Case Study

Classroom Support at UNCC Goes Both Ways

A simple two-way digital intercom system installed in classrooms at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has greatly reduced the support department's response time. And although it hasn't been used for an emergency yet, the intercom system can also serve to instantly broadcast a single message to all or some classrooms at once.

UNC Charlotte, with 20,000 students, 1,400 faculty, and 74 buildings, is located on a sprawling campus of some 1,000 acres. Increased use of technology such as computers and projectors in the classroom was resulting in increased reports of technical problems by instructors. The support department, in turn, was struggling to respond in a timely fashion, sometimes leading to class cancellations because of malfunctioning equipment. Also, descriptions by instructors after the fact often weren't sufficient to pinpoint the problem.

The university previously used a one-way intercom system to allow problem reporting, but one-way reports from instructors weren't sufficient to describe problems, and a technician could be dispatched without the appropriate equipment.

UNCC eventually selected an inexpensive, scalable, easy to install IP-based solution from Digital Acoustics called the ii3 Internet Protocol (IP) Intercom. "It's immediate, two-way communication with users," said Steve Clark, director of classroom support at the university. "It works flawlessly, [and] allows us to take care of 90 to 95 percent of [support] calls without leaving the office… We can respond to any help request in 10 minutes."

The Office of Classroom Support supports the entire campus using just Clark, one technician, and 10 student assistants. The farthest building supported is just over a mile away; Clark and his staff use a small cargo van to reach outlying buildings quickly.

Clark's office initially installed 100 of the Digital Acoustics intercoms in classrooms across campus; they've now increased coverage to 240 classrooms. The system, which works like a standard push to talk intercom system, is connected to UNCC's existing wire-based local and wide-area networks. Using standard TCP/IP network audio protocols, the intercoms provide instant two-way communication between an instructor and the campus helpdesk.

The intercom system could also prove useful in an emergency. After an on-campus emergency 18 months ago, Clark said, UNCC added a loud siren and a device atop the library that officials can use for broadcasts. UNCC also has a plan in place to use voicemail, email and web page postings as appropriate to keep students, faculty, and staff updated during an emergency.

After the Virginia Tech shooting in April, Clark suggested to administrators that the intercom system be added to the emergency alert plan as well. Announcements over the intercom are "a finishing touch" to the plan, he said--and a useful one, since Clark pointed out that at any given moment, most constituents on a college campus tend to be in class. From the central console, announcements can be sent to the entire campus over the intercom or selectively targeted. The intercom can also be used from the classroom, to request assistance. "We're working on a smooth handoff for medical emergencies," Clark said.

For technical support use, an instructor experiencing a problem simply pushes the intercom switch and describes the issue directly to Clark's support staff. Connection is instant. Clark has trained support representatives available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Clark said he is considering slightly longer hours. During the back and forth exchange over the intercom, the tech support person can quickly determine whether a service call is needed and can dispatch a technician to the room, if needed.

That can result in help within minutes, instead of a canceled class, as was happening before the new technology was in place.

A big advantage is that the TCP/IP-based intercom system doesn't require PCs, an important consideration since not every classroom at UNCC contains a computer.

Central management is the key to the system's efficiency, Clark said. "We're efficiently responding to volume of calls we're getting." Because he is using Crestrons RoomView software as well as the Digital Acoustics system, his staff can talk with instructors in classrooms over the intercom while remotely accessing the problem PC. RoomView allows a remote technician to monitor, manage and control any device in the classroom connected to a computer. "We can reboot systems manually, [do anything] short of replacing a light bulb," Clark said.

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