technology interfaces. This includes location of floor boxes, poke-throughs, wall plates, switches, and other cable access and control decisions. The earlier in the process that these can be identified, the more likely they can be resolved in a way that is user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing.

3) Protecting the dollars. Identifying technology needs early in the project ensures that adequate funds are budgeted for these needs. This will reduce the budget shock that results when administrators are presented with the actual technology budgetary needs midway through a project, long after the initial (inadequate) technology budget has been reduced further in order to pay for the terrazzo mosaic in the building’s lobby. Further, a free flow of information about best practices among architects, consultants, engineers, and campus technology staff allows standards to be raised where appropriate (and when new technologies have become available or are on the horizon), while retaining control over costs through careful evaluation of whether lists of requested items are necessary or sufficient.

Set standards. Another approach that has worked for many schools, is to develop a set of design standards that is given to the design team at the beginning of a project involving classrooms or instructional spaces. The standards cover all areas of design that impact or are impacted by technology, even though the technology itself is not specifically identified, because of the rapid change involved in telecommunications and audio/visual systems. Rather than listing model numbers of individual technology components, general assumptions are made regarding the use of projection systems, display monitors, cameras, and the need for interconnection cabling and cabling pathways. These standards should be reviewed at a high level every two to three years, to ensure that they represent the current best practices of the institution. Part of this review should involve looking at what comparable institutions are doing with respect to building and technology standards; an architect and/or consultant can prove useful for this review process.

In the End…
The success of providing technology-enabled teaching systems depends to a large degree on the ability of campus technology staffs to have their voices heard during the planning and design of campus building projects. Early involvement brings a greater degree of foresight in preventing costly changes, and it also helps build relationships and open lines of communication with the architects, engineers, owner’s representative, and consultants, for the inevitable changes that need to be made. Understanding the role that each person or group plays in the development of technology-enabled teaching spaces helps everyone on campus do his job better.

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