How Bates College Proactively Tackles Classroom A/V Failures

A Q&A about how one college prevents A/V failures.

August 6, 2012

The other day I got an e-mail from Scott Tiner, Assistant Director for Digital Media, Classroom Technologies & Event Support at Bates College.  Scott wrote that:

I read with great interest your blog titled, "The Disturbing Frequency of Presentation A/V Failures" on the Higher Ed website.

What is particularly interesting to me, is that I have worked over the past few years, to put together data and systems that allow for the type of information gathering you say the industry needs.  In fact, at Bates College we use data constantly to respond to problems, fix problems, and understand the ratio of problems to success.  For example, we know that over the past academic year, there were over 10,000 uses of A/V technology on our campus.  We had 174 trouble calls, and about 40 of those were actual problems with malfunctioning technology.   

I agree with you completely about the need for our groups to continue to gather this data, and put it to good use.  If you are ever interested in following up on the blog, I would love to talk with you about what we do at Bates College.

Take Care!


I took Scott up on his offer, and what follows is a transcript from our e-mail exchange of my questions and Scott's answers:

Josh's Question 1: Tell us more about your Bates College program to track A/V usage, problems and fixes. What systems, platforms and methods do you use for tracking? Are your data publicly available to your Bates College community, the the world?   

Scott's answer:  

"At Bates we use Crestron equipment, and the Crestron Server, called RoomView, to track our statistics. The other major manufacturers, Extron and AMX, also have products that can track usages. We have gone a step further at Bates with what we track, and what we do with it. I have already mentioned that we track usages in our rooms, along with trouble calls.  However, beyond simply, was a system used, we tracked what was used.  This helps us determine if our money is being spent on the right equipment, or when it may make sense to move from an old technology. We are probably one of the last colleges to move away from VHS tapes.  We put this move off, because our data showed that VHS playback was done quite often, in fact up to a couple years ago, VHS playback was as popular as laptop usage.  Document cameras, for example, cost a lot of money. Therefore, we carefully track their usage to determine what rooms they are being used in, and how often.   The information is not private, but we have not made it public on a website, simply because we have never thought to.  I have presented the data in regional and national conferences, and we regularly share our data with administration. I think publishing the data on a website is a great idea, and something I am going to look into."

Josh's Question 2: Of the 174 problems that you sited have you found any patterns? Have you figured out methods to proactively tackle issues before they become problems?

Scott's answer:  

"Great question, and yes, we have found patterns. An interesting story that I like to tell, is that even though we have an AV Engineer on staff, for varying reasons, any one of four people could take a trouble call in a room. This can lead to patterns not being recognized, as they would if a single person took all the calls.  As we review our stats at the end of each semester, there always seems to be one surprise (a room with several calls) in the list, that no one would have predicted.  When we find a room, or rooms, with multiple calls we go into that room during the breaks, and rebuild it. We don't necessarily put in new equipment, but we upgrade firmware, check and replace any questionable wires or connectors, and run thorough checks. Our experiences in a few rooms have been remarkable, such as going from 6-7 calls one semester, to 0 calls the next."

"Along with re-building rooms, we also try to determine other "non-technical" problems. This may include training a user and making sure they feel comfortable in a room.  Although, I really feel that unless a presenter is doing something unique, our rooms should be easy enough to use that training is not necessary.  So, we look at examples of problems we have found. A common problem we faced, was that the presenter would not think to turn on the computer in the room, and they would report that the computer would not display on the projector. This type of call would happen 10-20 times per semester.  While this is not a "technical" problem, it is a problem, and our users would walk away with a negative experience.  So, we starting plugging our computers into current sensors.  These sensors could determine whether the computer was on, or not.  If a user tried to project a computer that is not turned on, a message would pop up on the touchpanel asking them to turn on the computer.  Voila!  They leave with a positive experience.  We do a similar things with laptops.  Common problem: user does not tell the laptop to output video. Solution: When a person selects to display their video a video sync detector checks to see if it is getting sync.  If not, the touchpanel displays a message telling the user to output their video."

"A final step we have taken is to program our rooms to do preventative maintenance on their own.  Some of this would require a detailed technical explanation, but I will try and make it quick.  We program our rooms to do simple, logical steps each evening, that should have a predictable result, that our controls systems can detect.  If that predictable result is not achieved, we know there is a problem.  Quick example, we tell our DVD players to turn on at 1 AM every day.  Our systems, using a current sensor, can tell whether that happened.  If it did not happen, there is a problem, and a text message is sent to our AV Engineer telling him to check the room out first thing the next morning.  Problem solved before any one even knew there was one!"

Josh's Question 3: It seems to me that the departments responsible for campus A/V are consistently under-staffed and under-resourced, particularly giving the growing demands for multimedia in the classroom. What is your take on this?  Are there guidelines for an appropriate level of staffing and resources for campus A/V?

Scott's answer:  

"There is not an industry standard for rooms per technician. Several people have asked about this, and tried to figure out a number, but there are many variables.  Some people have tried to settle on a 25-1 ratio of classrooms to technicians, but I think that is too high. At Bates right now, we have about a 75-1 ratio.  I think a bigger question here is where are AV departments spending their resources, both money and staffing? At Bates, we used to do all staging (setting up for big events in places where the tech does not exist, essentially, serve as roadies), and video recording on campus. Using data on costs of supporting those events in house, versus outsourcing them, I was able to convince administration to change the policy, so that all these events are now hired out. A quick example of this:  an event in our field house, with audio and video would take 2-3 staff members 3 hours to setup, plus running the event, plus tear down. Essentially, my entire department was lost for an entire day. Because we only did this type of work 10 times per year, or so, and every event was different, we were not able to really provide excellent service.  In addition,  there was no one left to respond to trouble calls.  So, by supporting this event in house, we were losing credibility on both fronts (classroom and event support).  We realized we could outsource this same work, for under $2,000.  That leaves us with an event that is run by professionals, and a full staff ready to respond to trouble calls and support our classes."

Josh's Question 4: I'm really curious about the academic A/V community. Who goes into the classroom technologies profession? What conferences do you attend and what journal or blogs or websites do you read? What do you love most about your job, and what keeps you awake at night?

Scott's answer:  

"Most of the people that I have met in the academic A/V community are people who come from IT backgrounds, or veterans. I attend regional conferences, like NERCOMP, along with national conferences like EduTech, CCUMC and InfoComm. A few websites/ezines/blogs/maillists that I follow include AV-1.org, rAVe Pubs, Campus Technology, AV Nation.  I am also the chair of the Technology Managers Council of InfoComm, and that is a place where a lot of networking happens.  There are a few active groups on LinkedIn as well."

How would you answer the questions that Scott tackled for your campus?


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