The Wacky World of AV in Higher Education

Greetings from UCLA. This is my first blog entry here at All Voices (I’d also been blogging over at AV-1.org, a great reference for higher ed folks), so I thought I would talk a bit about AV in higher education and my corner of the world.

It’s certainly been an interesting time to be in higher-ed AV these last few years. And by “interesting” I don’t necessarily mean fun or easy. We have been dealing with some of the biggest budget cuts we have ever faced; meanwhile the core technologies in our systems are changing on a foundational level. My group designs, builds, and installs AV systems in the roughly 200 non-departmental classrooms on campus. Although I’ve been here for 15 years, I don’t consider myself an expert in any of this. As fast as our little AV world seems to spin these days, it feels like a full-time job just to hold on and stay vaguely current.

Like many parts of the AV industry, the higher ed side of the house has taken quite a beating economically the last few years. My group has weathered things pretty well. We entered the rough times with a budget increase, the result of begging, pleading, and generating the requisite mountain of rationalization paperwork for many years. Additionally, University of California institutions tend to have the contracts, grants, endowments, and other income streams our Cal State and Community College compatriots often don’t. Here at UCLA only about 7 percent of the overall budget comes from the state – about a quarter of the operating budget.

I have a friend at one of the local community colleges where the AV budget is so tight that when a projector lamp fails, there’s just no projection in that room any more. Typically, the school will rack up a collection of projection-less rooms for a few months before getting the money to cover another lamp order.

I am encouraged by what I hear from my residential AV friends — that it looks like people are starting to spend money again — although much of higher ed will need to wait for state budgets to recover. On top of that, some people are subject to state legislatures where the massive deficits are intellectual, not just financial.

Complicating the budgeting and planning here in higher ed are our own internal systems, which often defy logic when viewed from outside the ivy-covered walls. Particularly at “elite” universities, the competition for star faculty rivals that for star football or basketball players. Faculty often find themselves in a world where none of their decisions are questioned and they are considered the ultimate authority in all areas. It’s like college athletics, just without any NCAA regulations. Mix this with a system where departments are often their own separate fiefdoms, independent of outside control or influence, and it can create some interesting situations for higher education technology managers to deal with.

I recently explained to one department why reinstalling their U-matic deck into a system we’re building for them was a bad idea. I also just talked another department out of buying an opaque projector. Now, that equipment disappeared from the rooms we control years ago. And we just began a massive conversion from all-analog, button-panel-controlled rooms to touch panel-controlled, digital-capable systems, but it  wasn’t easy to get everyone on-board with the decision. There are many institutions out there that have yet to come to terms with how digital signals will affect them.

On top of such challenges, schools and colleges are easily among the largest AV installs. With a pool of about 200 rooms, we’re pretty big, but UCLA’s is in no way the biggest AV department out there. Large universities with more than 200 AV-equipped rooms under the control of one group are not uncommon.

All these issues combine to create a world where higher-ed tech managers often play ringmaster to an amazing circus of legacy equipment. Many of us still have slide projectors and overhead projectors in service somewhere on our campuses. At UCLA, we upgraded one auditorium last summer and quickly heard from an upset regular user: No more composite input meant they no longer had a place to plug in their portable laserdisc player. (We gave them a small scaler and explained the issues they’d have when their deck finally fails.)

One event that I hope to write about as soon as it happens is the installation of our last VCR. Yep, we’re still installing VCRs. And while most of my higher-ed colleagues are loath to admit it, we’re not the only ones. In our case, it was purely an avoidance maneuver. A final order for the summer’s installs. A “punt” downfield so that ultimately we can blame technology changes on a lack of equipment availability rather than take the more expeditious – but often dangerous – position of saying, “We just decided that….”

You have to pick your battles in this world.

Good news, though: I did just get the official blessing to remove the last remaining 16mm projectors from our auditoriums.

If all that craziness wasn’t enough, many of us in higher-education AV design and build our own systems. It’s a far greater percentage than most people realize. In a future post I’ll talk about some of the numbers I’ve seen, and the method behind our self-integration madness.

So welcome to my odd little corner of the higher education AV world. It’s a unique part of the AV industry — one that I anticipate will be fertile ground for discussion.

About Greg Brown

Greg is part of of the Classroom Technology Design and Maintenance group at UCLA, overseeing AV design, install and maintenance for most of the classrooms and AV-equipped spaces on campus. He is a member of InfoComm’s Technology Managers Council and a regular guest on AVNation’s monthly EdTech podcast. For more information, visit the Blogger Bios page.

12 Responses to “The Wacky World of AV in Higher Education”

  1. Hello everyone! I really appreciate the comments and the honesty. I knew a bunch of you were facing the same VCR conundrums. I just wasn’t sure how many would admit to it! Thanks for chiming in.

    It sounds like many of you have avoided the fight (like us) deciding to let obsolescence take the lead in getting rid of the VCR.

    And copyright issues – now there’s a topic we’re probably all wrestling with in some way. I should do a post about how we are getting sued for streaming material we own across campus.

    And Dan, I have you beat for old equipment. I actually found a wire recorder here a few years ago.

    It’s odd – and a bit funny; we’re probably all very high tech in a number of corners of our respective campuses, just don’t peak behind the wrong curtain lest you find the AV wizard madly throwing the levers and spinning the valves to keep OZ looking like the great and powerful.

    And I appreciate a bunch of you are smaller shops with fewer resources. Stay tuned for my next couple of posts…

  2. In our case, some of the material the faculty teach from is still on VHS, with no other media option available. Lots of teaching resources in the Library are VHS, too. Copyright prevents anyone from copying to DVD or putting them on a server to stream, so as long as these tapes are their tools of choice, we have to keep providing VHS support.

  3. I’m the sole AV tech for an Atlanta area university with 103 classrooms spread over 3 campuses. We’re an all Extron outfit except for a couple of Crestron rooms in a separate “kingdom” on campus. Most consistent AV problem in classrooms is always Fn+F8 to make the PC display on the projector. Sure wish I could do that remotely and have a webcam in every classroom so that I could see what the projector is displaying. Would save lots of shoe leather. Turnover is so high with adjunct instructors that by the time they learn the key combination to display the PC they seem to be over-qualified. So far though, fairly good support on equipment upgrades.

  4. I work at UNCW, a small-to-midsized university in the UNC system (@13K students). We’re fortunate in that all of the Schools and Colleges across the university are supported by central IT, which has made standardization and support easier (256 smart classrooms out of 261 general instructional spaces). On the other hand, we’re still installing DVD/VCR’s and have departments supplimenting the baseline systems by purchasing their own OHP’s. In cases like that, we’re having to modernize either by mechanical obsolescence (i.e. “they don’t make them anymore” such as with slide projectors) or via phased retirement… In any event, glad to see we’re not the only ones dealing with this type of issue.

  5. We have been trying to get out of the delivery business and becoming more of an installation, maintenance and support dept. We have equipped all of our classrooms with projections systems and every fulltime faculty member is provided a laptop that has DVD playing capabilities – despite this approach, we still have those individuals that refuse to bring the machines to class and then there are those who do not have the desire or are able to move away from old technology like the video tape – to them we deliver a DVD/VCR unit. We continue to add DVD/VCR decks in some of our classrooms and new installations – as long as the units are still commercially available I suspect we will continue to do that.

  6. An excellent description of the ‘problem’ that many of us are facing right now. We actually stopped installing VCRs several years ago and are STILL getting lashed on occasion by faculty that have not made the leap to modern media.

  7. Higher-ed AV Design is a very interesting field, as in HK, government funding and special funds are poured into the multi-media development in schools and AV system integration including the installation of school TV station are very common. The difficult part of it is the balance between high-tech and User Interface(UI) some teachers are technology-savvy and are able to adapt to the use of new technology, some can’t even operate a VCR. So a delicate balance as well as user involvement in the design stage is important to have a win-win solution.

  8. Greg,
    I know your pain. Yet at least you have a team, I’m my own team within IT.

    One antique equipment I keep around to shock the kids is a Sony Floppy drive digital camera.

  9. I noticed that Josh no longer installs document cameras and I just was told to install two of our spare document cameras because the faculty demanded them. This academic AV world is unique and always interesting. No two of us are identical but usually similar. My group used to design, install, maintain but we’ve been moved to a different reporting structure with a different mindset. Now I am trying to figure out what the new boss thinks AV/Media Support is all about.

  10. Greg as always you have pulled back the curtain to allow the rest of us to see the inner workings of higher Ed. I look forward to your future postings!

  11. We still install VCRs in new classroom build outs. We have stopped installing document cameras but the VCR still lives on. We also do our own AV design and installation.

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