Everything from a global pandemic to worldwide chip shortages has made it tougher to standardize — but Calvin University has developed a range of solutions
Adam Tozer has weathered more than one storm in the past few years. As a senior systems engineer for Calvin University, a small liberal arts college in the Midwest with roughly 3,200 students, he’s dealt with a sudden shift to hybrid learning, supply chain issues, and budgeting challenges — all outgrowths of a global pandemic. Through it all, he kept one thing top of mind: Keep the user experience consistent.
“The number one piece of advice I’d give to anyone in my position: Create the interfaces to be as simple to use as possible,” says Tozer, who’s responsible for keeping 150 technology-laden spaces up and running. By automating a great many of the systems that outfit spaces from huddle rooms to lecture halls, Tozer can create a repeatable UI that’s incredibly simple. “You want to give as little control as possible that still maintains the room’s functionality,” he says. Too many options are a gateway to frustration.
And one of the easiest ways to create repeatable control templates is to standardize on a single platform. That’s no mean feat, given the issues outlined above — but Tozer has been at the game long enough to make Calvin’s systems as future-ready as possible, whether that future holds new technologies or “black swan” events like a worldwide chip shortage.
Solidifying the Standards
“When I started, the standards were very loose,” says Tozer. Color coding denoted the system that powered each room. “We instead developed a system where rooms are segmented from one to five,” he says. “One” denoted a small conference space, with classrooms and lecture halls that become larger (and more complex) as the designation moves to “five,” the largest on-campus auditoriums.
By standardizing on Crestron gear, Tozer can take a basic programming configuration and expand (or contract) it to fit the needs of the room. “In some rooms, there are ‘subsets’ of standards, but it’s the same program,” he says. “I have a configuration file that I modify depending on certain aspects: Does it have a Crestron motion sensor, is it tied to a lighting system, is there more than one screen or projector, is there a DSP or not? And those are all just config options, but the basic program works in all those rooms. We try to keep the same user interface regardless of what level of room it is.” Tozer adds that whenever a new room is added, the faculty can learn the UI in five minutes or less — the experience is that familiar.
There’s another aspect that reduces calls to the help desk: “We also deployed a ‘help’ button on every touchscreen.” This generates a transparent overlay over the screen which tells the user what features are available and precisely how to use them. In order to correct glitches or push updates out to various rooms, Tozer has leveraged the Microsoft PowerShell® language to handle multiple spaces. “We don’t have to modify every different room individually,” he says.
Helping the Help Desk
Speaking of the help desk, Tozer makes another observation: “Standards are important because the Help Desk at Calvin is not part of our team. They’re a different branch of IT. That means that it's a different group of people that have to support these rooms and handle the triage when there are issues. So if we have consistent hardware in each room, it makes it a lot easier for the help desk staff to troubleshoot, and we can create documentation that doesn't change from room to room. It's very consistent.”
This is especially useful given that a small university such as Calvin leans on student labor, which by nature has a high turnover rate. “Even if the rooms operate differently, the backend is the same, so the same troubleshooting techniques can be put into motion,” Tozer notes.
The post-pandemic world has shifted something else: room refresh rates. “The goal was that the majority of the AV equipment would last 10 years with projectors lasting five,” says Tozer. “Recently, we haven't been following that cycle — things were getting a little bit longer, and with the pandemic, funding was kind of all over the place, so we had to regroup.” Now Tozer believes that 10 years may be too long a wait. “Technology is advancing rapidly, and so are user expectations. Since the pandemic, the idea of I need to be able to do this in my room is completely different than what it was pre-pandemic.” The good news, though, is that laser projectors are becoming more and more durable.
Moving the Budget for Hardware from “Operational” to “Capital Expense”
And saving money wherever he can is top of mind for Tozer. One thing that has been a tremendous help for his team, however, is changing budgeting “buckets.” For many universities, an operational budget covers a fixed period of time. This can be tremendously problematic for a variety of reasons, from supply chain issues to sudden changes in need — going from an in-person to a hybrid learning model, for example.
The solution? “Over the last couple of years, we have moved hardware costs from operational budgets to capital expense budgets, which straddle more than one budget year.” Tozer lays out the real-world application of this strategy: “With an academic calendar, our budget year is July 1 to June 30. When we order something for summer install, if it doesn't arrive in June, then it gets paid for in the following budget year. With capital budgets, we have the ability to order anything we need at any time — if it doesn't come in nine months, that's fine.” The money will be there, waiting in a budget that stretches well beyond the 12-month operational budgeting cycle. Tozer builds in redundancies, too, ordering spares to keep things up and running should something break before a replacement can be delivered.
Tozer does rely on Crestron products for their reputation for durability and, again, to help create that frictionless interface. “We learned how to do the programming, and I've gotten all the way up to Silver Masters. Now we can do this ourselves and not have to rely on an external vendor, which not only saves money, but it allows us to be much more flexible and create these complicated systems that we can support without having to bring in anyone else. Beyond that, we landed on Crestron because we wanted something that was going to offer a better user experience than a bunch of remotes that don't always work.”
A Crestron Fusion Solution
For monitoring and reporting, Tozer has so far been relying on Crestron Fusion® software. “Fusion has been a great tool to help us not only be able to track what's happening in the rooms and monitor some of the equipment states — Is the room being used? Is the projector working? — but it also gives us reporting. When programmed properly, we can get reporting data. Is a touchscreen offline? Is a projector sending an error code? If we can get some of that data prior to anyone contacting the Help Desk, then we can better assist them in supporting the rooms.”
That’s especially important given the new complexities of the learning environment. “Pre-pandemic, we needed projection. Post-pandemic, we have to think about projection, conferencing, bringing in a remote speaker, all those kinds of things that the technology we were using didn't support.” That, of course, required a new set of standards. “How do we redo a standard to support the ideas and things that we want to do? Even if we don't have a particular function in every room, the system needs the capability to do what we want to do and add what we need to add.”
The need for that kind of flexibility has made Tozer a big fan of AV-over-IP solutions. “Not only does the network give us the ability to change, update, and fix things as needed, we’re able to make the system as ‘future-ready’ as we can,” he says. He further notes that network solutions — once again — buttress the creation of consistent, intuitive user experiences.
“The faculty members are there to teach,” says Tozer. “Our job is to make that easier. We have to design the interface in a way that allows the faculty to do their job without having to think about the technology they’re using.
“A big part of that is consistency, and standardizing on a family of products like Crestron helps us achieve that.”