Technology (Enhancing + Engaging + Connecting)

Where's the Owner's Manual?

Understanding technology, controls and systems integration

PHOTO © WAVEBREAKMEDIA

Unlike having an owner’s manual for a new car, often there is no comprehensive training or set of instructions for a teacher to adjust room temperature, lighting, and sound to optimize the learning environment, operate the interactive whiteboard and make certain room access and communication systems are properly set for safety and security.

Those of us who plan, design, construct and operate school facilities must give teachers and school administrators the power to create optimal learning environments. In doing so, it is equally important they have a better understanding of how to control the systems in their schools, and how they work together, to provide the proper educational environment. This effort should be two-fold — graphic and written documentation that is readily accessible and can be consulted as needed, and annual in-service training.

Almost every new car that rolls off the assembly line has a manual in the glove compartment that explains or diagrams each feature. Isn’t it just as important to give teachers and school administrators that kind of information when a new or renovated school facility is completed and occupied? Unfortunately, the full spectrum of equipment and technology installed in today’s school buildings is seldom designed to operate as a single system, and the interrelationships are rarely, if ever, explained to the occupants. School administrators and school staff are not likely to receive training, much less an operating manual to show them how classroom technologies and building systems function. This lack of knowledge may not be as serious as in the case of operating a vehicle, but may still have unfortunate consequences.

For example, an exterior door to a classroom may be left propped open with a chair while a teacher follows her students to the playground. This simple act compromises security, HVAC and energy conservation. Although visitors are following rigid entry procedures at the front of the building, those that come around back are able to get right in. Meanwhile, the HVAC system struggles to control comfort settings in a room in which humidified, unfiltered outdoor air is allowed to enter. And energy conservation is literally flowing out the door.

Some basic knowledge and understanding of how building systems work and are affected by occupants’ actions are necessary to hold school level administrators, teachers and students accountable. As new technology and system controls are developed and introduced into school buildings, it will be necessary for school staff to receive additional training. Teachers in particular need to know how to adjust classroom conditions to optimize the learning environment. Classroom controls and technology will give them the flexibility to modify their classroom set up and respond to the dynamics of the instructional program.

An improved facility user’s guide for technologies and controls should begin with an inventory of systems at each school. As a minimum, the following technology-based systems should be included:

Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) — Once the capability became available, there was no other building system as appealing for remote monitoring and control as HVAC and associated mechanical equipment. It quickly became the standard method of controlling HVAC systems. Over time it has become quite common to hear teachers state that heating and air conditioning are controlled “downtown.” Often, the statement is delivered with some level of irritation, most likely resulting from being uncomfortable and powerless to do anything about it.

Lighting — Technical advances, including dimmable LED lighting, offer teachers more opportunities than ever to control multiple lighting levels within the classroom and other learning environments, such as media centers, computer labs and gymnasiums. Energy conservation plays a large role in the way lighting is controlled. Automated control systems utilizing motion detectors, photocells or time clocks are highly effective for energy reduction. Again, these controls are sometimes a source of frustration for building occupants.

Safety and Security — As a result of the recent school shootings, there has been a significant increase of technology-based systems tied into existing surveillance, alarm and communications equipment in schools. Members of the school staff, particularly administration, need to have thorough knowledge and understanding on how each component is controlled and how they interact.

Instructional Technologies — Teachers often do not use projectors, interactive whiteboards or digital cameras even when their classrooms are so equipped. In some cases, the equipment may not be operable, although many times teachers simply have not received training.

Once there is a current “systems inventory” specific for each school, simple operating procedures for each type of equipment should be documented with respect to the intended user. Like the automobile owner’s manual, information should be clear, concise and easy to understand. Don’t overlook training as another opportunity to ensure proper operation. Administrators and teachers are often reassigned from year to year. A new school year often means a new building or an unfamiliar classroom for school staff. Make an annual in-service training about building and classroom operation part of the preparation for the new school year. Place special emphasis on how other systems or building conditions may be affected by “adjustments.”

A formal (or sometimes informal) hierarchy often limits access to the certain equipment or specific building systems to individuals or groups of individuals. As an example, the operation of motorized gymnasium bleachers may be limited to a particular coach or a custodian who has received training in order to prevent damage or to meet safety precautions. It would certainly be ill advised to allow staff or students to operate this type of equipment without the necessary training.

Likewise controls for building systems may occur automatically as a result of computer programs or by other means such as motion detectors. Many technology-based control functions in school buildings do not include a method to suspend, or override, the automatic function. With heating and cooling controls, people become resourceful opening windows and doors or positioning light bulbs near thermostats to take back control of the room temperature.

If site-based personnel do not have access to controls and must rely on other qualified personnel to make necessary changes, there should be an explanation as to why. If not, occupants may find alternate methods without fully understanding the potential results of their actions, e.g. taping over photocells, blocking vents, disabling alarms, etc.

As centralized building systems technology continues to improve and installations become more widespread, school districts should consider overrides to increase the level of control teachers are provided in their classrooms. Overrides can be programmed to return to automatic status after an acceptable period of time. An electronic thermostat tied into the building automation system allowing minor adjustments off the standard set point during the occupied day is much less of a threat to the energy management program than an open window or blocked diffusers. Lighting systems in classrooms and offices that turn off automatically and unexpectedly often result in “back-up” light sources plugged into the wall.

Including the latest technologies for audio-visuals, safety, HVAC systems, lighting or energy conservation into the latest renovation or new school does not guarantee they will be understood, used properly or appreciated. Facilities professionals must be proactive beyond final project completion. They must continue training and provide simple documentation of any technology or controls in order to gain maximum benefit from the investments in these new building systems.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

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