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Challenges in Technology Implementation for Learning Spaces in Higher Education

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  • Following the typical technology implementation path produces mixed results, often to a project’s detriment.
  • Applying the What, How, Why process yields results tied to the institution’s primary goals and strategic plans.
  • Defining your core business — education — and refusing to let budget drive strategy can result in superior technology at a cost savings.
  • Investing in infrastructure with an eye to anticipated technology changes avoids extensive remodeling and pays off in the long run.

The design and implementation of technology can prove a particularly daunting challenge for campus planners and project designers. Specialization is required for the selection and implementation of technologies including the familiar network, telecommunications, and data-processing functions, and also the more esoteric emerging technology labs and simulation spaces, financial trading rooms, and teleconference centers. These varied learning spaces are vital to the core goal of educating students, yet technology implementation often follows a predictable path — with mixed results.

At the University of Virginia alone, nearly $750 million dollars have been spent on new buildings or building renovations since 2000, with an additional $500 million in the pipeline. The $4 million technology implementation in the recently completed McIntire School of Commerce’s $70.5 million, 156,000-square-foot Rouss and Robertson Halls did not follow the predictable path, however. That project followed a unique IT planning and implementation path — with excellent results.

Typical Technology Implementation Process

Many construction projects follow predictable technology implementation processes:

  • AV consultants are hired to outline the technology requirements by identifying how technology functions within the organization. The consultant then proposes solutions that often include the latest technology innovations in the marketplace. One common recommendation may be to “future proof” the project by investing in the very latest systems and equipment as a way to hedge against undetermined future technologies (for example, digital versus analog and wired versus wireless).
  • Once a detailed matrix of technology choices has been prepared for each space, the consultants present a document that lists each room, the equipment recommended, and their list prices. The design team often suffers sticker shock when presented with the estimated budget and instructs the consultants to refine the scope of technology until an acceptable level of spending is reached. This often includes radical reductions in the scope and capability of the final systems — and frequently diverges from the original strategic intent.
  • Once the design decisions are made, the final step in this process is purchasing technology and integration services. Project owners can purchase equipment and services from a single integrator/vendor or from multiple vendors.

By following this predictable path, a campus runs the risk of becoming saddled with technologies that are both expensive and underutilized. The campus further risks shortchanging fundamental infrastructure and instructional technologies for budgetary reasons.

For the McIntire School project, we applied some basic tenets throughout the conceptual design, design/development, and implementation phases that addressed many of the common challenges. Following are a few of our lessons learned.

Define the Core Business

A primary goal of higher education is delivering instruction to students. Therefore, one foundational tenet for the design team should be, “How can we design systems that facilitate and enhance the core business of instruction?” For the McIntire School addition and renovation, the project team made classroom instruction the most important element in the technology design decision process. To do this, we incorporated extensive faculty feedback from each academic area into the decision matrix. (For examples of the spaces they recommended and we implemented, see Learning Spaces at the McIntire School of Commerce sidebar.)

Another key part of the design process included reaching out to peers at other institutions and traveling to see what worked at other campuses. Remember, you know your business better than the consultants, architects, or general contractor, and it is your responsibility to decide what is appropriate for your facility.

Recommendation: Do your homework, involve key stakeholders, and hire trained personnel to represent the institution. The money invested in staff who can represent the interests of the institution by making informed and unbiased decisions will return value over and over.

Examples:

  • Movie explaining how faculty feedback dictated design of
    the video lectern.(Windows Media)
  • Audio about the technology choices(MP4)
    (videoconferencing, lecture capture, touch-glass).

Don’t Let Budget Drive Strategy

Strategy should drive the budget in a technology project. For the McIntire School project, we concentrated on the technology’s purpose (What), how it was to be used (How), and what was to be accomplished within the technology setting (Why) instead of focusing on the specific technologies.

In some cases, letting strategy lead the purchase decision led to cost savings. For example, following our process model (What, How, Why) for the specification and purchase of projectors led to major cost savings. Academic areas like Finance and Accounting primarily use programs like PowerPoint and Excel, so an $8,000 projector does fine in place of the high-end $30,000 alternative. In another case, we ignored the recommendation to put videoconferencing (VTC) equipment in all 15 classrooms on day one; instead, we equipped four rooms of different sizes with VTC technology. These four VTC-equipped rooms have more than met the school’s needs through the first two semesters of use.

In other cases, strategy drove the school to spend more. The importance of the financial markets in the school’s curriculum cannot be overstated, so additional dollars were spent to provide striking visual reminders in the form of LED tickers and tracker boards. In another example, we designed a cable TV system to distribute high-definition digital signage and satellite TV to every screen in the facility. This could have been accomplished at a reduced cost, but the system we chose has provided the flexibility to broadcast emergency messages and speaker presentations over cable TV.

Photo 1

A 282-foot LED ticker and tracker boards line the walls of the Financial Trading Centers just below ceiling level.

Photo 2

High-definition digital signage and satellite TV are available on every screen in the facility.

In every case we based the budget on what the school hoped to accomplish, not on what could be accomplished with the budget available. Commonsense decision making that linked the school’s strategy to the project’s purpose resulted in cost savings and superior technology — all at roughly half the budget proposed in the original bid documents.

Recommendation: Keep the What, How, and Why for your project front and center in all planning efforts and link strategy to every technology decision. Let strategy drive the budget.

Example:

  • Associate Dean Gerry Starsia discusses the project strategy and budget in this video.WMV

Invest in Infrastructure

The buildings’ architecture and infrastructure were designed and carefully coordinated to ensure that future technology changes would not require extensive remodeling. These designs included:

  • Cable trays installed above the ceilings in each main corridor allowing for easy access to cabling as additional equipment is purchased or technologies change
  • Conduit installed in walls and floor ducts in rooms in anticipation of technologies like VTC and lecture in all classrooms, as well as conference and group study rooms
  • Fiber optic cable installed connecting every AV rack in the building to a central AV operations center, even though this fiber is currently dark

Recommendation: Properly designed infrastructure has an exceedingly long half-life. Investing in adequate infrastructure during the construction project, in anticipation of technology changes, pays huge dividends in the long run.

Example:

Summary

In many ways, beginning the technology planning process in a construction project is much like leaping into an abyss: as you descend, it gets colder and darker, with fewer options for escape. Likewise, following the typical design and construction planning process often results in implementing technologies with no clear link to teaching goals, which means technologies go unused.

The McIntire School of Commerce project used the tools we have described to control costs, manage system delivery, and purchase products, all within a mission-driven strategic framework. Through a combination of hard work, staff expertise, commitment, and common sense, campuses can target their learning space design and technology investments to match their functional and strategic needs — and still maintain strict budget and schedule goals.

Bryan Lewis (brl6m@comm.virginia.edu) is the Director of Enterprise Systems for the McIntire School of Commerce.

Gerald Starsia (gs2t@comm.virginia.edu) is the Associate Dean for Administration at the McIntire School of Commerce

Bryan Lewis

Director of Enterprise Systems, McIntire School of Commerce
University of Virginia

 

Gerald Starsia

Associate Dean for Administration, McIntire School of Commerce
University of Virginia

 

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