Some things in education remain the same--—it’s all still really about reading, writing and arithmetic. But the way those and other subjects are taught has evolved significantly since many of us spent time in a classroom. This change is especially apparent in higher education, where schools face stiff competition in their efforts to attract today’s tech-savvy students who often know more about multimedia applications than their university instructors.

While it may seem like just one more bell or whistle, technology is becoming a major factor for prospective students as they study their campus options. In fact, the 2011 21st Century Campus Report from CDW-G, the government services arm of computer retailer CDW, notes that 87 percent of current college students considered their institution’s technology in their decision to attend that school. And, the company’s companion study of high school students finds that 92 percent of that group sees technology as an important component of their college-selection process.

Of course, “technology” is a broad term, and some elements of educational technology are more highly valued than others. When presenting their results at a recent campus technology conference, CDW-G found participants in a student panel deemed campuswide wireless Internet access to be the base-level technology students now expect, according to Andy Lausch, the company’s vice president for higher education. But this starting point isn’t standing still, Lausch said.

“One important finding from this year’s report is that campus technology is growing,” he said. “An increasing number of students and faculty [are] reporting that digital content and virtual learning are essential elements to the classroom.”

What’s in today’s classrooms
Most colleges and universities have moved beyond the chalkboards and whiteboards that you might recall from your school days, according to Catherine Bell, commercial market development manager for equipment-maker Crestron Electronics Inc., Rockleigh, N.J. Classrooms today generally feature at least some means of projection and display, with a connection for an instructor’s laptop to power the projector. Document cameras may be the next step up, Bell said. These devices replace old-school overhead projectors and provide greater flexibility for instructors.

And, increasingly, flat-screen monitors connected to a room’s video distribution system are making projectors obsolete, according to J.C. Murphy, general manager of Savant Systems, commercial division, Ostervill, Mass. Schools benefiting from the same price reductions that have brought big-screen TVs into even modest living rooms, he said. And, with the right design, multiple screens can be grouped to act as a single display or used separately, as the instructor requires.

Beyond specific devices, higher education clients are looking to gain advanced capabilities to enable both real-time remote learning and video capture for rebroadcast.

“That’s huge,” Bell said, “just because of the power of being able to post it so many places on the Internet.”

Murphy sees similar interest among his clients, who also cite speed and ease of use in all parts of the process—from recording and capturing to editing and posting—as critical to the success of these implementations.

“It’s in every single opportunity we’re talking to—85 to 90 percent of all new requirements,” he said.

Truly web-savvy professors can benefit from rooms equipped with multimedia inputs that allow rapid switching between devices during a lecture.

“You’ve got your connection from your laptop, but the key is then bringing in content from the web, CNN and Sky Network with virtually no delay,” Murphy said. “Multimedia can be really boring if it takes multi minutes.”

What’s behind the walls
There are a range of additional devices available for higher end installations (see sidebar, page 56), but those who design and supply these spaces say what’s behind the walls is more important for college and university clients to consider than the latest electronic gadgets. Determining the wiring design requires clients and system designers to first understand required capabilities—especially, according to Bell, whether the client requires analog signals, digital signals or both.

“A classroom of the future, for me, is a system that is analog and has room for growth for digital signals or a room that has both analog and digital,” she said.

While digital signals have the advantage in display resolution, analog signals are more forgiving, Bell said, as they are somewhat more tolerant of interference. As a result, wiring is more challenging in digital situations, especially when unshielded wire is being used.

“If it’s a poor termination or you get some interference, the signal still comes through to your display [with analog technology],” she said. “Digital is not as forgiving—it’s 0 or 100 percent. You don’t get a signal at the other end; you get nothing.”

This analog/digital consideration is especially important now, when the industry is in transition from the former to the latter, given the planning timelines higher education projects can involve. Facility personnel may begin their requirement-gathering a year or more before funding is available to begin construction and two or three years before projects are completed. Because no one can predict specific end-uses in today’s rapidly evolving technology market, it is more important for electrical designers to ensure the infrastructure is in place to handle a wide range of future applications.

Bell is experiencing this challenge now, with 3-D seen as a possible next big advance in educational technology.

“So, digital media is 3-D-ready,” she said. “Especially in science, 3-D is a huge conversation.”

Ease-of-use is another major goal for higher education clients. According to the CDW-G survey, the biggest challenge standing in the way of greater classroom-technology adoption is professors who don’t know how to use these new capabilities. Ensuring that these professors don’t have to learn multiple control systems as they move between classrooms and campus buildings can help minimize their frustration and encourage greater use of new, high-tech teaching aids.

“The constant drumbeat [we hear] is the standardization of the interface to control the devices, so any instructor can come into the room and use the interface with no assistance,” Murphy said. He said Savant works to separate technology from its controllers’ interfaces to make using them easier for the technologically challenged. “We’re focusing on the user experience through the interface to make it easier to control the underlying components.”

Who’s in charge?
At a project-management level, the many parties involved in technology decisions in college and university settings also can pose challenges for contractors. Hierarchies aren’t as simple as they can be in corporate projects, so gathering requirements and getting questions answered can take more time than contractors might otherwise anticipated.

To begin, contractors need to understand whether an information technology (IT) department, an audiovisual department or some other entity will manage the project. As audiovisual requirements are increasingly dependent on Internet-based networking, IT professionals are assuming greater audiovisual responsibilities. In some cases, according to CDW-G’s Lausch, audiovisual departments may report to IT managers, while in other institutions, they may be part of the facilities management staff. In any case, contractors need to spend some time upfront understanding all the players in any particular project to ensure everybody’s satisfied when that job is completed.

“There are a lot of stakeholders in this process—faculty, deans and IT,” Lausch said. “It is important to understand who you are working with, as well as the overall classroom design. Contractors need to be aware of all the parties involved because who is managing different technology components can differ between departments.”

While audiovisual integrators are often the go-to professionals for these low-voltage assignments, Savant’s Murphy sees strong opportunities in this market for electrical contractors, as well. One particular niche could develop as audiovisual systems begin to branch into broader building-control designs. This integration would be similar to the way high-end home theater controls now include single-control access to air conditioning and whole-house lighting systems.

“We think we can do a lot in space,” Murphy said, noting that the company is working to build more connections with electrical contractors across the country. “We’ve got a couple we’re working with right now, and I’d like 20 more.”


ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.