July 20, 2011

A woodworking IT crew? Entrepreneurial spirit reigns in Classroom Support Services

A small UW support unit is turning its entrepreneurial skills into a major institutional asset, improving the technological infrastructure in a growing number of classrooms while offering high-quality service at a cost well below what outside contractors would charge.

David Aldrich, IT department manager at Classroom Support Services, is also a skilled welder, a talent he has used to modify metal structures containing classroom instructional hardware.

Mary Levin

David Aldrich, IT department manager at Classroom Support Services, is also a skilled welder, a talent he has used to modify metal structures containing classroom instructional hardware.

David Aldrich, the IT department manager at Classroom Support Services, together with colleagues David Cornwell and Tim Batzel, has found that the Universitys budget woes to be a boon for their work, which they describe as improving the interface between users and classroom technology.

“Its backroom stuff,” Aldrich says. “We happen to be IT guys who are working for an audiovisual group.”

Aldrich came to the UW in 1999 and promptly put his diverse skills to use. It was just after Mary Gates Hall opened, and one of his first jobs was to make sure that 14 classrooms there had a suitable place for computers. There was a slight problem, however. “The designers apparently assumed instructors would all have their own laptop computers, and the podia were not designed to accommodate a permanently installed computer,” he said. “Not only that, but using a laptop meant that all the available work surface would be taken up, so there would be no room left for an instructor’s notes or other support materials. Permanently installed computers made a lot of sense in this layout, but they apparently were not considered in the design process.”

With a background in woodworking (as well as computer network integration), he found himself not just ensuring that the electronics worked but also making maple trays that matched the nearly-new classroom finish, using his impressive array of personal precision tools.

Batzel joined the unit in 2003. But even before then, while still a student worker, he began working on the necessary Microsoft certifications to work with the kinds of operating systems that were increasingly prevalent in classrooms that had a technological component for displaying information and gathering student feedback.

In 2005, Aldrichs team began implementing systems that permitted instructors to automate the creation of podcasts from lectures, which then could rapidly be made available online. By 2007, they had begun automating screencasts (video).

In 2007, it became apparent to Aldrich that the long-promised “wired classroom” was about to become a reality. His team began training in 2008 in what was becoming the dominant advanced control and automation system for use in classrooms. These hardware and software products could control and combine video, audio, computers, lighting, data projection and video conferencing systems – or just about anything else that could be installed in a classroom. Perhaps most important, these control systems could be used over a network.

Batzel applied his skills to program e-control panels, which were software replicas of the touch panel found in each wired classroom, permitting the teams help desk to “take over” the classroom touch panel and operate it remotely in the event of a problem.  This can happen in real time and minimizes the disruption to a class that is already under way.

Batzel also implemented a server-based solution that centrally monitors the life of projector bulbs, alerts support staff when filters are dirty, and reminds them to turn off projectors that are not in use — thus maximizing the efficiency of support staff.

David Aldrich, standing, and Tim Batzel are rewiring Kane Hall classrooms to bring them up to date and to facilitate the use of overflow rooms.

Mary Levin

David Aldrich, standing, and Tim Batzel are rewiring Kane Hall classrooms to bring them up to date and to facilitate the use of overflow rooms.

Late in 2008, Aldrichs team began wiring six classrooms in Mary Gates Hall, complete with touchscreen controls at each podium. Over the course of the next few months, they wired eight more classrooms in that building. Their work was supported with funds from the Mary Gates Endowment.

But  the real entrepreneurial breakthrough came shortly thereafter, when they were contacted by the Jackson School administration, which wanted to create a facility for videoconferencing in Thomson Hall. They had received a quote of about $300,000 for the job from a private vendor. Aldrich and his colleagues calculated what it would cost for them to do the work. They had an advantage: they would charge for their labor, but they would not add any “profit margin” for equipment.

Their estimate came in at $68,000. Needless to say, people in the Jackson School were enthusiastic. And the teams entrepreneurial activities were launched.

“We used a business model that I adapted from work I had employed in Boston, when I did network integration and installation,” Aldrich says.  “We became technology designers and installers,” but with a difference: the revenue realized from their labor costs went back into classroom support, allowing them to continue upgrading central facilities and meeting classroom needs that have not been funded by the state budget. That includes such basic maintenance as purchasing lamps for data projectors; wireless microphone transmitters that have broken or were stolen; clocks, whiteboards or even chairs — basically anything that needs to be done to assist student learning, as well as paying for the student employees who handle preventive maintenance and the permanent staff who are the front line for instructional support.

They were asked to look at a renovation in Hitchcock 132. Capital Projects had budgeted the technology portion at about $200,000, but Aldrichs group came in with an estimate of less than half of that. The final scope of the project was expanded to include videoconferencing, which brought the total to just over $100,000, with Aldrichs group designing and purchasing all the teaching equipment, installing it, as well as programming it.  The capital budget funds intended for program renewal in technology for that facility came to Classroom Support Services; funds not spent on Hitchcock 132 will be used for improvements to general classrooms.

“We call this entrepreneurship that serves the community,” Aldrich says.

Roberta Hopkins, director of Classroom Support Services, says that this approach “is becoming more and more critical as we move into a world of ‘active learning classrooms. Because of our in-house expertise, we are able to save the University thousands of dollars compared to the cost of having the work done by a non-university contractor. We can work with the Capital Projects Office almost as a subcontractor on classroom renovation.”

David Cornwall, left, and David Aldr<br />
ich wheel in a cabinet which will house the hardware controlling classroom instructional systems.

Mary Levin

David Cornwall, left, and David Aldrich wheel in a cabinet which will house the hardware controlling classroom instructional systems.

One of the other advantages of using local talent, Batzel says, is, “We have strong motivation to do the job right. An outside contractor will go away [after the warranty expires] in two years, and were left to handle the maintenance anyhow. We have experience working with instructors, and we can implement uniform technology across the campus, so that when an instructor walks into any classroom, the interface and the feature sets are the same. We are always getting feedback from instructors and our systems are constantly improving.”

An upgrade of the Kane Hall infrastructure is making it possible to network overflow rooms with audio and video capability with the touch of a couple of buttons in the control room. Changes can be made at the last minute, with the possibility of networking any of five lecture halls, says Cornwell.

The team seems to have guaranteed future employment, as technological change accelerates. For example, by 2015 all laptop computers will be dropping their analog outputs for high definition media interfaces (HDMI), which will require digital ports in every wired classroom.  “Every room that were designing now is being planned with HDMI in mind,” Cornwell says.

Aldrich and colleagues continue to upgrade their skills, acquiring project management training and certification in the kinds of operating systems commonly used for classroom interfaces, as well as certification as technology specialists at installing such equipment.

“We want to become involved early in the process, when rooms and systems are being designed,” Aldrich says.

Aldrichs array of personal craft tools seems to have a near-permanent home in his office on the mezzanine in Kane Hall. He recently used his welding skills to fabricate a part for installing ceiling-mounted microphones in the iSchools distance education room. He also created a new, smaller wooden touch panel to fit precisely into a hole that had been cut by a contractor, carefully matching the décor in a high finish room in the Henry Art Gallery.

The diverse trio has other skills not yet tapped by the UW: Aldrich is a filmmaker (Batzel has worked on the crew for some recent shoots), while Cornwell has been involved in the creation of sound systems for musical groups.  Stay tuned for further developments.