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Help at Hand

Centralized presentation control systems enable IT support staff to monitor equipment and assist end users more efficiently.

Centralized Control Systems IN THE PILOT STAGES of installing AMX's Meeting-Manager centralized presentation control technology, Eileen Aitken, Temple University's (PA) executive director of computer services, heard a member of her staff describe an incident that confirmed her hopes for the technology. "The first time it was installed in one of my support staffers' rooms, the instructor hit the ‘help button' on the AMX touchscreen, and my guy just happened to be on the same floor of the building. He received a text message on his phone that the instructor needed help, and he was in the room within minutes. The instructor was thrilled."

Aitken began the initial installation of AMX's Meeting- Manager server and its corresponding Netlinx control unit into designated "smart" classrooms in 2005, as part of a five-year plan to update and standardize smart classroom technology at Temple. The change came not a moment too soon: Between 1998 and 2005, requests for technology in classrooms at Temple had increased by 239 percent.

"We were dealing with this demand by delivering carts of equipment to classrooms," recalls Aitken. "It was very laborintensive, and it was time-consuming. The instructors didn't like the carts because they had to deal with the remote controls, and there were cables draped across the rooms that caused tripping hazards. It needed to change."

The time had come to move away from delivering equipment to classrooms via cart, and instead have the equipment permanently installed in designated smart classrooms, scheduling the faculty who needed technology into those specific rooms.

Today, about 70 percent of the classrooms at Temple are equipped with an AMX touch panel, linked via a Netlinx controller to an in-classroom computer, projector, DVD/VCR player, and speakers. (The classrooms currently are standardized on Dell PCs, Panasonic projectors, and JBL speakers.) The devices are connected via the school's existing Ethernet network to a centralized AMX MeetingManager server in the Computer Services office. MeetingManager displays information related to the status of each unit, updated in real time, on a "hot list"-- a log of usage activity and alerts (such as a notice that a projector bulb is nearing the end of its expected life, or an alert that a projector has been unplugged from the network), viewable from any location via a browser-based console. The system also can push out alerts via text message or e-mail to staffers working in the field. "We like to be as proactive as possible in preventing problems," says Aitken. "Our goal is to have zero classroom downtime due to technology-related issues."

AMX MeetingManager's help button feature has proved to be an effective aid in reaching that goal. With the push of a button-- standard on every AMX touch panel-- a professor sends an alert via text message, e-mail, and the hot list to computer services staff, indicating that he or she is in need of assistance. If a staff member receives the text message on his cell phone while he happens to be near the professor's location, he can be there in mere moments. A staffer who receives the alert at his computer can call the affected classroom, or send messages via MeetingManager to the professor's touch panel. "We can even see the classroom system remotely, and take control of the classroom system from our desks," explains Aitken. "So, for example, if the issue is that the classroom projector is muted, we can access the touch panel for that particular room and unmute the projector, fixing the problem immediately."

The adoption of the classroom control technology has not been without its kinks, however. For instance, if the network goes down, the help button won't work. And in the implementation phase, Aitken and her team discovered that they would need to work with Temple's Network Services department to identify and open the correct firewall ports to allow communication between the classrooms and the main control unit. "We now have this technology in 27 buildings on four campuses, so it's not surprising that we had to open up some firewall channels," she says.

Protecting Equipment

Richard Dunbar, media services manager at Wayne State University (MI), has had similar success with the installation of Crestron's RoomView technology throughout Wayne State's Detroit campus. Dunbar was initially drawn to centralized presentation control technology because of the added protection it provides for classroom equipment: An alert is sent to the RoomView server if a device is unplugged from the network.

Along with the risk of equipment being stolen from classrooms on the urban campus, Dunbar and his staff also had to contend with "helpful adjustments" made to the devices by well-meaning faculty. For example, "A professor who doesn't need the projector might unplug the unit from the power outlet because he doesn't know how to power it off," he explains. "At the end of the class, he leaves without plugging the projector back in. The next professor in the room calls my staff and says the system won't work for him, and we end up sending a technician out just to plug the projector back into the wall."

Currently, 125 of the 200 classrooms on Wayne State's main campus are equipped with Crestron touch panels. Each classroom's custom-designed Spectrum equipment cart contains a computer (from Dell), monitor (from NEC) a DVD/VCR unit (from Zenith), inputs for an MP3/CD player, and a document camera (from Elmo). Each classroom also features a ceiling-mounted projector (from Epson) and recessed ceiling speakers (from Atlas Sound). All devices are controlled by the touch panel. "We designed the rack to conceal all aspects of the equipment that the instructor never needs to see, such as the body of the Crestron system," notes Dunbar. "Instructors can't turn anything on or off, they can't adjust any settings, they can't do anything to the equipment directly. Everything they need can be done from the touch panel."

The main display of the touch panel offers a list of sources: computer, document camera, MP3 player, etc. If a professor chooses "computer," both the computer and the projector will power on, and controls for the computer and projector will appear on the touch panel. If a professor chooses "MP3 player," the projector will remain powered off. "We tried to eliminate the number of buttons a professor would need to push before he could begin his lesson," explains Dunbar.

Like AMX MeetingManager, the Crestron RoomView server provides a constant flow of status updates and alerts to a centralized help desk. "If a professor calls to alert us to a problem, we call up his classroom on our RoomView software and we get the exact same interface that the instructor has," explains Dunbar. "We can actually operate the system from our help desk, which really cuts down on the number of times we need to physically send a technician to the classrooms."

Involving Stakeholders

Both Dunbar and Aitken stress the importance of including multiple departments in the process of designing and implementing a new centralized presentation control system. Says Aitken, "We involved all the players right up front. That included Facilities, Network Services and Computer Security, our system guys, and the classroom technology support staff. It's key to get everyone in agreement on the importance of the project, because you need all those components." After building a prototype unit, Dunbar invited faculty to test the equipment and provide feedback. He found the instructors' suggestions to be invaluable. "For me, you always start with the end users," he insists. "If you can get their input and make something that's friendly to them, it's going to work."

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