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Meet Your IT Manager: Carlisle Willard, Ph.D. Published:2017-10-18


Carlisle B. Willard, Ph.D., Duke University
Trinity Technology Services (TTS) is an office within the Trinity School of Arts & Sciences at Duke University in North Carolina. The unit is tasked with IT support for all A&S offices, departments, and programs, providing wall-to-desktop support and working with the Office of Information Technology to support infrastructure needs within the college. This includes computer desktop support for all Trinity faculty, website support, computer purchasing, and IT support for various research laboratories. AV Technology recently interviewed Carlisle B. Willard, Ph.D., about Duke’s broader vision for AV/IT convergence and collaborative learning.

AV Technology: What is the current state of audiovisual integration and wireless access at Duke University?
Carlisle B. Willard: Duke began its commitment to multimedia and data availability in the classrooms in 1994 and by the first part of the current century has developed between 277 and 300 media-equipped classrooms, conference spaces, and auditoriums. Virtually everywhere at Duke has access to WiFi connections. Any classroom at Duke has multimedia capabilities.

Initially, this change was greeted with a degree of skepticism and unease, but over the last 15 or so years, multimedia in the classroom has become the standard. Faculty played an initial role in establishing a set of basic standards for the classroom, and those standards have evolved as technologies changed. Faculty rapidly adapted to the use of multimedia and now regard it as one of their essential instructional tools.

What AV/IT problems have you solved recently?
Carlisle B. Willard: At the moment, we are in the middle of a long project to convert all of our classrooms into HDMI-capable systems. Generally speaking, the cost for a basic multimedia classroom installed by contractors ran to about $13,000 each. I quickly realized that the only way to accomplish the upgrade of the classrooms, given current budget realities, was to develop an in-house integration staff.

Fortunately, the companies developing digital equipment were also making them easier to program and integrate, and the company we use for control systems provides programming training that has led to our being able to take over the bulk of our own integration needs. Over the last four or five years, the in-house integration has been very successful, graduating from very simple control systems to fairly sophisticated setups, while saving Arts & Sciences tens of thousands of budget dollars.

Part of our support process has been to develop a set of remote management tools and system standards designed to simplify both support and training needs. We use the Crestron Fusion system to help gather maintenance data, provide remote controls allowing us to offer assistance online, and provide advance notification of system needs, such as lamp and filter replacements. We are working with other Duke schools and departments to develop a common set of control system and multimedia installation standards that will help us support systems more effectively and efficiently.

What types of new tech or products do you want to learn more about?
Carlisle B. Willard: One of the more interesting development has been the growing introduction of streaming systems and the BYOD needs for classrooms. Originally we had designed multimedia setups to permit the addition of new technologies (such as when DVD players began to overtake VHS systems), but in the last several years, equipment needs have been moving away from onsite playback systems to various forms of streaming playback and from presentation to collaborative systems.

There are a number of systems that offer the chance for participants in a class to connect anything they have which has WiFi or Bluetooth capability. Each has their advantages and disadvantages, and it is apparent that the standards for these systems is still in the process of settling down. The primary options we have explored to date include consumer-end systems like the Apple TV and systems like Crestron AirMedia or the more recent Solstice Pod systems.

The realization of the ability to connect wirelessly is a very fond goal for anyone who has had to deal with changing cabling demands and the current tangle of adaptors which tend to be product-specific, making providing them a nightmare in a university situation where we have little control over what someone decides to bring into a classroom.

What AV/IT do you hope to buy in the near future?
Carlisle B. Willard: We are currently starting a project to renovate our experimental teaching suite, a set of classrooms referred to as “The Link” that were designed several years ago as high-end technology classrooms. We are transitioning the rooms from analog to digital spaces and are planning to make wireless BYOD systems a standard part of the design.

The other issue, of course, is to decide which of the various emerging technologies should be showcased and experimented with. We are planning to distribute the Mersive corporation’s Solstice Pod in several of the rooms as an initial step in this experiment, but we are always on the watch for other systems.

Our focus and primary interest in these systems is flexibility and adaptability. For example, although we have been working at the digital refit of our classrooms for five years now, budgetary constraints have left us just under 50% of the way through, but the demand for digital systems is more insistent each year. What we need is a quick way to enable an analog room to support at a minimal level HDMI source materials, buying us time while we upgrade all the rooms. The Solstice Pod may be a partial solution, but we are always looking for other options as well.

If applicable, how to you procure/purchase your AV for in-house installs? Distributor, manufacturer direct, in bulk, other?
Carlisle B. Willard: Relatively few manufacturers will provide direct purchase, but since we are doing our in-house integrations, we are functioning much like an integration firm. At present we use a host of sources for purchasing, including integration firms willing to act as our “box suppliers,” and various online sources such as distributers or online direct purchase. Since we are an educational institution, we can access education discounts, and Duke is an A+ Partner with Crestron, which allows even better pricing.

In addition, Duke as an entity has various institutional agreements with several other companies involved in multimedia, networking systems, and conferencing systems, which allows us both to standardize our purchases and access better pricing that we would likely get from integrators.

Where are tech manufacturers getting it wrong or missing opportunities?
Carlisle B. Willard: In many cases specific technology will have been developed with a specific, sometimes highly focused market in mind. Smart Corporation makes their SmartBoard largely with a K-12 focus on its features and functions.

Ironically, this focus works against them in higher education for a very odd reason. K-12 teachers have to maintain teaching certificates that require annual training and are an audience which has both the time and inclination for training because it is part of their job. Consequently, the very complex controls are less of a problem and the plethora of pre-made materials are a rich resource.

Higher education teachers have less free time for detailed training because of research demands and prefer to use their own materials, and have little use for the bundled materials because they are less relevant. Higher education instructors need simple, dependable systems with easy access to materials and find the complexity of the Smart systems off-putting. These systems are designed with a very clear focus on K-12 and have spent little design study on how best to fulfill higher education needs.

Another peculiarity is the difference between “consumer-grade” products and “commercial-grade.” Consumer-grade systems tend to be designed to have greater flexibility in terms of sources that can be accessed, but they are designed for an assumed lighter use. Commercial-grade tends to wear somewhat better, but since it is designed with the assumption that it will be incorporated into switching systems, it tends to have fewer source options, which makes it more expensive to integrate.

When we are designing systems, it is sometimes useful to have media systems like flat-panels or projectors which have multiple input options, enabling fairly simple rooms to use lower-end control systems, thereby increasing their flexibility of use. Just because a flat panel is going to be placed in an integrated structure does not mean that having multiple HDMI or USB ports would not be desirable.

What is the biggest obstacle to collaboration? What are your collaboration strategies?
Carlisle B. Willard: The biggest challenge to integrating technology with instruction, let alone technology with collaboration is simplicity. Highly complex collaboration systems can do many things, most of them well, but teachers (and students) have to be willing to invest a not-inconsiderable amount of time to training before they can access the majority of the advantages of those systems. For AV to be able to respond effectively to an information technology need, we must have a clear picture of how the faculty work and what they need. Thus we have to work with faculty in a consultative role to help them define what they are working toward so that we can build an effective response into the technology.

As a rule, the more training that is required before a system can be used directly, the less likely faculty are to commit to using it. The fewer options of usage there are, the less flexible the equipment is. The best approach seems to be to look for systems that are simple to use but are designed so as to support more complex options.

Collaboration within the institution of various offices is proceeding, but any institution will face a similar issue: who sets the standards, for whose benefit? Each school or department has its own way of doing things and as new systems come online, unless the school takes a central focus from the start, each office that starts using things initially comes up with systems that suit their own specific needs, without regard for whether anyone else would be interested.

However efficient this is in the short term, the siloes of process that this approach creates will eventually become a stumbling block. Ultimately, common interest will overcome each entity’s desire to have things “my way,” but the process is a long one.

To ensure collaboration between disparate schools within the university, the first step is to come to an acceptance that there are, in fact, common needs. When that is realized, it becomes easier to establish a common set of standards and then build from those standards. Common standards can drive costs down, or at least help control them.