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Keep the Learning Burning

Jul 12, 2010 3:47 PM, By Bennett Liles

On the front line in AV’s toughest environment.

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The infrared emitter buds usually require a little glue for extra sticking power to avoid being knocked off.

Centralized Monitoring

Keeping this AV plant up and running as one-person team would be impossible without having most of these systems on a network. Proactive operation is the key, and the enabling tool in this concept is the central monitoring and control application. All of the classroom control systems on this campus are Extron, running Global Configurator and GlobalViewer Enterprise software. I have configured each system with projector lamp out, high temp, and disconnect alarms that send automated notification emails.
On the Peachtree City, Ga., campus, 27 miles away, the control panels are on UPS power with Furman Sound MP-15 sequencers providing power to all other podium gear. The MP-15 status circuit is connected to a digital input on the Extron MLC 104 podium control panel to notify me by email when there is a power loss and when power has been restored. At that distance from my office, the more remote control and system status sensing I have, the better.

All control panels on every campus have both a daily system shutdown time and a 2-hour timeout, which turns off the controller and display after 2 hours without any manual input. During summer classes, which are longer in duration, the system timeout is extended to 3 hours. The normal and summer configurations are stored and backed up so that I can make the change with one upload to all the network host units prior to the start of summer classes. Typically, each building has one or two network host controllers. The more controllers that are designated as hosts, the longer the configuration updates take to upload. I’ve found that with the Extron system, reconfiguration is fast and simple. When an item of a different make and model is installed, I upload the configuration change first and then take the equipment to the room so that the installation can be checked while I’m there.

Some of the most useful software features in monitoring a large AV system are button stats, inventory, and logs. The button stats are useful in allocating gear to the rooms where it is most needed because they show how many times each button on the controller in a classroom has been pushed. Some document cameras will have sharper, brighter images than others. Through button stats, the AV technician can allocate the better units to the busiest rooms while units that are still fully functional but not optimal are moved to rooms where they are less frequently needed.

Under our state guidelines, any item more than $3,000 in original cost must be inventoried and accounted for annually, and the Excel inventory spreadsheet makes fast work of this with keyword searches and color coding, but it is also handy for routine resource tracking. I keep a separate Excel spreadsheet log with each classroom on its own worksheet so that I can easily pull up the history of problems and fixes for each room.

Bent VGA cable pins from dozens of connections and disconnections per day.

The Human Element

Around 80 percent of trouble reports and complaints arise from about 5 percent of the faculty. These complaints can be compared to logs and even realtime control panel button monitoring to determine what is happening when user error is suspected. (However, the Extron controllers have cut user error significantly.) It is supremely frustrating for an instructor with a tightly scheduled series of lesson plans to have trouble operating the AV control system, and this is particularly vexing when the problem is due to equipment malfunctions. Since most of the calls I get involve operator error, these tend to drop off sharply after the second week or so of each semester. Most of the calls come from adjunct faculty not familiar with the control systems or from attempts to play bad discs in the media players. The great majority of faculty members react with patience, and they tend to learn what they need to know quickly.

In the week prior to fall semester, there are a series of brief AV orientation sessions for new faculty, all of whom are issued laptop computers by the university. Among the topics covered are the key combinations for switching PC display modes, visual checks of VGA connectors prior to using them, and a few other simple points. These sessions cut user error calls dramatically for those who attend, and it is time well-invested. There are always a few technophobes that still prefer a TV set rather than the classroom AV system, but most instructors take to the AV systems very easily. Operational difficulties can be embarrassing for professors during a class, so I also offer private, individual training in the same classroom at a time when the room is empty. A professor’s embarrassment can quickly turn to anger, so even when a trudge across campus results in simply turning up a volume knob, I don’t advertise the problem, or lack of one, to the class.

A good working relationship with the IT staff is critical. Their assistance goes beyond just providing IP addresses for AV controllers. Some of my remote indications such as power loss and podium access door removal can benefit them since they sometimes have hardware such as wireless access points inside the podiums. Conversely, they help with any router or network line trouble that affects my communication with AV controllers.

In maintaining such an educational AV operation, time is an enemy that has to be headed off at every pass. The leverage needed to stay on top of it is provided by careful planning and proactive methods enabled largely by centralized network monitoring and control. That teamwork and coordination combine to keep all the plates spinning.

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