It’s a scenario every student has witnessed: a lecturer, looking befuddled, rotates back and forth between the projector and the screen. After toying with the technology for a number of moments, the lecturer realizes there’s only one thing he can do to get the class up and running: call the Media Support Center, the 911 of emergency tech relief on campus. In a matter of moments, a man walks through the door, inspects the issue, and finds a fix for the problem.
From somewhere within the depths of the Tinbergen building, the seven men that make up the Media Support Center (MSC) are monitoring and controlling nearly every piece of technology within the university, from the lighting within the lecture halls to the recording cameras mounted in the back. If they wanted to, they could see whether or not you’re scrolling through Facebook during lectures.
“No we’re not Big Brother,” said Peter Hullegien, who works as a coordinator within the MSC. “We’re essentially responsible for keeping over three hundred lecture halls and tutorial classrooms running smoothly.”
Entering lecture halls and rebooting computers is just a fraction of what the media support staff do. In fact, working within the MSC looks more like operating the mission control center for the launch of a space shuttle, except that the staff seem more like a gang of old friends rather than NASA engineers.
With a radio humming in the background, the tech-experts look over a dozen or so monitors displaying the remote management system, a network that communicates how each piece of technology is performing. This system not only allows them to see what’s malfunctioning, but also warns them about issues before they occur. For example, if the light-bulb of a projector only has 40 hours of life left, the system will alert the staff to give them ample time to replace it.
“Vroeger, not that long ago, we would have to walk into each class one by one in the morning to manually switch everything on,” Hullegien told over a coffee in the MSC’s chic lounge. “Technology has completely changed our jobs. Now we can control almost every piece of technology remotely.”
A typical day
When there’s only ten minutes remaining in the hour, they can expect the phone to ring. That’s when students are shuffling from class to class, and when lecturers usually run into problems as they set up their presentations. In most cases, the problems can be solved remotely, either by guiding the lecturer on the phone through the problem-solving process or by taking over the computer and solving it themselves. If it’s a technical problem, like a broken microphone, then one of the staff will do things the old-fashioned way.
“Our policy is that when a lecturer calls us, we assist them by phone and if that doesn’t solve the problem we will be there in under 10 minutes,” said Hullegien. “Preferably, we will have it solved in 10 minutes.”
To beat the 10-minute mark, the staff ride across campus on Holland’s favorite piece of technology: The bicycle. A special black one with the word “Storingsdienst” (Breakdown Service) written on it is always parked in front of the Tinbergen building, most often finding use in the month of September.
“That’s when all the new lecturers and professors have their first classes, and they get nervous and sort-of panic when they forget how to use PowerPoint,” explained Ramon Bovenlander, who is mostly in charge of long-term developments within the MSC.
What's to come
Beyond maintenance, the MSC holds the consequential task of propelling the university further into the digital age. They kick-started Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) last year where professors record lectures in the university’s new studio for online students, and they’re recording more and more on-campus lectures to be published online. They’re not, however, responsible for the Internet, so don’t blame them when you can’t access eduroam.
Sharing the spotlight
At a university where technology has been adapted into every facet of its everyday operations, a day with the IT workers unveiled that they are the invisible hand that keeps everything running smoothly. And while most of their work goes on behind the scenes, that doesn’t mean everything they do goes unnoticed.
“Sometimes when I fix something in the Aula, the professor will tell the students to give me a round of applause,” said Hullegien, grinning. “That makes me feel like an artist when I walk off stage.”