Ten minutes into a video during Professor Olson’s film-studies lecture, the projector flashes “no signal” on a blank screen. With 200 students waiting, the professor attempts a “quick fix,” but after 15 minutes of pressing buttons and rearranging projector cables without success, gives up. Class dismissed. He heads back to his office intending to report the problem, but is intercepted by a student and promptly forgets about the projector. The next day, after three more instructors are unable to complete their classes, the Office of Classroom Support finally is notified of the malfunctioning projector. What the University didn’t expect to find while addressing this challenge was a solution that would eventually be used for emergency communications on campus.
Steve Clark was facing a dilemma.
As Director of Classroom Support at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Clark is charged with providing support to 21,000 students and 1,400 faculty members across a sprawling 1,000-acre campus. With such a large user base scattered among 74 buildings, the existing one-way message system connecting classrooms with the support center was proving to be a bottleneck. In addition to problems going unreported, if professors did contact the help desk to report technical difficulties, the descriptions were insufficient to solve the problem without going on-site. “Our people were running into classrooms with no idea as to what the problem was,” Clark relates. This resulted in longer periods of class disruption, and even cancellation. Clark’s goal of keeping turnaround on service requests to less than 24 hours was proving elusive, and faculty complaints about the delays were increasing. Hence his dilemma: How to maintain campus equipment so that classes aren’t disrupted or cancelled, instructors are satisfied and his small technical staff is deployed effectively? How to lower his department’s average response time to less than 10 minutes?
SIMPLE-TO-USE COMMUNICATION SYSTEMIn an effort to improve the classroom technology support UNC Charlotte educators receive, Clark began to search for a cost-effective intercom system. “Our hope was to establish a simple-to-use, two-way communication system with our classrooms. We evaluated PC-based software solutions that required extra microphones, individual configurations and extensive user training, as well as various network-based intercom systems with some nice features, but which usually required an expensive hardware infrastructure.”
The ii3 Internet Protocol (IP) Intercom from Digital Acoustics was the solution to Clark’s dilemma. “Since many of our classrooms don’t have PCs, we realized a software solution would not meet our requirements. And Classroom Support needed an inexpensive hardware solution. We chose the Digital Acoustics product because configuration is extremely simple, the cost is cheaper than adding new equipment to the network, and installation is as simple as plug and play.”
SUPPORT AT THE PUSH OF A BUTTONTo date, the Office of Classroom Support has installed 337 intercoms in classrooms across campus, providing educators with the equivalent of a standard Push-to-Talk Intercom. Plugged into UNC Charlotte’s existing local and wide area networks, the intercoms provide instant two-way communication between the classroom and the help desk using standard network audio protocols.
To complete the picture, the TalkMaster Enterprise Edition software provides central command and control functions, allowing multiple PCs to manage two-way communications easily among many intercom units. “The intercoms leverage our existing infrastructure, and TalkMaster provides the scalability and failover capabilities that are absolutely essential for a campus-wide support operation,” says Clark. “And with Digital Acoustics software providing multiple console support, we can use more than one PC to monitor calls.” The software also provides the means to record and queue help requests, which are processed in turn as support staff become available.
Using the IP intercoms, UNC Charlotte educators relay issues directly to Clark’s support staff with the push of a button. Now, to report the malfunctioning data projector, Professor Olson simply presses the intercom’s “Talk” button, and within seconds, is speaking with a trained support representative. After asking a few questions, the support person determines a service call is needed and dispatches a technician to the room. Instead of having to cancel class, a professor can have help on the way within 5-10 minutes, interrupting the session just long enough for the problem to be diagnosed and repaired. “By making support ‘one-button easy’ instructors do not hesitate to report problems as they happen, minimizing the disruption students experience,” says Clark.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the Office of Classroom Support discovered a new use for the intercom solution. An electrical problem on campus caused an explosion that knocked out power at UNC. “People were frantically posting signs and sending voicemails to stay away from the building. It was a logistical nightmare,” Clark said. The lack of power caused a number of communication problems and tested the University’s emergency preparedness. “I went to the Provost and proposed the use of Digital Acoustics intercoms in those types of emergencies,” Clark added. “The idea was well received and we’ve been working to equip every gathering space with these intercoms. We had our wake up call before Virginia Tech, but that incident cemented how important it is to have a multi-pronged approach in place for handling emergencies.”
IMMEDIATE RESPONSE ACHIEVEDWith two-way communication, Clark’s staff is able to start addressing problems immediately upon notification. A user pushes one button to make a connection and from then on, the technician handles the call. “While it proves useful in any day-to-day situation, knowing that the Digital Acoustics solution reports room numbers and locations is vital in crisis management situations. With the intercoms, we know exactly where they’re calling in from,” he said.
With the help of the Digital Acoustics Intercom Solution, the nine-member Office of Classroom Support team now strives to answer all support calls within seconds of receiving them. The vast majority of calls are resolved immediately remotely or on-site within 10 minutes, delivering rapid responses that avoid disruption for students and faculty. His staff responds to an average of 250 requests per week and says the Digital Acoustics intercoms are easy enough to use that faculty do not hesitate to request help, and receive the needed assistance in a timely fashion.
With instructors reporting they are “extremely happy” with the improved response time, a top priority for UNC Charlotte is to place ii3 IP Intercoms in the majority of classrooms on campus, as well as at satellite locations. With more than 300 units installed, Clark’s goal is to reach 100 percent saturation during the 2007-2008 academic year, including classrooms with minimal technology as well as high-tech locations.
In addition, UNC Charlotte recently installed and successfully tested a warning siren which provides a warning sound and verbal messages to people who are outdoors on campus, in the event of an imminent emergency. Emergencies may include weather related threats, hazardous materials releases, or acts or threats of violence.
Clark said, “In the Virginia Tech crisis, no single individual had a clear picture of what happened two hours earlier. Intercoms can assist in that type of situation. The enterprise console lets you listen in and gather information. If anyone hears an explosion, a gunshot, or even a cry for help, they just press the button once and there’s a connection to the police and the control desk monitor. I can think of no better way to let faculty know that support is available than by providing a one-button help request system with the ease of use that this one offers.”