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University AV: Doubling Down in the Downturn

The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression is forcing some institutions of higher education to scale back or delay AV projects. Yet the federal government's efforts to pump money into the overall economy could trickle down to universities, giving decision makers the confidence they need to invest in AV technology.

The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression is forcing some institutions of higher education to scale back or delay AV projects. Yet the federal government's efforts to pump money into the overall economy could trickle down to universities, giving decision makers the confidence they need to invest in AV technology.

Like videoconferencing in corporate America, AV technology resonates with universities in an economic downturn.

Like videoconferencing in corporate America, AV technology resonates with universities in an economic downturn.

Credit: Labolito, Manning And Brandenberg, Temple Creative Services

In addition to transforming education, AV could help weather the recession. University administrators say it provides a competitive advantage in attracting students and donors, in part because it contributes to a school's image as a cutting-edge institution. "[Schools] are cutting and doubling down at the same time," says Sean Brown, vice president of education at Sonic Foundry. "They are reshuffling priorities. The entire pro AV industry needs to be more flexible."

"We have projects already in the works, so we haven't seen much of a slowdown," says Jeff Jaramillo, senior director of business products management at Christie.

Cautious Optimism

George Tsintzouras, Christie's director of business products management, sees cautious optimism among customers instead of panic or cutbacks. He attributes professional AV's resiliency to long sales and development cycles and technology investments, such as $20,000 projectors, that aren't decided at the last minute.

But Tsintzouras has noticed more concern over ownership and maintenance costs, reliability, and the "green" characteristics of products, such as energy use. (Before the recession, schools were increasingly calculating ownership costs up front rather than wrapping them into operating budgets.)

AV consultants, who have traditionally tried to anticipate technology trends in order to protect clients against wasteful obsolescence, continue to do so, but the recession is forcing them to look at more affordable alternatives. One example: wide-format displays. "There has always been a cost to future-proofing," Tsintzouras says. "Maybe Wide XGA is good enough. Maybe 720p is enough."

Paul Igoe, account manager at integrator Total Video Products, says although he's noticed some cutbacks, AV has proven its educational value so convincingly that it might be less sensitive to budget pressures. "It's like saying you're going to cut back on textbooks," he says.

Hardware and software that allow schools to stream classes over the Web continue to gain acceptance during the recession, says Brown, whose company sells the products. "Our business is increasing right now," he says. "Streaming is a multiplier. It defeats distance, and it's a quality enhancer."

The technology can change the economies of scale in course delivery by bringing in new business from students who might have been scared away by classroom attendance requirements, including continuing education students struggling to balance work and family.

"They aren't limited by room size at that point," says Martin Lois, a sales engineer at integrator AVI-SPL. "That allows them to build smaller classrooms but serve more people."

"All of a sudden, you only need one Japanese professor," Brown says.

Schools can also survive the recession by focusing AV investments in majors that train laid-off workers to enter industries that seem most in demand, Brown says. Programs in nursing, executive-level business programs, and continuing education for engineers, are areas ripe for AV upgrades.

Stimulus and Response

By spring 2009, it was becoming clear that a sizable portion of the $768 billion of federal stimulus funds in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) could go to higher education. But AV vendors and school administrators remained uncertain how much of that money might be spent on instructional technology.

"I don't think the institutions know exactly how to allocate that yet," says Jaramillo. "There is some leeway in the restrictions, but I've also heard there are going to be some penalties."

AV pros need to get savvy about identifying funding sources and tailoring projects to fall within guidelines. "There is not really money earmarked specifically for upgrading higher education facilities," says Judy Marks, associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Education Facilities (NCEF). The legislation originally had $3 billion for facilities modernization that was deleted at the last minute.

That said, several pools of money are likely sources for AV projects. First are the stabilization funds ($48.3 billion) that will be doled out to the states.

"Most governors and legislatures are using that money for other programs," Marks says, especially to help "back-fill" local K-12 budgets that were cut during the recession. "Some millions are going to be used for facilities, but most are going to be used for K-12."

Marks says some states are considering devoting funds to higher ed facilities. The money can't be used for new construction, only for modernization, renovation, and repairs–criteria that would seem to include AV upgrades.

In addition, zero-interest bonds administered by the U.S. Department of the Treasury will allow some institutions to borrow money to build or upgrade facilities. "The Build America Bond is something that higher ed can apply for," Marks says. "It basically means you can build your college buildings for less."

Higher-ed research facilities will receive $1.38 billion administered by the National Institutes of Health, which Marks says has the biggest pot, as well as the National Science Foundation, and National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Brown says another bucket of funds–those designed to boost loans to students trying to reposition themselves in the job market–can be another opportunity.

"Those dollars are going to go to the institutions that can attract the most students," he says.



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