All Systems Go

Trinity's classroom-technology team comes to the resue.

Stacks of broken projectors, four boxes of expired projector bulbs, a desktop, a laptop, VCRs, and hooks draped with VGA, RCA, Ethernet, and USB cables and extension cords are crowded into a ten-foot-by-ten-foot office in the basement of the Biological Sciences, or Bio Sci, building. Keikarion George sits in the center of this organized chaos and tries to stay calm. It’s 9 a.m., and soon his phone will be ringing, his email inbox will be filling, and his Skype voice-over-Internet window will be popping up.

George is one of four full-time classroom-support technicians for Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and a main feature of his job is to assess technical problems as they arise in the Science Drive area of campus. In addition to Science Drive, the campus is split into three other zones: the main academic quad on West Campus, the Link (a new multimedia classroom and study space in Perkins Library), and East Campus (including Smith Warehouse). One technician is responsible for each zone.

The classroom-support operation provides services to professors and lecturers struggling with a host of problems—presentations not appearing on projectors or DVDs, or VHS tapes not playing, for instance—and promises to respond to, assess, and remedy the situation within five minutes. Carlisle Willard, the operation’s director, has worked at Duke for nearly two decades and has seen things go haywire in innumerable ways. “There’s a plethora of details that users don’t think about that can bring a presentation to a crashing halt,” he says.

George, the first-responder to these technological crash scenes in his zone, consider himself more of a liaison than a medic; his most important tool is open communication, with professors as well as fellow technicians. The first moments of a service call can be tense. Professors want their presentations to run smoothly. And maintaining academic face—a certain air of professorial dignity and omniscience—can be hard when afflicted with technological awkwardness. That’s why George says the first thing he does is manage expectations. Within three minutes, he will determine whether he can fix the problem. If he needs a new piece of equipment, he’ll retrieve it from his office, or from someone who might have it, as quickly as possible. “A lot of the job is knowing who to talk to, who to call,” he says.

If there’s nothing that can be done immediately, George informs the professor that he’ll return after class to fix the problem. Today, so far, he hasn’t had any emergency calls, so after responding to some e-mail messages in his office, he heads upstairs to Bio Sci 155, where a VCR has been malfunctioning. A biology class was supposed to see a video about the genetic roots of race, but for some reason, the tape wouldn’t play.

Almost all classrooms at Duke are equipped with some kind of multimedia technology, and the most common setup is like that in Bio Sci 155. Black metal audio-visual consoles hold DVD and VHS players, hookups for laptop computers, and touch screens to help professors program the system easily. Nothing seems to be wrong with the internal wiring of the console that connects the VHS player to the projector, so George swaps in another VHS player and turns it on. The tape plays, but the sound isn’t working. Still trying to isolate the problem, George goes back down to his office for another RCA cable, the kind with the red, white, and yellow plugs (red is for right-side audio connection, white is for left-side audio connection, and yellow is for composite video connection). He plugs it in, and the video plays loud and clear.

Regular maintenance prevents the most basic classroom mishaps, and George spends a good deal of time replacing the lamps inside projectors. Projectors are basically high-powered flashlights, he says, and monitoring the number of hours they’ve been used allows him to determine when to change the bulbs before a blowout leaves a classroom presentation in the dark. He keeps a handwritten chart in his office with estimated bulb life for a variety of projectors installed in classrooms within his zone. Now he’s on his way to the Sanford School to replace a bulb that is only three hours away from burning out.

Walking down Science Drive, laptop open, he monitors a piece of software that is recording, in real-time, a lecture in the Levine Science Research Center. “Everywhere I have an Internet connection is my office,” he says.

Duke uses a program called Lectopia that records video, audio, and computer data and then makes lectures accessible, at a professor’s discretion, for students to view. George is checking to make sure that all of the feeds are working successfully. The professor might not have switched on his microphone, for instance, but in this case everything looks fine. This past fall, when the spread of H1N1 flu was a concern, Lee Baker, Trinity’s dean of academic affairs, asked Willard to have his team record as many lectures as possible so that sick students could keep up with their classes without infecting their classmates. George did a lot of monitoring those days.

In 1994, when faculty members and administrators decided to make a commitment to bringing new technology into classrooms, four rooms were equipped with multimedia. Now, there are more than 200. But for Willard, advances in technology and proliferation of equipment are secondary to meeting professors’ teaching needs. During the summers, he, George, and the other members of the team work to outfit classrooms with upgrades that meet professors’ needs.

Willard says that the way things are going, the next frontier for classroom technology is collaborative learning. “Professors don’t want to be ‘the sage on the stage’ anymore,” he says. A number of classrooms now have personal-response systems, PRSs for short, which put individual clickers in the hands of students. Typically, these are used in large lecture courses. Professors can poll students during the lecture to get a sense of how their presentation is being received and digested, allowing them to redirect the lectures if necessary. The PRS clickers can also be used to encourage universal student participation or to get answers to questions that may be embarrassing for students to say aloud.

Willard is careful to make certain that the technology he installs, and that technicians like George maintain and repair, will be easy for professors to use. And even though he tries to anticipate their needs in advance and offers training on new and existing systems, Willard estimates that 90 percent of the problems are due to user error—a button gone un-pushed or a cable attached to the wrong port. That will mean a phone call to George, and he’ll be on his way to the classroom.

George says he used to feel intimidated, walking into a lecture hall filled with 300 students and an anxious professor. Now, it’s second nature. But his increase in comfort level hasn’t affected his desire to reduce the number of times he has to come in for emergency calls. The trick, he says, is educating the professors.

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