Audiovisual Planning | Interview

Avoiding the Pitfalls of AV Planning

"AV in education is a long-term investment for everyone," according to audiovisual expert Scott Walker. In this interview with Campus technology, he explains how to give that investment the best chance of success and reveals the kinds of problems that can sometimes get in the way that success, especially in the planning stages.

Walker is founder, president, and CEO of Decatur, GA-based Waveguide Consulting and has been an independent AV consultant for 20 years, with a concentration in colleges and universities. At his current company, which he founded in 1996, he's handled more than 160 higher education projects at 50 universities in 20 states.

This is the second in a two-part interview with Walker. You can read the first part, "The State of AV in Education," here.

Denise Harrison: What is the role of AV in the planning process of a new project, such as a new building on campus?

Scott Walker: We've done work on nearly 100 different higher education institutions around the country, and the big challenge we see today is the project teams' appreciation of the role of the technology manager from day one on a new project. Enlightened institutions will bring [technology managers] to the interview to help select the design team, and we think that is correct; they should have a seat at the table. Technology is so important to these projects. Why wouldn't you want your technology manager assessing the team and their experience from the beginning?

I'm always pleased when I walk into an interview and see someone with an InfoComm shirt on the other side of the table, because we want to meet with those folks even before we meet with faculty and administrators. We like to meet with the technology manager and have them give us a behind-the-scenes tour of their campus because there are a lot of lessons we can learn by seeing their successes, their near misses, and their utter disasters.

Harrison: What is lacking when the AV manager isn't included from the beginning of the process?

Walker: If we don't get to meet with the technology manager early on, we tend to get one side of the wish list--which is not invalid, but it's one-sided to say, "We want what the guys across town have," or, "What I saw at this symposium," or "What Harvard has." We as consultants can't just be order takers; we have to be consultants. We have to say, "Okay, did you find out what staff Harvard has? Or how they support it across town? How are you going to operate it, maintain it, and incentivize faculty?"

Also, we appreciate that there could be emerging campus standards. Most of our projects tend to be three to four years long on the higher education side. If we don't meet the technology manager until year 2, we may be blind to the work they are doing in other buildings across campus. What if our standards don't align with theirs? So we always request that meeting ASAP so that we don't run into our specifications doing one thing and campus standards doing another.

Harrison: What are some of the challenges you face during the planning phase?

Walker: I would say that it can be very frustrating sometimes to have extensive conversations and a lot of budget allocation toward things that do not support the functional goal of the project.

These places are for people to learn and communicate first and foremost. Often though, the people making the decisions spend time talking about the building's impact on the campus, or quad, or what statement the building makes from this intersection. Those are valid considerations, but if too much emphasis is put on those factors and not enough on what people do inside this building, the project may not meet its intended goals.

My least favorite room to design is a large distance learning room for which the owner has no real program.... These rooms can be expensive to do well, and there really should be a need for the space, not just put it in because "we may need it someday." These rooms tend to be underutilized, and when the owner is ready to use them, [the owner has] likely forgotten how to operate the technology, or it's out of date.

It is far better to enter a project where the owner says, "We have an extensive distance learning program, and we need more and better space to expand the program." Now, those are great projects.

When you put functionality first and foremost, you have buildings that have more success as a living, viable entity on campus.

Harrison: What are some of the pitfalls that occur during the planning phase?

Walker: On planning, I think that some clients want to jump straight to the gear and overstep the importance of good room design, acoustics, layout, and lighting. We always try to emphasize this work as fundamental to the systems delivering on their value. A good camera in a poorly-lit space is not a good camera. A bright projector in a room with high ambient light is not a bright projector, and a good mic in a noisy room is good at picking up all that noise.

It's important to plan spaces with the understanding that, during the life of that building, the technology will change five to 10 times, but the infrastructure may not change much at all. You can change the appliances at the end of the cabling, but they are only enhanced if the environment is ready to receive them. We therefore work closely with the architect and building engineers to ensure good lighting, good acoustics, good space plans, and infrastructure that can accommodate future technology changes.

Harrison: What are the differences that set AV in education apart from corporate projects?

Walker: Typically, corporate work is 12 to 18 months tops, which is a big difference from higher education, in which a typical project is typically three to four years. Another big difference it the utilization rate. In higher ed, each room is used all day, every hour. So for the higher education institution, there are higher maintenance costs [and] more opportunities for failure, and equipment wears out more quickly. You need to accommodate change in both corporate and education environments, but, in higher education, we don't have the luxury of much down time until summer. Also in higher education, when you decide to deploy something new like widescreen projection or lecture capture, how do you go back and touch all the 200 to 300 rooms on campus? When, and if ever, do you do that?

Harrison: What are the challenges in system design?

Walker: We believe [in] having a master plan that says, "Here's where we are today; here is where we want to go; and here is a phased approach to getting all the academic spaces to this level. Here are the plans, the budget, and the schedule. Now, how long can a group of rooms be offline?" It's a big scheduling challenge. Thus, on a large, new construction project, you really have to make the technology right the first time. We want to hold off that day of reckoning as long as possible for the massive upgrade. And we definitely don't want to have to upgrade the technology the within a year or two of the building opening.

Harrison: With such long-term projects, how do you ensure system design delivers state-of-the-art technology?

Walker: We tend to work on the large, more flagship facilities on campus, and we have to look at a balance between staying firmly rooted in the ingrained campus standards and pushing the envelope toward the latest generation of equipment that will have the longest life in the building. In our experience, we tend to favor the latter because, when the owner makes a capital investment in a new medical or business school or even a large classroom building, you need it to last five to seven years on technology front. We tend to err on the side of seeing where the trend lines are headed and providing a system design that gives the most shelf life to that initial investment. Right now, we are dealing with HDMI and DisplayPort so that we can bring in digital media from the latest hardware out there and instructors have a place to plug in those digital devices.

One way we keep technology from becoming dated is, without exception, [to] bid the AV later in the project than the general construction bid. Let's say a building is on an 18-month construction schedule. We wouldn't bid out the AV until eight to nine months before the building opens. That gives us a whole model year to update the technology not only to get better and more current technology, but probably at a better price. The big, 100-inch-plus flat-panel displays went from more than $100,000 to $30,000 in the [last] year or so. Middle-sized displays (nominally 70 inches) went from $20,000 or $30,000 to $6,000 or $7,000. So getting that technology at the most advantageous time is the project schedule makes sense for getting the best technology at the best price.

Harrison: What is a typical time frame for your projects?

Walker: So if we land a project today, and if the project is three to four years long, it will be several years in development, and we want it to last for seven years. That's 2020--a full decade out. One can't look only at where technology is today. You have to forward cast the trend lines to deliver a successful design.

Harrison: How do the long design times affect your decisions?

Walker: Generally on a large capital investment, people are loath to put more money into the project any time before five years of use of that building. The result is that often in the early planning, the budget seems high. The reason is because we want to specify not the cheapest projector, but one that will meet future needs. It could be a cheap unit, but it might not be. Having bid nearly 1,000 projects in my career, I know being too shortsighted about the decline of equipment costs can result in a budget that is too pinched in three years when the AV bid goes out.

Harrison: What else do you emphasize during system design?

Walker: We believe that a good system design should also incorporate graphical user interface design. Many clients, particularly faculty and administrators, have a hard time reviewing CAD drawings or line diagrams of systems; they are too technical and arcane to many people.

We like to design from "teacher walks into room, then what happens?" process, rather than design from the standpoint of putting a bunch of devices on a CAD drawing and hoping a functional system emerges. How many buttons does it take for a teacher to initiate and engage in a class session? How many button presses does it take to capture a lecture or lower the lights, close the shades, select a PC, and project on a screen? These are the drivers we think should be the basis for a good AV design. For far too long, the software side of the business was given too little attention. A major part of system design is how intuitively you operate this thing.

Harrison: What if the campus-wide standard is crappy?

Walker: If it's crappy, it's a challenge, yet crappy-but-ubiquitous has its merits. Cutting-edge-but-improved-and-unique can have its drawbacks. This is where having good relationship with technology manager can help mitigate this challenge. They may decide that it's time to do new user interface on this campus; or maybe not, if they just invested in the old but functional interface in 100 rooms.

It is a worthy debate on every project we do. Three quarters end up with a more updated user interface because of the scale of projects that we typically do. If it's one or 10 rooms, we probably won't buck the trend. If it's 50 rooms, it may not be a bad idea to set up the system for longevity. Most projects fall in between, so that's where the relationship with the technology manager is so important.

Harrison: How does system design in education differ from corporate?

Walker: The big difference in corporate and education system design is that the average corporate space is much smaller than the average educational space. The average college classroom has 40 seats; the average corporate meeting room has eight. A big corporate space is a small classroom. In larger rooms, it's a difference between six to 40 seats for a meeting room and 30 for seminar rooms, 300 for a lecture hall. So there is much more emphasis on high-lumen projection, on lighting design, and on acoustics and audio issues.

Harrison: What are the challenges when it comes to installation?

Walker: The No. 1 issue during the construction phase and installation of the AV is coordination with the general contractor to schedule with the AV integrator's work. The AV integrator has months of off-site assembly and rack building, testing systems in their shop. AV rough in can happen while the building is still dusty, but then there are several months of onsite work after the building is dust-free. So our biggest challenge is when the general contractor's schedule slips a few weeks here or there, they may meet their contractual obligation for "substantial completion," but that may be two to three weeks before the semester starts. Then, the AV community has to pull off a modern miracle and light up 40 to 50 rooms in a two-week period. At best, we'd get minimal functionality out of the systems. The more expensive features the client has paid for don't come online for maybe another semester or more.

What happens when a client moves into a building and technology isn't finished is it becomes incredibly slow to get to completion. We get a day here, a few hours there, and it may take months and months to get everything even 90 percent, much less 100 percent.

We've had clients who, rather than open a building half done, pushed the opening back an entire semester. That's a painful move in the short term because everyone's anticipating moving into the new building. It may be better in the long term though because waiting is better than spending that first year fighting fires.

It is not in a client's best interest to have dates slip, so it is important to dictate drop dead dates for buildings to be AV-ready. When dates slip, they impact the functionality.

Harrison: What are the best approaches when it comes time for implementation and owner use?

Walker: First, there needs to be a deliberate training phase to the project. We have to train the trainers, usually the technicians who are going to support the faculty for the long term. It's important they get a deep level of technical training to anticipate issues, do troubleshooting, and be able to adapt, if they have to make the technology do something it may not have been designed to do when first installed. Equally important is training and welcoming faculty to the new environment, particularly if the project entails setting a new campus benchmark.

We need to make faculty feel as at home in the new environment. Often we'll do multiple sessions and give faculty several dates to attend their training. More recently we have been recording those sessions to make them available online so faculty who couldn't or wouldn't attend still have the resource to get the full training. This also allows the tech managers to do training sessions after the fact and use the recording training as a reference.

A better approach when we are doing a benchmark project or setting a new standard for the campus is to build a prototype classroom for them and have it available before the building opens. Thus, faculty can experience the new technology in an offline and safe (from embarrassment) environment. These rooms can later be used as faculty development labs, as places for people to experiment with different technologies, and where faculty can work on materials in a technologically equipped setting ... not on the registrar's schedule.

We can specify all the technology in the world, and we can train faculty on every aspect of the rooms, but it still may require a champion from the owner's side to encourage a mind shift among the faculty to experiment with new pedagogical approaches. We've designed forward-thinking rooms only to see them be underutilized, so in those instances was it worth the cost to design something that isn't highly used? Obviously not.

[On the flip side], we've also seen programs in some institutions where they provide additional support and staff for creating content, or challenging faculty to reassess instructional delivery to keep it relevant and current with what today's students will respond to best.

Harrison: What are the challenges that faculty present?

Walker: Some faculty will say, "I only need to know how to make the PC go on the screen and I can figure that out." They may not be using the systems to their full potential. Faculty members are pressed for time and may not have time to experiment. They just need to deliver their content and move on.

We are beginning to design more and more problem-based learning spaces. The trend toward student-centered interactive spaces that are out there creates a shift in approach from standard lecture presentation mode to problem-based learning style of teaching. So, what incentives are there for faculty to take on the transitional burden of recasting their curriculum in a new teaching model? Perhaps seeing improved test scores adds a value proposition for faculty. Teachers who are raising the quality of education on the campus should be worth more to the institution.

Harrison: How else is technology changing faculty's attitudes?

Walker: There is a healthy debate around classroom capture. If I am an instructor and you are going to take my lectures and capture them digitally, am I happy or not? What are my intellectual property rights here, and do I get a residual every time it's played? Are these lectures made available to the general public, or only to those who have taken my course? Those are the debates hashing out on campuses today about content in the classroom.

There is a happy middle ground where some material is captured and more class time is discussion facilitated by the instructor. This could be the best of both worlds for faculty and students and could provide a richer experience with better retention and higher scores, which benefits the institution.

Harrison: What changes are happening in the way the AV industry addresses ongoing support?

Walker: When the ribbon cutting happens, the owner may be largely done with the architect, but not with the AV consultant, integrator, and software programmer. But I think for far too long the [AV] industry has been interested in getting off the job site. We need to be focused on staying on the campus in a different role, obviously, [from the role played] during design and construction. We should seek to support our systems for the lifetime of the systems.

We could do that in the traditional system maintenance contract or with an updated version where we remove the restriction of calendar time. If a system fails Dec. 31, is it any different from one that fails Jan. 1? It's an artificial deadline. The service models are long overdue for improvement. We started firstwave (Waveguide's ongoing support division), which provides ongoing support to clients by selling to them a bucket of hours. Those buckets are good whenever they want to use them. There is no expiration date, and they can be used whenever, whether it's a day from now, a month from now, or years from now. You run out of hours and you're happy with the service? You simply buy more. Under a firstwave agreement we can provide ongoing consulting as technology evolves to assess its impact on the original system design, we can assist with troubleshoot and software/firmware upgrades, we can provide additional training, and a host of other consultative services.

Harrison: Do you have advice to offer education institutions about how best to work with an AV consultant?

Walker: The best thing an institution can do to get the project off to a good start is to write an informed and informative RFP. When we have to write a proposal knowing next to nothing about the project, it's nearly impossible for an owner to compare apples to apples. We may know it's a business school and 100,000 square feet. But is that 80,000 of instructional space and 20,000 of administration? Or is it 80,000 admin and 20,000 of classrooms? Do they want lecture capture in every room? Are they looking for a "wow" factor in the lobby? This type of information informs our proposal.

Besides the physical structure, it is also important to know what people want to accomplish. Are they part of an international outreach and are they engaging remote participants across the globe? Do they need to be a part of the local business community and invite people from industry into the building and if so, how should that work? Are there non-traditional students who need to access content whenever and wherever because they are working adults and not 18-year-olds on campus? Focusing on the right projector or videoconferencing equipment doesn't get you to those answers. But understanding the client's mission and where they are headed, you can have a better shot at fulfilling their vision.

Harrison: What are some of the trends on the horizon?

Walker: We have design standards in house, but we are constantly evolving those to incorporate the best of what's out there to keep the systems where they don't have to be upgraded the day the building opens. We are currently experimenting with the iPad as a presentation tool or control panel, or both. So, for instance, in the coming weeks we'll begin experimenting with the Apple iPad to see how people may want to use this as a presentation tool, control panel, or both.

Harrison: And in the industry?

Walker: InfoComm put out a great AV Best Practices book. Every AV manager should have a copy and should give a copy to the facilities folks and campus architects and explain that this is a process we need to follow. It is very deliberate on how to hire an AV professional, what deliverables to expect, and how early to bring them in, for example.

InfoComm is bringing these best practices into an ANSI standard as well. In doing so, InfoComm is raising the profile of these best practices. I recently told an architect about the pending standard and that they could ask for our services to simply comply with this ANSI standard. I saw a marked change in his expression when I used the word ANSI. What that means is that by using companies that can deliver a project to the ANSI standard, the client not only gets services they need, but they will also get apples-to-apples proposals.

That ANSI standard is currently in final revision and will be released in the next few months.

Harrison: Any final words?

Walker: AV in education is a long-term investment for everyone. The role for the integrator, the software programmer, and the consultant is that they all should be engaged long-term in the building in a collaborative and supportive way. As for the client, it's not a one-time buy when a building opens. It's a life-long buy as long as you are in the business of teaching students. Once you invest in technology it's a one-way street. You have to continue the investment. Making a good first step can have long-reaching benefits to the institution.

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