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Getting Your Money's Worth From Integrators

With the use of video exploding in higher education, it's vital for schools to plan scalable A/V systems that work seamlessly. Consultants and integrators may be your best bet.

Getting Your Money's Worth From Integrators
InfoComm showcases a dazzling array of A/V product options. (Photo courtesy of InfoComm International)

Last month in Orlando, FL, InfoComm 2013 kicked off the annual parade of the latest audio and video bling. As anyone who's ever wandered the aisles of the exhibit hall can attest, the wealth of tech choices--and the speed with which innovations and upgrades are rolled out--is mind-bending. And a little intimidating. Despite the best efforts of A/V manufacturers to make their products simple to operate, persuading equipment from different vendors to play nicely within an integrated system can be tricky. That's why so many schools turn to outside professionals--technology consultants and integrators--to help them design, source, and install new systems on campus.

This story appears in the June 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

Technology consultants and integrators play complementary roles. A consultant is generally brought in to help a school envision, design, and manage technology implementations. They are often hired during the design phase of a new building, for example, to determine what spaces are needed to meet technology requirements. Or they might create the specifications for a renovation of a building's A/V system.

Although integrators are also often involved in the planning and design phases, their role is primarily to install equipment and systems, from cable and projectors to digital signs, wireless access points, and mass-notification speakers. With increasing frequency, they are also programming the connections between A/V and IT systems and providing round-the-clock help desk support.

While these tasks can be complex, IT departments are no slouches either--they employ a lot of smart people who could manage both the design and implementation phases. So why would a school go to all the expense of bringing in outside talent?

For starters, it might be more cost-efficient. While consultants sometimes get a bad rap for being bottomless money pits, this reputation probably stems from the fact that a consultant's billing is both highly visible--it appears on the books as a line item--and the expense is above and beyond the normal IT budget. But a one-time hit for a good consultant can be far more cost-effective than slowly hemorrhaging cash and resources as your IT team tackles design and planning issues with which it may be unfamiliar.

The same is true of integrators. After working with lots of different institutions on similar projects, they bring a wealth of experience to the table, allowing them to execute faster and more efficiently. They know the processes, they know the products, they know the building codes for the region, and they own the necessary tools. They also have the appropriate insurance and disability coverage for the physical work that's involved. Chuck Wilson, executive director of the National Systems Contractors Association, a not-for-profit association that supports companies that work with electronics and A/V systems, says he knows of several incidents where schools unthinkingly sent software engineers out to mount equipment, resulting in staffers hurting themselves and damaging the equipment in the process.

A Matter of Perspective
It doesn't matter how efficient your IT team is if it doesn't know where it's going in the first place. And it's here that consultants and integrators can really pull their weight. Given their broad experience, they offer a perspective that is often missing internally. In other words, outside professionals can see the forest for the trees.

"Clients tend to look backwards rather than forwards," says Michael Leiboff, president of Edtech Planning Group, an educational technology and learning facilities design firm. "They see the problem as something based on the technology that's available, rather than asking the question, 'What are we trying to do from a pedagogical standpoint and from a curriculum standpoint?'" While Leiboff may be a bit biased, he believes consultants are more likely to ask how classrooms are supposed to work, and "how do we want to orchestrate the human factors experience so that students learn in the most effective way?"

Integrators can also help set expectations. When a 3,000-student college wants the same system recently installed at a huge public university, for example, integrators can help reframe the discussion. "The small college doesn't have the resources that the big public university does," explains Wilson. "They don't have the staff and they don't have the budget, but our integrator members are really good at helping them [put together a system] with many of the same features and benefits--on a scale that's applicable to them. The right size systems for the size of the school."

The ability to see the bigger picture is particularly important when it comes to future-proofing new buildings. For a recent consulting job on a new classroom building at Harvard Business School (MA), for example, Leiboff recognized the need for a media-collection center to handle all the video that would be generated in the new classrooms.

"It's the sort of place that nobody thinks of when they do a building plan," explains Leiboff. "They think of the classrooms, storage, bathrooms, but not where the technology is going to go." In the Harvard case, Leiboff recommended three times more space than the current setup would have used, and that space became the central recording area for all classrooms on campus.

And the importance of video is only going to grow, says Leiboff. For the past 15 years, he has been recommending that schools consider video origination whenever they design a new space. This means making provisions for fixed cameras, proper lighting, and decent acoustics. "Even if it's not on a school's radar now, all this online learning and MOOC stuff is the clearest proof that this is a reasonable idea," adds Leiboff.

Roles and Responsibilities
Whatever the A/V challenge may be, it's the consultant's responsibility to create the project specifications, including a description of the technology needed to do the job. Then he goes out and finds the technology. Consultants can also be instrumental in identifying the integrator to install the chosen technology. While consultants are not usually affiliated with specific brands, integrators often are since they must know the technology intimately. Therefore, the choice of an integrator is often determined by what technology has been selected.

At times, the lines between consultants and integrators blur. In a recent project for Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada, for example, A/V integrator Advanced worked with the school not only to design but also to implement new two-, four-, and six-projector flex classrooms. In its request for proposal, Sheridan stipulated that these classrooms should work as traditional lecture classrooms but also enable breakouts and collaboration. To this end, the school wanted portable lecterns that could be moved around the classroom and plug into the floor with minimal cabling.

The college came up with the requirements for the lectern, and then Advanced came up with the necessary parts. "We helped to design what the lecterns would look like, and then [Sheridan] went to a furniture company to get them made," explains Kevin Linton, director of design engineering at Advanced.

The design required just two points of contact in the floor--a plug for power and one LAN connection into the floor. The mobile lecterns contain a PC, a document camera, laptop input, control touch panel, wireless microphone, and lavalier microphone. Advanced also designed and installed a racking system mounted into the ceiling to hold the wireless microphone receivers and digital sound processors, making it possible to cut down on floor cabling.

The system relies on the school's network and can communicate with every device on the network. "Using the existing network infrastructure to help A/V staff see the goods on the network is unique and very important for support," says Mark McPherson, vice president at Advanced.

Integrating A/V and other campus electronics with networks is now a growing trend. "Everything is moving toward digital and moving toward the network," says Wilson. "We're seeing a lot of security-system-integration companies working with campus IT departments on seamless integration of their surveillance systems."

Another trend is the use of integrators to provide technical support services for the products they install. "They do everything from the physical installation of wiring, to setting up all the hubs, routers, servers, firewalls, and everything to do with the network to operating a help desk," says Wilson.

How to Hire A/V Integrators

The Office of Information Technology at Duke University (NC) publishes a web page titled Audio/Video Best Practices. As part of those best practices, it offers the following guidance on soliciting requests for proposals from A/V integrators.

A well-written request for proposal will:

  • Include technical requirements for each space and specific capabilities
  • Indicate that there will be an open meeting at the halfway mark of the proposal period for a Q&A session for all integrators to attend
  • Include dates for submission, review, and approval
  • Specifically indicate level of detail that needs to be included in proposals from integrators. Examples include:
    • Detailed summary of functionality to be enabled in each room broken out by audio and video systems
    • A detailed scope of work to be performed by the A/V integrator by room
    • Contact information for proposed A/V integrator project manager
    • Specific equipment list to include quantity, cost, extended cost, model #, and part # separated by room
    • Proposed timeline of work to be performed (upon acceptance, a detailed project plan and timeline will be required 2 weeks after signed agreement)
    • Detailed explanation of maintenance/service contract to include warranty coverage
    • Detailed explanation of service procedures for a standard service call as well as service escalation procedures
    • If Crestron code is to be utilized, a Crestron code release agreement will need to be included. This agreement will indicate transfer of ownership of the Crestron code and associated modules at the completion of the integration.
    • Explanation of user training that will be provided (# of hours, # of people to be trained)
    • Expectations of Owner Furnished Equipment (OFE)
    • List of documentation to be included at completion of project (e.g., wiring diagrams per room, equipment serial numbers, equipment operation manuals)
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