IT Infrastructure and Systems
University of Idaho
UI developed a comprehensive classroom technology monitoring and early warning system, enabling a small group of technicians to provide top-notch faculty and equipment support.
- By Meg Lloyd, David Raths
The remodeling of the University of Idaho’s Teaching & Learning Center in 2005 put the school’s IT department in a bind. The number of technology-enhanced classrooms had nearly doubled to 70, yet IT still had only four full-time-equivalent employees to provide support.
“We were scared,” recalls Greg Clifford, classroom technology services manager. “We knew we had to come up with a proactive solution for managing all those extra rooms.”
The system they developed in house has allowed UI’s small group of technicians to receive up-to-the-minute status reports on all classroom projectors and audio/video equipment at a glance. Its monitoring capabilities enable them to respond more quickly to user requests as well as develop preventive maintenance plans to cut down on hardware failures.
“Faculty members have noticed how it has allowed us to respond to outages much more quickly,” says project lead Chuck Lanham, senior IT director. “If we didn’t have this system, we would definitely have more downtime.”
Although they considered purchasing a turnkey classroom monitoring system, Classroom Technology Services team members decided to develop their own system by integrating a few key components into each classroom and building a customized web-based application. “We thought we could create something for less and tailor it to our specific needs, such as inventory control,” Clifford says.
Vendor & Product Details
Synaccess Networks: synaccess-net.com
The Constant Awareness and Quick Response System, created by lead programmer John Neff, enables technicians to actively monitor classroom systems in the office, in the field, or at home via a web-based status page as well as through e-mail and text alerts. The UI team boasts that constant monitoring allows technicians to repair, replace, or provide a workaround to a problem quickly, so classes rarely have to be canceled due to equipment problems.
Staffers monitor parameters such as ping status for IP- controlled devices, projector on/off, filter hours, lamp hours, current user logged into a system, last user logged into a system, log-in date and time, PC status, and server status. The system’s web status page also has links to archived information, maintenance journals, system drawings, and inventory data. Synaccess netBooter NP-02 power controllers make it possible for staffers to remotely power-cycle classroom equipment when a simple reboot isn’t effective. The system resides on a Dell PowerEdge 2950 server, which also serves as a file server for the team’s classroom support operations.
In the classrooms, AMX NetLinx controllers provide a mechanism for remotely gathering information from IP-based equipment (such as projectors). UI stocked the rooms with NEC NP3151W and NP3250W projectors, chosen for their ability to report status via e-mail, as well as their ability to be remotely monitored. “We have a one-stop assessment page that tells us when a projector needs a new filter or a bulb change,” Neff adds.
AMX Modero touch panels provide the user interface in each classroom. Classroom Technology Services designed the touch panel software to allow users to report problems to classroom support services via a help page. Support technicians also can remotely control the touch panels.
Besides helping improve support response times, the touch panels also fulfilled faculty users’ requests for improved ease of use by replacing all the classroom equipment’s remote controls with a single device. “Faculty had asked us to standardize things, so this allows them to learn one interface no matter what equipment they are using,” Clifford says.
Lanham notes that in-house software development has allowed the team to add features in response to user needs. “We used to have faculty telephone us from classrooms if there was a problem,” he says. Because the touch panels are IP-based, faculty users now can use them to ask for help via e-mail or text message—saving on telephone maintenance and other expenses. “Now the touch panel is used for that purpose every day,” says Lanham.
Going forward, the Classroom Technology Services team will continue to find new ways to innovate. For instance, as UI searches for a new emergency notification system, one requirement will be that it link into the monitoring system for classroom notifications.
Meg Lloyd is a Northern California-based freelance writer.
David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.