Schools team up for technology

Faced with competitive markets, businesses frequently form joint ventures. Shared strengths and pooled resources often provide an aggressive edge to new initiatives. As educational technologies rapidly extend the reach of education, some schools and universities are finding success with similar ventures.

Today, the goals of almost every institution include technology initiatives-campus networking plans, distance-learning hubs, multi-modal presentations, teleconferencing centers and computer-assisted experimentation, to name a few. However, schools are often hard-pressed to pay for the facilities and equipment that form the backbone of technology-enhanced environments. Many institutions are finding that affiliating themselves with other schools, businesses and government is essential in developing new buildings and programs.

As schools form new strategic alliances and enhance existing relationships, the pooled resources can open doors to facilities and programs that once were considered unattainable.

A Consortium Takes Shape Before joining forces, you must define what you are trying to achieve, and which partners will help you achieve your goals. Setting a mission and establishing common goals are the foundation for any potential consortium.

The second objective is to understand each potential partner's strengths and weaknesses. Consider other collegiate partners, as well as national and local businesses, school districts, community groups, and regional and state governmental agencies. Some consortiums of colleges within a specific geographic area have sparked new initiatives and excitement at the regional level. Other schools have sought large-scale national campaigns with branded partners. Both avenues have their place. A key to the success of any group effort is flexibility. As technology continues to evolve, so do the opportunities and relationships that technology makes possible.

To fully understand if a consortium's goals are addressing an identified need, market research is vital. Establish a vision for the consortium over the next five, 10 and 15 years. Visit other campuses, facilities and special-use rooms to learn what is available today and what is being planned for tomorrow. As with any venture, knowing your markets extremely well and addressing their needs is key to success.

Show me the money One of the most appealing aspects of a consortium is the potential to leverage financial resources. An organized consortium can prepare strong proposals for federal, state and private grant money. You can target grant requests for specific academic programs, computer technology requirements, audiovisual equipment or the physical construction of a new building.

Each consortium partner can bring various financial resources to the project. Beyond direct capital investment, some may provide installation and staff support, while others may subsidize audiovisual equipment or other technology expenses.

Keeping facilities current and competitive with technology upgrades presents a looming challenge. Several projects have employed another powerful tool borrowed from the business world-a business plan. For instance, a plan to market and rent space to various groups, both consortium partners and others, can generate income that will pay for facility construction and equipment upgrades. This concept may seem foreign to the academic mission, but it can become the key to making the project viable.

Facility goals One model taking shape is the construction of an entirely technology-driven building that can take full advantage of available technologies and can accommodate future technologies through flexible design. This building becomes the hub to facilitate the transfer of programs between partners, and also provides space to originate materials and broadcasts. At remote locations, partner organizations and institutions link with the central hub through smaller distance-learning spaces that include seminar rooms, computer labs and classrooms, multimedia meeting and teaching spaces, and business centers.

Each facility is uniquely designed to meet the needs of the organizations it serves, but because of the number of potential users and the rapid evolution of technology, it makes sense to create learning environments that accommodate a wide range of events. The central hub commonly features a teleconferencing component with a large-capacity auditorium, and theatre-style seating wired with power and data ports. These spaces can receive and generate video broadcasts through satellite links and telephone lines.

Similar to corporate or hotel facilities, the facility often includes breakout areas, adjacent sub-dividable seminar rooms, green rooms for speaker preparation, and control rooms for audiovisual and lighting. Designs in these spaces should accommodate television cameras seamlessly. Some facilities also include space for food preparation.

A central hub will also have a television studio used as a teaching space for students and faculty, as well as an associated control room that controls and disseminates presentations throughout the building and to remote locations.

Other spaces are set aside to train faculty and businesses in the available technologies, focusing on use of the equipment and the development of multimedia courseware. Finally, computer labs and classrooms provide education for traditional and non-traditional students in multimedia presentations, access to the Internet, and computer-simulated experimentation. Programs and courses can be produced in the conferencing center, at partner institutions or around the world.

Remain flexible Predicting the future of a technology-enhanced environment is risky. If you do not want to be stuck with an obsolete facility, be prepared to accommodate inevitable changes. The most astute audiovisual consultants and vendors say that equipment purchases should always be secondary to building a flexible infrastructure that will accommodate frequent changes.

For example, consider how partners will communicate (local- or wide-area networks, or satellite links) and how the consortium will link with the outside world. For instance, one school installed a communications tower that would accommodate satellite dishes even though the it believed the need was years away. In reality, the dishes were needed within two years because of partnering that took shape much faster than expected.

Standards have evolved so that the computer backbone within a facility must be as flexible as possible. Schools should take this into account as they consider the architectural design. A building may need increased floor-to-floor heights to accommodate raised flooring or extensive cable-tray and raceway systems. It may need ductwork large enough to handle the high cooling loads generated by equipment. All vertical and horizontal distribution pathways should be readily accessible to facilitate wiring upgrades and changes. Communications closets on each floor need to be large enough to accommodate growth. The building needs enough auxiliary spaces to store and maintain equipment. Classroom lighting systems must be flexible to illuminate projected presentations, computer stations and more traditional, lecture-based teaching styles.

The integration of multimedia computing and telecommunications have brought profound changes in access to education. Further advances promise to bring about a revitalization of education itself. Breaking down barriers between academic institutions and between education and business creates unlimited opportunities for advancement in learning, research and trade. Schools have only just begun to explore the potential benefits of consortiums linked through technology.

The new Mount Laurel campus of Burlington County College (BCC) in New Jersey will soon be home to a teleconferencing center that connects a consortium of seven public and private colleges and universities. One of the consortium's overriding goals was creating a center that reached out to underserved populations in southern New Jersey and encouraged economic development through academic instruction, workforce training and interactive videoconferencing.

Programming partners are the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Other consortium members are Cumberland County College, Georgian Court College, Ocean County College and Salem Community College, each of which plans smaller-scale technology-enhanced facilities to link to the center at BCC.

Before moving ahead with the center, planners exhaustively evaluated present and potential partners and how the facility will be used to facilitate connections between them. Among the groups considered were the New Jersey Public Television Authority; the Consortium of Distance Education; the New Jersey Military and National Guard Distance Learning Network; the New Jersey Intercampus Network; Burlington County High Schools, and the Center for Agile Partners in Education (CAPE), a consortium of more than 50 Pennsylvania colleges, universities and businesses.

The business plan identifies small- to mid-size companies, as well as larger organizations and community groups as potential renters of the facility. The services available will include teleconferencing, seminars and training sessions, audio-visual origination and broadcast, and research for product development.

When complete in September 2000, the 100,000-square-foot facility will house a multi-tiered, 600-seat videoconference auditorium with ample breakout space. The Center for Excellence in Distance Learning will instruct teachers and business trainers in the use of instructional technology. The building also will include computer training rooms, interactive conference rooms, a television-production studio and a large multiuse space to accommodate exhibits or dining.

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