At the University of Minnesota, Jim Gregory is Big Brother. As a media resources manager, Gregory tries not to think of his job in Orwellian terms, but there's no denying that with a couple of mouse-clicks he and his staff can see into hundreds of classrooms across the sprawling Twin Cities campus. "We don't really perform that type of monitoring," says Gregory, "but it might freak out a professor to know the capability we actually have."
The University of Minnesota, an urban campus with more than 60,000 students, is halfway through a seven-year, $7 million AV overhaul that encompasses more than 300 classrooms and lecture halls. New digital projectors, DVD players, document cameras, computers, network connections and room-control keypads — all built into stationary media cabinets — are part of this overhaul. A U.of M.-designed room-management system called the Classroom Automated Management System (CAMS) is the other half of the campuswide project.
Each classroom is or will be equipped with an AMX NetLinx room-control computer and accompanying control keypad for use during lectures and presentations. CAMS works in conjunction with the AMX boxes and serves as an overarching, network-managed control system administered by the university's Classroom Technical Services department. It was implemented to reduce maintenance costs across the university, improve classroom equipment reliability, and add security for the millions of dollars of AV equipment on campus. Other functions include scheduling and device-usage monitoring.
Gregory calls the CAMS concept "metacontrol," a trend that unites IT and AV capabilities into complex, comprehensive control systems that centralize and simplify AV monitoring and management.
In the beginning
The university began the CAMS project in 2003, when U. of M. engineers started writing code for a proprietary metacontrol system. Some of the technicians were assigned to investigate AMX Corp.'s MeetingManager, a room-control product that had some of the features the university wanted.
These features included network monitoring, reporting and asset management, and all were functions the engineers had planned to build into their custom system. Classroom Technical Services eventually created a hybrid system, using AMX's MeetingManager for network-control functions and a custom-designed interface to work with the university's classrooms. According to Gregory, the university's comprehensive installation of the MeetingManager/CAMS hybrid is the largest project of its type in the world.
From any network-connected computer, university technicians can now access the MeetingManager/CAMS system. A hierarchical view of campus buildings allows these administrators to navigate quickly to a particular classroom. Once a classroom is selected, a virtual image of its AMX keypad is put on the screen, emulated precisely to show which LED status lights are on and which buttons have been pressed by the professor or instructor using the room.
Obviously, remote technical support is one of the main benefits of CAMS. The administrator can assess the problem onscreen and suggest solutions to an instructor over the phone or control the virtual keypad to remotely adjust the settings. For example, if a professor is stumped when trying to show a video, an administrator can source the S-video connection between a DVD player and a projector from another location.
Since the advent of CAMS, Gregory says, the system has saved shoe leather and time. It has decreased the need to dispatch an engineer to troubleshoot an ailing AV system on the far-flung campus. "Everything is handled first over the phone via our support hotline," he says. "We can work through most issues without ever leaving our building, which was not the case in years past."
To serve and protect
Beyond tech support, CAMS adds a new layer of security for the university's huge investment in AV equipment. Like many institutions, the University of Minnesota is victim to thousands of dollars of AV theft every year, and alarms, motion detectors, locks and security mounting are used as deterrents. But with CAMS, all AV equipment now has a direct connection to the campus police department as well.
If a cable is removed from a projector during an unauthorized time slot, a signal is sent via CAMS to a police computer. Tampering with a stand or mount can also set off this alarm. On average, 33 projectors are stolen every year, but Gregory is proud to report that no network-connected projectors have been taken since CAMS was installed.
Equipment uptime, the amount of time a piece of equipment is functioning and available for use, is another advantage. Since the installation of CAMS, classroom uptime has increased to 97 percent, meaning that the AV equipment in the hundreds of classrooms is functioning almost all of the time. In the past, uptime was only 64 percent, according to the university's Classroom Technical Services statistics.
CAMS also provides monitoring and reporting functions. Well before a projector's lamp has burned out, CAMS has sensed the impending problem and has automatically sent an e-mail notifying staff to replace the lamp. Administrators can assess equipment usage as well, tracking the hours each projector, display, document camera or other device is used in the classroom, helping the university sort out demand and future equipment needs.
Before metacontrol, the Classroom Technical Services department hired students — called "classroom sweepers" — to make the rounds and physically check equipment in every one of hundreds of classrooms, recording lamp life of projectors and inspecting other equipment-status parameters. All that legwork has been replaced by remote tracking from Classroom Technical Services using an automated database.
The cost and benefits
For each classroom at the university, adding metacontrol costs an extra $2,700, which includes the room-control hardware, software and network setup. This is part of the total spent on each room (approximately $15,000 to $17,000) for the AV and networking equipment and installation.
To justify the costs of the system, Jim Gregory regularly makes presentations on the benefits and the return on investment to university officials and at workshops for higher-education IT professionals. On the summary slide of his PowerPoint presentation, he states that CAMS is a "standardized, ubiquitous, easy-to-use, metacontrolled classroom technology system that has a measure of success evident in the degree of faculty and student satisfaction, which has long-term strategic and financial impact."
Indeed, the complexities of a metacontrol system like the CAMS project are not easily boiled down into a few sentences. But Gregory believes the numbers — and the dollars — speak loud and clear.
Focusing on the money saved by the system — with increased classroom uptime, better equipment security, faster, more efficient tech support and other benefits — Gregory believes he has a fairly bulletproof case for the success of CAMS.
Now, if he could just get Big Brother off his mind.
See also Metacontrol Products
Stephen Regenold is senior editor of Presentations magazine.